One of professional football's fiercest rivalries will renew in the Charm City on Thursday night under the cloud of scandal as the embattled Baltimore Ravens play host to their AFC North rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It's been a tough week for the Baltimore franchise, which opened the 2014 season by falling to Cincinnati, 23-16, in Joe Flacco's first September home loss as the team's starting quarterback.
A setback on the field, however, paled in comparison to what the Ravens were dealing with off of it as the team was forced to part ways with star running back Ray Rice after the release of disturbing new video footage that showed him punching his now-wife in an Atlantic City casino elevator during the offseason.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell compounded the release by announcing that Rice's previous two-game suspension will now run indefinitely due to the new information that surfaced.
"(The video) changed things, of course," Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who had been very supportive of Rice since the incident, said. "It made things a little bit different."
The difference was TMZ.com's release of the footage of the actual incident on Monday that showed Rice throwing a left-handed punch at then-fiancee Janay Palmer at the Revel Casino back in February, images that sickened the general public and ignited a firestorm that not only engulfed Rice but also the Ravens and the league itself for their specious handling of the incident.
Rice played in 15 games last season and tallied 660 yards with four touchdowns on 214 carries while adding 321 yards receiving. Over his career in Baltimore, the three-time Pro Bowl selection has rushed for 6,180 yards and 37 touchdowns and caught 369 passes for 3,034 yards and six scores.
With Rice out of the fold, the Ravens will now rely on Bernard Pierce, Justin Forsett and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro to handle the running back workload.
Pierce was named the starter for Baltimore during Rice's original two-game suspension, but finished with just six carries for 14 yards in Sunday's loss against Cincinnati. He was benched in the second quarter following a fumble and did not return.
Forsett, meanwhile, had 70 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.
"The game is done," Pierce said. "It's shaken off. On to next week."
Flacco finished 35-of-62 for 345 yards, one score and an interception against the Bengals, while Steve Smith led all receivers by compiling 118 yards and Baltimore's other TD on seven grabs in his Ravens debut.
"We got ourselves in position to win," said Flacco, "but we didn't play well enough to win it."
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, survived in its home opener last week despite blowing a 24-point lead when Shaun Suisham kicked a 41-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Steelers over the Cleveland Browns, 30-27.
With the game deadlocked the Steelers took over at their own 45 with 47 seconds remaining. Markus Wheaton caught a pass for 11 yards for a fresh set of downs and Ben Roethlisberger hit Wheaton again, this time over the middle for 20 yards. The Steelers then rushed to the line and spiked the ball before Suisham's kick through the uprights won the game.
Roethlisberger threw for 365 yards on 23-of-34 passing with a touchdown and an interception as he upped his record as a starter against Cleveland to a gaudy 18-1. Antonio Brown caught five catches for 116 yards and a touchdown, while Wheaton had 97 yards on six catches.
"We can't apologize for the way we win," said Roethlisberger. "We just have to win games."
Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell led all rushers with 109 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries and added 88 receiving yards on six receptions. LeGarrette Blount had a rushing touchdown and Suisham made three field goals for the Steelers, who have 11 straight home games against the Browns.
"It was great to get a win," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "The game was a game of two halves, but I like the team's ability to smile in the face of adversity."
The Steelers lead their all-time series with Baltimore by a 20-16 margin.
"I've always thought when you play this game -- you throw records out the window," Roethlisberger said when discussing the rivalry. "It could be Week 16, or whatever, last game of the year and neither one of us has won a game. This is one of those ones that you get up and you talk to the young guys about, you talk to free agents about, because this is a different kind of ball game."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
It's conceivable Baltimore's biggest problem will not be the Steelers in this game.
Distraction has to be an issue for the Ravens as the player who has been one of the faces of this franchise and a guy everyone bent over backwards to support has not only been banished, he's been painted as a pariah in the national media.
"What we saw (Monday) was extremely clear, it was extremely graphic and it was sickening. And that's why we took action," Goodell said
Baltimore is doing its best to focus on football but the short work week will not make things any easier.
In a football sense the Ravens are intent on cleaning up an NFL-worst six dropped passes in the Week 1 setback to Cincinnati, and solidifying a running game which has been one of the NFL's worst dating back to last season.
"We dropped all the gimmies, but we caught all the hard ones," Smith said. "Things can happen and you've got to take responsibility. This receiver group has a lot of opportunities to be great, and I think we overthought things and ran before we had the ball."
Baltimore ran for a paltry 23 yards on nine carries in the first half while falling behind the Bengals 15-0 before Forsett came in and gave the team some life in that aspect.
"If you saw our run defense last week, you know that we have respect for anybody's ability to run the football," Tomlin said. "We have a lot of work to do in that regard."
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, will aim to clean up a defense which allowed a poor Browns offense to score on four consecutive possessions in the second half before settling down late.
"We're not going to let (the Browns game) define us by any stretch," Tomlin said. "We're going to need a better result if we want to get a victory on Thursday night."
This remains one of the NFL's best rivalries with each of the previous five meetings and 10 of the last 12 games between the two AFC North foes being decided by three points or fewer.
"Thursday Night Football, primetime, and at our rival's home field," Steelers cornerback William Gay said. "You don't need any extra motivation. It's Baltimore versus Pittsburgh."
You have to figure on the Ravens tough week off the field will give the Steelers a slight edge on it in another close one.
"We pray for (Ray Rice) and his wife and his family," Roethlisberger, who has had his own issues off the field in the past, said. "The biggest focus is the game on Thursday, because that's really all we can afford to deal with right now with such a short week and notice. And that's the most important thing for us now, is what we can control."
Sports Network predicted outcome: Steelers 27, Ravens 24