Thursday, December 31, 2015

ESPN Deportes presents The Clemente Effect

The Power of 21: Exploring Roberto Clemente’s Signature Number

Mysterious and meaningful stories surround Roberto Clemente and his signature number. Here, we explore how his legacy lives on.

By Andrea Bosco
August 23, 2013

It was 5 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, 1972. The day was short, dark, and high-spirited. For three days, generous hearts and beloved baseball fans scoured their pantries and nearby grocery stores to contribute to a philanthropic mission they would never forget. Number 21, The Great One, Roberto Clemente called for action after a 6.2-magnitude earthquake struck Managua, Nicaragua’s capital. For Tom Walker, a 23-year-old rookie from Florida, it was an afternoon of admiration. Walker, the father of Pittsburgh Pirates standout Neil Walker, recounts what happened next:
“Over three days, thousands upon thousands of people showed up to Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan with goods,” his voice shakes. “We managed to get it all to the airport. Two, young, strong Puerto Rican men loaded the plane. I was in the best shape I had ever been in and did a lot of work myself. Roberto’s friend owned the aircraft. His friend’s brother was the co-pilot. The plane had a history of problems and was supposed to leave at 2 p.m. While we were loading the plane, it was shut down and being repaired. Whoever repaired the plane said it was repaired. It was 5 p.m. I walked up to Roberto and said I wanted to help. I was single — what else did I have to do other than party with my teammates? He walked up the ramp of the plane, looked down, and said, ‘No, no, no. You go home and party,’ in Spanish. There was no additional room on the plane. I turned around and said goodbye. Not for a moment in my life did I ever think that would be the last time I would see Roberto.”
While en route to deliver aid, the plane went down. Clemente, 38, and four others never made it to Nicaragua. “He did anything for anybody that needed help, and it actually cost him his life,” says Walker.
The two baseball brothers had a bond. And shared names. Tom’s given name, Robert. Clemente’s full name, Roberto Clemente Walker, comprises 21 letters and was the foundation for his jersey number. He was raised with his mother Luisa’s maiden name following his father’s, as per Puerto Rican culture. Now, star second baseman, Neil runs onto the field every game day with The Clemente Wall along right field directly in his line of sight. Coincidence or fate? “I don’t think a day goes by that Neil doesn’t think, ‘If my dad got on that airplane, he wouldn’t be my dad,’” says Walker.
With that said, the mystique continues. This year’s Pittsburgh Pirates are well on their way to October. For 20 consecutive seasons, our beloved Buccos have endured losing records, but this season — the 21st — could be the one.
Twenty-one, the number that lives on to represent one of the greatest humanitarians in the world and one of the best players to ever play the game. Conceivably, the handwriting is on the wall and Clemente’s son, Clemente, Jr., feels it too. “It’s amazing how mystical that number is in our life as a family and for me personally,” he says. “If they stop the streak this year, we’ll really be part of something special.”
The titillating game of baseball is not a sport to discount when it comes to prophecy through higher being, and, in many cases, superstition. “I don’t discount anything in baseball or the baseball gods,” says Walker. “There have been so many strange things that have occurred.”
When you ask Clemente, Jr. about unplanned instances, he says: “That’s Dad.”
For example, few months ago, he and his wife, Melissa — divorcée of the late Los Angeles Dodger Jose Lima, Sr. — visited Pittsburgh to present the first scholarship endowment in his father’s name at Duquesne University. Clemente, Jr. fortuitously crossed paths with Andrew McCutchen on his father’s namesake bridge during our June cover shoot. It was by happenstance. They exchanged conversation, phone numbers, and Cutch told us Clemente has always been one of his heroes. That night, McCutchen hit a double and the Pirates rocked the Seattle Mariners, 4-1.
Sports photographer, and owner, curator, and executive director of The Clemente Museum, Duane Rieder says, “Clemente lived the way he died. He died helping — he gave up his whole life for other people.” Rieder tells us Clemente felt God had a plan for him. “He dreamt of himself dying in a plane crash,” he says. “He made sure his best friends were with Vera and the kids on the night of New Year’s Eve.” Each year, Rieder hosts a fundraiser in No. 21’s honor. This year, it will be held on September 19. From 6-9 p.m., hors d’oeuvres and Enginehouse 25 Wines will be served among the archives. A VIP gathering with Rieder, the Clemente family, local sports legends, and Pirates alumni will start at 5:30 p.m. And, a wing for Manny Sanguillen, Clemente’s best friend, will be unveiled.
Clemente, Jr. says he forever visualizes his father as the young man he was.
Clemente, Jr. is a father of three, a grandfather, and now Dad to Jose Lima, Jr., 15, and Preston Lima, 6. In fact, Preston was born on September 30, the momentous day Clemente, Sr. batted his 3,000th and final hit.
Stories such as these, and others never disclosed, are featured in the family’s first published pages, “Clemente: The True Legacy of an Undying Hero,” which will grace bookstores on September 24. “We wanted to share an inside look from the family celebrating Dad’s accomplishments in such a short time,” says Clemente, Jr.
The day he died and years thereafter, the island of Puerto Rico went into mourning. “You couldn’t see a car without a white handkerchief or a white veil tied to the antennae,” says Walker. “Everything was focused on his death.” Today, his legacy lives on through Clemente, Jr.; Vera, Luis, and Ricky Clemente; Tom and Neil Walker; Rieder; and every fan who sports a Clemente jersey or shirt at PNC Park. “The aura of Roberto Clemente still being part of the club is absolutely there,” says Walker. “It doesn’t go away and it’s not going to go away.”
The ever-gracious Hall of Famer touched the City of Pittsburgh, the people of Puerto Rico, others worldwide, everyone he knew, and those, like me, who’ve always revered the young photos representing the svelte, lion-hearted ball player.
So, as our current superstars take the field each night, let’s cheer them on with 21 in mind. The season is here. The time is now. And, as we’ve been shown, truth speaks to the phrase there is power in numbers.
“I was always in awe of the man. He always treated me like a superstar, but I wasn’t even a twinkle,” says Tom Walker, on friend, Clemente.
Our sources: Tom Walker, Roberto Clemente, Jr., and Duane Rieder.

→ Pittsburgh Pirates,
→ Roberto Clemente Foundation,
→ The Clemente Museum,

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Do Steelers have take-care-of-business problem (or Ravens problem)?

Jeremy Fowler
ESPN Staff Writer
December 28, 2015

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton (11) kneels on the field after failing to catch a pass in the closing minutes of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens in Baltimore, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015. The Ravens defeated the Steelers 20-17.
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton (11) kneels on the field after failing to catch a pass in the closing minutes of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens in Baltimore, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015. The Ravens defeated the Steelers 20-17. (AP)
PITTSBURGH -- The Mike Tomlin social media bashers -- and they are more prevalent than I ever expected for a coach with a .641 winning percentage and no losing seasons in nine years -- have feasted on this stat, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
The stat comes with context. The Chiefs had a losing record when they beat the Steelers earlier in the year, but the Chiefs now look like a Super Bowl contender. Pittsburgh has enough quality wins (Arizona, Denver, Cincinnati) to offset some of these losses. Teams peak at different times. Overall, Tomlin has probably done one of his better coaching jobs this season, winning 10 games despite several injuries at key positions.
But the stat poses an obvious and interesting question. Why are the Steelers not taking care of business against teams they should handle? For as good as the Steelers were at times last year, they lost to the Jets, Browns, Saints and Buccaneers (combined 20-44).
Winning in Cleveland this week is hardly a guarantee. The Steelers got pounded there the last time around, 31-10.
I don't buy that the Steelers weren't mentally prepared to play the Ravens. Perhaps they played too tightly. In the locker room during the week, players said they wouldn't be sacked by the playoff hype. It was all about Baltimore, all week.
And it's still all about Baltimore, which is the biggest issue of all. Tomlin and the Steelers are 1-5 in their past six games against the Ravens.
Whether the Ravens are a playoff team or worthy of a top-five draft pick, they know they can beat the Steelers right now. That's a problem. Baltimore has played a key role in Pittsburgh likely staying home in January for the third time in four seasons.
The Ravens are still the Steelers' chief rivals. You can't go 1-5 against your chief rivals.
After a sluggish 215 passing yards on offense, the Steelers tried to sell that the Ravens are a great defense that applied pressure on third down. But they are average this year. That's part of the reason why Baltimore only has five wins. And Ryan Mallett shouldn't have had a career-high 274 passing yards after getting signed off the street a few weeks ago, facing a team in playoff contention.
The Steelers simply didn't have it, which is curious at a time when the Jets, poised to take the Steelers' wild card spot, clearly do.
Calling bad losses a systemic problem is misguided. But the timing of this latest loss -- and where it happened -- can't be ignored.
Sunday's game against the Ravens was a classic take-care-of-business game. Most good teams would have finished this one off. This problem is real and must be fixed starting next season.

Once-sweet Steelers offense goes sour

Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015, 9:39 p.m.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) is sacked by Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil (58) during the second half of an NFL football game in Baltimore, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015. The Ravens defeated the Steelers 20-17. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) is sacked by Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil (58) during the second half of an NFL football game in Baltimore, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015. The Ravens defeated the Steelers 20-17. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) 

BALTIMORE — You can throw out the records all right. Just make sure to toss the right records out with those stale Christmas cookies.
Turns out the Steelers offense — with its run of 30-point games and ability to reduce former players-turned-TV talking heads into giggling fanboys — wasn't a super food, but rather only sugar and spice.
No wonder the Steelers crashed hard on Sunday.
Can't live on sugar and spice alone. And even the NFL's sweetest offense can be spoiled.
Ravens 20, Steelers 17, and to the spoiler went the ultimate victory.
The out-of-it Ravens left the Steelers needing help — from the likes of Marvin Lewis (gulp) and Rex Ryan (double gulp) — to reach the Super Bowl tournament.
“We've always said we only stop ourselves,” Ben Roethlisberger said from a cramped visitors locker room at M&T Bank Stadium.
“Well, they did a good job of stopping us today.”
Oh, stop it. Please.
Whether it was Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown or Mike Tomlin, the alleged Men of Steel wills who doled out compliments to their archrivals barely sounded believable.
Steelers hate Ravens. Ravens hate Steelers.
At least when the Ravens beat the Steelers, which was every time they played in 2015, there wasn't an abundance of faux-respect coming from the Baltimore side. Why the Steelers seem so obsessed with paying public respect to their recent opponents is beyond a lot of people.
But I'm not fooled.
I'm wise to Tomlin's wish to modify the New England model into a Steelers Way for today and tomorrow. And I'm cool with Tomlin trying to borrow from the NFL's standard-bearing franchise to make good on his mantra that “the standard is the standard” for his Steelers.
The Patriots' quarterback is Tom Brady.
The Patriots win — and consistently contend for the Super Bowl — because their quarterback is Brady.
The Steelers' quarterback is Roethlisberger.
When the Steelers win — and if they are to ever again contend for the Super Bowl — they will do so because their quarterback is Roethlisberger.
But at some point, Roethlisberger has to make like Tom Brady instead of Brady Quinn when something is on the line.
Something was on the line Sunday. The Steelers were only going to control their playoff destiny if they defeated a battered, beatable, and really bad Baltimore team.
Knowing that — heck, having warned for days that the four-win Ravens weren't to be taken lightly — the Steelers forfeited the control they had gone to ridiculous lengths to earn.
Or do you think scoring 30 points in six consecutive games isn't ridiculous?
It is. And it wasn't sustainable.
Still, an offense that doesn't lack for momentum-shifting and game-changing players — not to mention a future Hall-of-Famer in Roethlisberger and an increasingly likely candidate in Brown — can fairly be expected not to fall completely flat against a middling pass defense.
Yet on Sunday, the Ravens turned the NFL's Flavor of the Month into bland vanilla, limiting the potent Steelers to 303 yards.
Roethlisberger had averaged 366 passing yards in six prior games. He also tossed 13 touchdowns in those contests.
Ben was B-I-G.
The Ravens brought out B-A-D Ben. He threw high or wide and was way off — lucky, really, that his two interceptions weren't three or four.
Didn't throw a touchdown. Didn't complete a couple of deep attempts to Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton on third and fourth downs when the Steelers could have driven to a winning touchdown or tying field goal.
I keep touting Roethlisberger as The Reason the Steelers can run to Super Bowl 50.
I also keep ignoring his three consecutive postseason losses and seven interceptions in his last four playoff contests.
That's on me.
This Steelers loss – one that could cost their coach the opportunity to test his Patriots-like Steelers Way against the Patriots in the playoffs — is on Roethlisberger.
But at least he owned it Sunday, as he does whenever the Steelers lose.
Brown, allegedly the best Steelers receiver since John Stallworth, was forgettable on and off the field. He caught only seven passes, or one for every time he spoke afterward about winning and losing as a team. (Kind of made me miss Hines “I'm the leader of the wideouts” Ward.) As a team, the Steelers used to show up in Baltimore and beat better teams than the one they lost to on Sunday. In those games, I seem to recall Ward or Santonio Holmes not needing a plethora of statistics to make their mark.
Brown should study those games. He might learn something about what it takes to win a ring, which is the thing that makes a great Steelers receiver into a great Steeler.
These Steelers, with their sugar and spice offense, have been a sweet to watch.
But we're probably only going to watch them for one more week, and what kind of standard is that?
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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Ravens find reasons for optimism in win over Steelers

Jeff Zrebiec
December 28, 2015

Week 16: Chris Matthews
Ravens wide receiver Chris Matthews (84) twists after leaping to catch a pass from quarterback Ryan Mallett in front of Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Will Allen (20) during the first quarter at M&T Bank Stadium. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)
Still basking in his team's 20-17 upset victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers that completed a regular-season sweep of the Ravens' biggest rivals, coach John Harbaugh met with head certified athletic trainer Mark Smith Monday and got more good news.
"We won the game, and nobody's getting an MRI today — the first time all year," Harbaugh said. "That's pretty good, huh? … We're excited about the win — very proud of the effort and the outcome. It's nice to be proud of both of those things for a change."
Victories, both on the field and on the injury front, have been hard to come by for the Ravens, but when Harbaugh and the team's top decision makers begin to evaluate the disappointing 2015 season, a process that will begin in earnest following Sunday's season finale against the AFC North-winning Cincinnati Bengals, they won't have to look hard to find a silver lining.
The rash of injuries that hit the Ravens (5-10) and placed eight Week 1 starters on injured reserve has given team officials an extended opportunity to evaluate some of the organization's younger and less experienced players, and they had to like much of what they saw in the victory over the Steelers.
Running backs Buck Allen and Terrance West, in their first and second year, respectively, totaled 121 rushing yards against the NFL's fifth-ranked rush defense. Second-year wide receivers Jeremy Butler and Chris Matthews combined to catch six passes for 57 yards and a touchdown. A young offensive line that included fill-in starters Ryan Jensen and John Urschel opened holes for the running backs and protected quarterback Ryan Mallett.
And on defense, rookie outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith and second-year defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan combined for two sacks of Ben Roethlisberger and three tackles for loss.
In what has been an inadequate year for many of the less-established Ravens, and a particularly deflating one for members of the widely-praised rookie class, Sunday's performance left Harbaugh both optimistic and excited.
"I don't feel like I'm a half-full guy so to speak. I'd like to think that I can see reality most of the time, and I'm excited about the core of our football team," Harbaugh said. "We've got a lot of good football players that will be here when [organized team activities] start and when the offseason program starts. Their challenge is going to be 'can they get better between Monday and when the offseason program starts in mid-April?
"Are they going to be the same player, or are they going to fall off, or are they going to actually be better football players — in better shape, bigger, faster, stronger, trained up, and be better?' That's what they're going to have to do, those young guys."
Even after the Ravens were eliminated from playoff contention this month, Harbaugh made clear that evaluating players and giving younger players opportunities would not override trying to win games. For the most part, Harbaugh has stuck with veterans, while giving young players more opportunities here and there.
The Ravens locker room following Sunday's game told the story of just how much beating the Steelers meant, and what it would also do for the team's psyche to end the season with a win in Cincinnati this weekend.
"It means a whole lot," cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "Since we can't go to the playoffs, the only next thing that's going to be great is us beating Cincinnati ... That's the next goal."
A day later, Harbaugh acknowledged that it's tough to evaluate exactly what beating the Steelers — and possibly the Bengals — in an otherwise lost season might mean to the Ravens going forward. But he joked that it's a lot better than the alternative.
"I've been talking to the team this way ever since we were mathematically out of the playoffs, we're not looking to end here and have to build from there to there once we start OTAs," he said. "We want to step off up here somewhere, as high as we possibly can. Let's step off up here. Let's get as good as we can get as a football team.
"The goal doesn't change that way, whether you're in the playoffs or not in the playoffs. We need to play the best football that we can play because it's a journey. It's not over. It just keeps going. … Winning those games is definitely a measuring stick for how good of a team you are."
While the Ravens are playing out the string, the team's front office is learning more about what the roster needs and doesn't need heading into an extremely important offseason.
If Mallett can build off his winning performance against the Steelers, and prove he can be trusted both on and off the field, the Ravens should be comfortable with their quarterback situation even if starter Joe Flacco's knee rehabilitation takes a little bit longer than expected.
With running backs Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro out, Allen and West have proven that the Ravens have more than enough running back depth. At wide receiver, the Ravens will inevitably look to add a top target, but the experience that young players such as Butler, Matthews and Daniel Brown are getting, plus the healthy returns of Breshad Perriman, Michael Campanaro (River Hill), Darren Waller and possibly Steve Smith Sr. bodes well for the future.
Along the offensive line, Kelechi Osemele's solid play since moving to left tackle, and Jensen's improvement provide options going forward. And while the Ravens clearly will need to make some moves to upgrade their defense this offseason, Jernigan and Za'Darius Smith look like players who are only going to get better.
"There will be a bunch of guys fighting for spots on this football team — starting spots, backup spots and special teams positions," Harbaugh said. "There will be a lot of competition for those spots, and then who we add through the draft and free agency, we're not going to lose many guys. It's not like we have a bunch of guys who are going to be free agents this year. We have some key guys, and that will be interesting to see how it plays out. But I'm excited, yes."
Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Crosby has goal, assist in return; Penguins beat Wild 3-1

By Mike Cook
December 26, 2015
Crosby has goal, assist in return; Penguins beat Wild 3-1
Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Eric Fehr (16) watches his shot go past Minnesota Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk (40) for a goal in the second period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, Dec. 26, 2015, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- This season has been far from what many expected of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Three Stars

  1. Sidney Crosby
    #87, Pittsburgh
  2. Patric Hornqvist
    #72, Pittsburgh
  3. Jason Zucker
    #16, Minnesota
Things may be changing for the better.
Sidney Crosby had a goal and an assist in his return after a one-game absence for a lower-body injury and the Penguins beat the Minnesota Wild 3-1 Saturday night.
Eric Fehr and Patric Hornqvist also scored and the Penguins won back-to-back games for the first time since Nov. 17-19. Pittsburgh beat the Blue Jackets 5-2 Monday night without Crosby.
''Watching the Columbus game I thought we did a lot of good things there, too, and I think this was building off of that, a very similar effort and we got rewarded for it,'' Crosby said.
Matt Murray made 25 saves and Pittsburgh, which began the night in sixth place in the Metropolitan Division, won for just the third time in its past 10 games. Kris Letang had a pair of assists after missing the past six games with an upper-body injury.
Minnesota has lost three of four after gaining points in nine straight games. Jason Zucker had the Wild's goal, and Devan Dubnyk made 29 saves.
''The last four or five games we've got another level that we have to get to and a lot of individuals I would say through that time have to bring a little bit more,'' coach Mike Yeo said. ''This is a time of year where do you fall asleep and lose ground or do you make a push and gain ground?''
Pittsburgh's five-goal outburst Monday included two scores each by Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. Over their previous five games, the Penguins had scored just six times and earned just one point in the standings.
''When Sid's in the lineup and we have Sid and (Malkin) back-to-back, I think they're dangerous,'' coach Mike Sullivan said. ''I thought we had some balance throughout our lineup tonight and everyone contributed. The penalty kill was great. I thought the role players did a great job.
''That's the type of identity we want to create here. It's about the group. And I think the last couple of games we're starting to understand the importance of it and that we need one another to get to where we want to go.''
After a four-day layoff, the Penguins held an 11-4 shot advantage in the first period and started the second with a flurry. Pittsburgh had the period's first five shots and finally capitalized with Crosby's first goal in eight games and second in 12.
Wild defenseman Ryan Suter turned the puck over in the neutral zone, leading to a Pittsburgh rush.David Perron ultimately got the puck near the left corner and quickly passed to Crosby just above the left dot. His one-timer beat Dubnyk on the stick side.
Pittsburgh had nine of the period's first 10 shots with Minnesota's lone shot coming on a power play. The Penguins held a 20-5 shot advantage through 28 minutes. The difference was 27-12 after two periods.
''We didn't execute, couldn't come out of our own end, couldn't come through the neutral zone. Turning pucks over to those guys is a tough thing to do,'' Suter said.
Fehr made it 2-0 with 1:50 remaining in the second period when, charging down the slot, he tipped a pass from Kevin Porter past Dubnyk.
Zucker scored for Minnesota 45 seconds later when his shot from the left circle eluded Murray, but Pittsburgh went up 3-1 on Hornqvist's power-play goal 31 seconds after that.
Letang's shot from the top of the slot bounced off the end boards to Crosby at the right post. Dubnyk stopped Crosby's stuff attempt, but the rebound trickled across the crease to Hornqvist. He swatted the puck in while fighting off a defender.
''We were in their zone there a lot in that second period,'' Crosby said. ''It's a lot more fun to play that way.''
NOTES: The Wild has lost six of their last seven against Pittsburgh. ... The Penguins began a stretch where they will play seven of 10 games on the road. ... Minnesota fell to 13-5-1 on home ice. ... The Penguins recalled F Scott Wilson from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL. ... Ryan Carterwas a scratch for Minnesota. He's nursing an upper-body injury.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Up and down since Super Bowl, Ravens continue losing ground to AFC North rivals

December 26, 2015
John Harbaugh, Mike Tomlin
Before this season turned ugly, Steve Bisciotti hadn't had a whole lot of laments during his time as Ravens owner. But in a moment of introspection last February, Bisciotti acknowledged what he believed to be one of the biggest shortcomings of the Ravens' brain trust in recent years.
"We have to beat Pittsburgh and Cincinnati more consistently, and we have to start claiming that AFC North title before we start looking forward to accomplishing greater things," Bisciotti said during the annual "State of the Ravens" address. "That's a little bit of a smudge on our resume, and we're well aware of it."
Ten months later, the Ravens are again looking up at the Bengals and Steelers in the standings, and the gap between the three franchises is wider than it has been in several seasons. When the Ravens (4-10) face the Steelers and Bengals over the final two weeks of the regular season, they'll be playing out the string while their division foes are priming themselves for potential playoff runs.
The Steelers could secure an AFC wild-card spot Sunday afternoon with a victory over the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, coupled with a New York Jets loss to the New England Patriots. The Bengals (11-3) could clinch their second AFC North title in the past three seasons with a win Monday night against the Denver Broncos or a victory in their Jan. 3 regular-season finale against the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium.
That the Ravens could be forced to witness both of their biggest rivals clinch would be the latest indignities in a season full of them.
"We don't think that those guys are any better than us," Ravens defensive lineman Timmy Jernigan said. "At the end of the day, we know that they have a better record than us. Their season is going a little bit more like they planned, rather than how we planned ours to go. I feel like that's the only difference standing between us."
The numbers, however, suggest otherwise. The Ravens won the AFC North in back-to-back years in 2011 and 2012, but they are headed for a third consecutive third-place finish, and that's only if they can hold off the last-place Cleveland Browns(3-11) over the final two weeks.
Since winning the division and ultimately Super Bowl XLVII to cap the 2012 campaign, the Ravens have missed the postseason in two of three seasons. They did, however, qualify last season and knocked out the Steelers on their home field.
Pittsburgh is in the driver's seat to making the postseason for a second straight year after a two-year postseason hiatus. Marvin Lewis' Bengals have already nailed down a fifth straight playoff berth, although they have yet to win a postseason game during that span.
"If we had a poor division, that'd be great," joked Ravens coach John Harbaugh, whose team has won two division titles in his eight seasons at the helm. "We don't have a poor division. We have an excellent division, and that's our challenge. We're up for it. We're not scared. We're not backing down."
A number of Ravens contended that this year is an aberration, rather than a sign that the team is slipping down the division's hierarchy. Injuries have decimated the team's nucleus, knocking out the Ravens' starting quarterback, running back, center, left tackle, top receiver, tight end and most accomplished pass rusher.
"I think they've had the injury bug pretty bad, and it's one of those seasons for them that you've got to deal with a lot of injuries to a lot of key positions and players," said Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose team has survived myriad injuries of its own. "This is still a big game; it's the AFC North. It's big for us. They beat us here at our place. You've got to throw records out the window when you play AFC North football."
Nose tackle Brandon Williams said that even with a banged-up roster, the Ravens can play with the Steelers and Bengals.
"They know it, too," Williams said. "We've just had some things that didn't go our way. We're going to come out here and fight no matter what. That's just how we are, that's how we're made up. Just because it's the last two games of the season doesn't mean we're going to turn over and play dead. They know that they're going to be in a fight."
The Ravens lost to the Bengals, 28-24, at home on Sept. 27, continuing a disturbing trend. Cincinnati has beaten the Ravens in five of their past six meetings dating to December 2012. Meanwhile, the Ravens downed the Roethlisberger-less Steelers, 23-20, in overtime at Heinz Field on Oct. 1. The Ravens have claimed four of the past five matchups against Pittsburgh, including the wild-card game in January.
With the 2015 season already a lost cause, the bigger concern for Bisciotti and the front office is how the Ravens will match up with their two divisional rivals in the future. There's nothing to indicate that the Bengals and Steelers might slip.
The Bengals are loaded with in-their-prime playmakers like running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, wide receiver A.J. Green, tight end Tyler Eifert and defensive lineman Geno Atkins. Quarterback Andy Dalton's much-improved play before he went out with a thumb injury — he could be back for the playoffs — has given Bengals fans hope that the organization is an emerging AFC power.
Pittsburgh boasts a young defense and arguably the best collection of offensive skill players in the league with Roethlisberger surrounded by a group that — when healthy — includes running back Le'Veon Bell and wide receivers Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton.
The Ravens, meanwhile, have been weakened by injuries, annual free-agent defections and a handful of early round draft misses. With four offensive coordinators in as many years, the Joe Flacco-led offense has been constantly in flux and lacks the number of weapons that other teams in the division have. Defensively, the Ravens haven't found the right mix of veterans and ready-to-contribute young players.
"Obviously, this is not a circumstance or a situation I would like to be in," outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil said. "I didn't come here for that, but in life … it's how you respond to things. One thing we're going to do is we're going to try to finish this season as strong as we can and build on it."
The Ravens are currently projected to pick third in the 2016 draft, which would be the highest they've ever selected. A good draft will be pivotal, and so will getting some of their top players healthy for next season. As things stand, the difference in the Ravens' talent level compared to what the Bengals and Steelers are currently putting on the field is glaring.
However, right guard Marshal Yanda said the Ravens aren't ready to concede anything, even as the days to this lost season wind down.
"When we play good football teams, we want to play our best football, and there's nothing more that needs to be said," he said. "Obviously, they're in our division, and we look forward to playing them every year and beating them."
Going in different directions
Since the Ravens won their second consecutive AFC North title in 2012, and ultimately Super Bowl XLVII, they've struggled to stay with the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers at the top of the division. Below is a look at how the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers have fared since the Ravens' last division title in 2012.
Teams; Overall record; Division record; AFC North titles; Postseason trips; Playoff wins
Bengals; 32-13-1; 10-7; 1; 3; 0;
Ravens; 22-24; 8-8; 0; 1; 1;
Steelers; 28-18; 10-6; 1; 1; 0;
*- Bengals have clinched a 2015 postseason berth and are one victory away from securing the division title.
**- Steelers are a victory and a New York Jets loss away from clinching a wild-card berth.
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