The Ravens, like most professional teams, treat every game like a must-win. The point of competitive athletics is to win, and the Ravens pride themselves on taking every season one game at a time, putting all their focus into each week's opponent.
But while that may be true most weeks, Thanksgiving night's clash with the Steelers sure feels like it's taking on some added significance.
The Ravens have lost three of their last four games and now sit at 6-4 on the season. They've already dropped one game to Pittsburgh, and now they have to face the NFL's final unbeaten team again, on the road, in order to stay alive in the division race and, more realistically, stay in the hunt for a wild card spot in the crowded, deep AFC.
ESPN's Pardon The Interruption also felt quite strongly that Thursday night's primetime matchup is a critical one for the Ravens and Lamar Jackson.
"It’s a total must-win situation. Totally," Tony Kornheiser told his co-host on Monday's show. "Baltimore has to beat Pittsburgh in this. And because Dobbins and Ingram are apparently out, it’s going to fall on Lamar Jackson. And in these games he’s 1-3 against winning teams. But Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Kansas City, he’s lost them all. I mean he was okay against Tennessee, right, but he wasn’t great. They were the number one offense in all of football last year, they’ve fallen to 12th. I mean, people are going to look at Lamar Jackson and say what’s going on here?"
While it's true that Jackson has lost those games, he's also struggled to get help from his teammates. The Ravens' offensive line has been decimated - against the Titans on Sunday, four of the team's five spots had different starters from Week 1. And his offensive weapons have had far too difficult a time getting open, and holding onto the football when they do.
Mike Wilbon didn't want to put too much blame on Jackson, but that didn't change the fact that they need to beat the Steelers.
"Well Tony, I don’t want to overstate what’s wrong with Baltimore. They’re 6-4, but no, they’re not as good as the other two teams. We already know that," Wilbon said. "I do agree with you in terms of their circumstance, they desperately need this particular game...Look, as good as Lamar Jackson was and has been, and still is in terms of his talent, he is not the player you want to saddle up like a young John Elway and just try to go through an entire season. They need to help him, Lamar Jackson. The Baltimore staff, the coaches, I don’t know what they can do with juggling of talent at this point, but he needs some assistance out there. So it is a must-win, but you know what, I don’t see them winning. Not with the personnel missing that we’ve just gone over."
The Ravens are in a dicey spot, missing so many starters due to injuries and/or COVID-19. Kornheiser goes on to say the Ravens are not only in trouble but also at a crossroads. They do have a remarkably easy schedule after the Steelers games - four of their final five games are against teams with records of 3-7 or worse.
So while the Ravens could really, really use a win to gain a little confidence and momentum, this isn't a true elimination game just yet. But if the Ravens lose in Pittsburgh, questions will hang over the franchise the rest of the season about whether or not they can beat a great team when it counts.
That's not a reputation that can change until January, but the Ravens can take a great next step if they can pull off the must-win on Thursday against the Steelers.