Anyone who has ever watched a grand-slam tennis match knows the importance of breaking an opponent's serve. If a player holds serve in the first game of a set and then breaks his or her opponent's serve in the second game to go up two-love, that's a pretty huge down-payment on winning the set and, ultimately, the match.
The Steelers held serve in their first game of the season on Sunday (so to speak) when they survived to defeat Cleveland 30-27 at Heinz Field. But the NFL assured Pittsburgh that it would be facing an opponent with a really hard and fast serve in Week 2 in the form of a prime-time road match-up against the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium just four days later on Thursday Night Football.
This isn't to say Baltimore is a great team without issues (the Ray Rice scandal being chief among those issues), but the Ravens have to be a desperate team after starting out 0-1, thanks to a Week 1 home loss to the Bengals on Sunday.
Do you think the Ravens want to start out their season by going 0-2 with both losses not only coming at home but within the AFC North? Again, though, the Ravens are a team with issues, and as coaches are often fond of saying, nobody is going to feel sorry for them.
The Steelers obviously had major issues a year ago at this time, and those issues were compounded after losing both Maurkice Pouncey and Larry Foote (their starting center and starting inside linebacker) in a Week 1 loss to Tennessee at Heinz Field.
Pittsburgh went on to lose its first four games and six of its first eight, as issues and injuries continued to plague the team. However, the Steelers did recover enough to win six of eight down the stretch and narrowly missed the playoffs with an 8-8 record.
Had the Steelers not lost Pouncey or Foote in Week 1, they may have found a way to defeat Cincinnati in Week 2 or Minnesota in Week 4. But they couldn't, and the historically slow start came back to bite them at the end when the Chiefs Ryan Succop missed a 39-yard field goal in a Week 17 game at San Diego that would have given Pittsburgh an improbable playoff berth.
This was a perfect example, not only of the importance of a fast start to an NFL season, but of how razor-thin the line is between making the post-season and sitting at home.
Steelers and Ravens fans are well aware of how much difference winning or losing just one game in the bi-annual division series can make in a season.
Four seasons ago, both AFC North combatants finished with identical 12-4 records, but the Steelers won the division by virtue of a late-season victory in Baltimore, and this ultimately paved the way for a trip to the Super Bowl.
Three years ago, the teams finished with the same 12-4 record, but it was Pittsburgh that had to settle for a fifth-seed and a trip to Mile High after the Ravens came to Heinz Field in November and walked away with a 23-20 last-second victory to sweep the season's series.
Last season, both teams finished with 8-8 records and both teams missed the playoffs. However, as usually is the case, they split the season series, with the Steelers winning 19-16 in the first game and Baltimore surviving the second game, 22-20. That's only a five-point spread over the course of two games. Had one team found a way to make an extra play here or there and managed to sweep, that would ultimately have led to a post-season berth and maybe much, much more.
It's probably safe to say that neither the Steelers or Ravens are the favorites in the AFC North. It's also wise to state that Pittsburgh is obviously a team having issues of its own (anyone who watched the defense surrender 308 yards to the Browns in the second half on Sunday would have a hard time disputing this). But very few franchises in the NFL are without issues, and last year, five teams made the playoffs after missing them in 2012--a fairly standard turnover rate in a league that prides itself on parity.
The Steelers no longer are the juggernauts they were years ago, and they're far from Super Bowl favorites. However, this doesn't mean they can't make the playoffs.
Tonight, at M&T Bank Stadium, if the Steelers can find a way to jump on a wounded Baltimore team and walk away with an early-season road victory to start out 2-0 (and also drop the Ravens in 0-2 in the process), it would be a huge leg-up on a division rival and a nice little down-payment on a possible winning and playoff season in 2014.