AFC Playoffs: The Road to a Titans-Steelers Championship Rematch
This week's AFC playoff game feature two games that, based on regular-season performances, will be decided by which teams step up defensively.
Three of the four teams lead the charge defensively in the AFC, with two of them at the head of the class in the NFL.
Three of the four teams have held opponents to less than 300 yards per game and less than 300 points all year.
All four teams have Super Bowl resumes, and two of them have won it all.
Make no mistake. All of these teams know what it takes to get to the big show, and all will be charging hard to make a return trip.
The two top seeds are favored at home, if only slightly. But both teams are dealing with injuries to key players that could turn the tide in their opponent's favor.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Tennessee Titans, LP Field
Tennessee hosts the Baltimore Ravens in Nashville this weekend in a matchup of two teams with no love lost between them. Ranked second and third in total defense in the AFC, this is sure to be a low-scoring battle that will likely be decided by one or two broken plays.
Baltimore is coming off of a huge upset win against Miami, in a game where the defensive secondary, led by Ed Reed, picked off the Dolphins' Chad Pennington en route to a decisive 27-9 blowout. Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco wasn't stellar, but he performed well enough in the clutch to help the Ravens secure the win against the heavily favored Dolphins.
The front seven, led by veteran Ray Lewis, utterly shut the Dolphins running game down, holding the Dolphins to 52 total rushing yards.
The Raven's defense appears to be firing on all cylinders, which puts Tennessee in a tight spot. With the 21st-ranked offense in the NFL, they will need nearly flawless play from veteran quarterback Kerry Collins, as well as big plays from the "Smash-and-Dash" duo of LenDale White and Chris Johnson, to secure the win.
The Titans will see the return to action of one Albert Haynesworth, the man-in-the-middle who many thought had a defensive MVP-type of year before falling to a frightening knee injury in Week 14.
Haynesworth will be wearing a knee brace when he takes the field this weekend; it remains to be seen just how much his mobility will be affected. However, Pro Bowler Cortland Finnegan will lead a Titans secondary that will be hunting every ball Flacco puts in the air, and linebacker Keith Bulluck leads a linebacker corps that has been instrumental in holding opponents to only 234 points all year.
Offensively, Tennessee doesn't have a top-rated passer in Kerry Collins. To be sure, Collins has had a solid year, pulling in a respectable, if not spectacular, 80.7 passer rating. He's known throughout the league as an excellent game manager, and is a veteran leader of this team.
But game management may not be enough against the Ravens. They are likely still smarting a bit for having to take the long road to the Super Bowl—losing to the Steelers in Week 15 that would have put them in position to host a playoff game—so they will be looking to show the NFL that they are the rightful owners of the AFC North title, and should be the AFC representative in Super Bowl XLIII.
Final score: Titans 20, Ravens 17
San Diego Chargers vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, Heinz Field
Pittsburgh hosts a Chargers team that is coming off of an upset victory over NFL MVP Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. Darren Sproles, the little guy with the big play potential, had what was arguably his career best effort, with 328 all-purpose yards and the knowledge that he was the one who put the Colts to bed with a 22-yard scamper to win the game in overtime.
In the meantime, the Chargers defense stepped up and shut the Indianapolis Colts running game down, forcing MVP Peyton Manning to win the game with his arm.
Which he didn't.
Pittsburgh sees the return of Ben Roethlisberger under center; in Pittsburgh's last regular season game against the Browns, Roethlisberger suffered a concussion severe enough to warrant being carried off the field on a stretcher.
After a week of rest, Big Ben appears ready to take the reins again and lead the Steelers. It is unclear yet whether he remembers that Jerome Bettis is no longer his running back. The most likely scenario sees Willie Parker and company getting the majority of the work, and work they will have to do to get through the Chargers' front line.
Defensively, the Steelers are solid as always. Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison heads up this defensive crew, with 68 solo tackles and a team record 16 sacks against opponents in 2008.
His cohorts in crime, James Farrior and Lamar Woodley, are just as dangerous—Farrior comes into the game with 87 solo tackles, and Woodley managed 11.5 sacks on the year.
With only one game over 300 yards this year, Pittsburgh's defense is the reason they are the No. 2 seed in the AFC. Look for them to continue their efforts against a San Deigo team that they narrowly defeated in the regular season—the only 11-10 score in NFL history—and give the offense plenty of opportunities.
Final Score: Pittsburgh 17, San Diego 10.
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