Here we are, sitting less than one week away from the Championship round of the playoffs and you have to ask yourself, how did this happen?
In the two games, three of the teams playing did not make the playoffs last year and the other was a one-and-done team that looked a little lost. To be more specific, only the Steelers had more than eight wins at this point last year, and they were already on the outside looking in.
This year was full of NFL firsts. The first 11-10 and 23-11 scores. The first time the Cardinals franchise hosted a championship game. The first time two sixth-seeded teams reached their respective championship games. That's just to name a few.
This year was definitely full of surprises, and as a Steelers fan, I will be the first to admit there was no way I thought that the Steelers would win 12 of their games this year. Well, they did, and now the Ravens, a team with five wins last season, are now the only opponent preventing them from reaching the Super Bowl.
So that brings me to the game in question. The saying is always thrown around that defense wins championships, and as a Steelers fan, I have never questioned that statement in my life. I'm sure my counterparts in Baltimore can actually agree with me on that point.
So if both teams agree that defense is the key to winning, then it should be easy, one of them should be better on defense and they should win. The problem with that is that both teams know this well-kept secret and have constructed their teams around their truly championship-caliber defenses.
Both teams are actually so good at defense that they rank first and second overall and their is barely a visible difference in the way that they play defense. This makes it hard to pick a winner.
That being the case, I will go through all potential reasons that one team would win and we will see where that gets us.
In theory, and in the regular season, playing games at home benefits a team greatly. In fact the Steelers are the best at using this to their advantage in the league since the 1970 merger.
In the playoffs, however, and especially recently, home-field advantage has been more of a curse than a blessing, and particularly if your team is named the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers have been in three other championship games during this decade, two at home one on the road. Take a guess which one they won.
In fact, the Steelers opted out of their right to be considered the home team in their most recent Super Bowl victory.
As a result, I will consider home-field advantage to be little more than a draw, with only the abysmal field conditions of Heinz Field giving the slightest advantage to the Steelers. This is very slight because the Ravens come to town every year so they know how to play on the field, and they play a similar very similar style of football.
The Steelers have beaten the Ravens twice this year, for the first time in a long time. This, however, may be another curse in disguise. It is very difficult to beat a team twice, and three times is even harder.
While the previous two matchups cannot be said to be non-important games, this is the playoffs, and the AFC Championship no less. Both teams will play much differently, that's a guarantee.
The Ravens are 1-0 in Championship games, but they have only played one so that's not enough to determine a trend. The Steelers, however are 6-7 in these games.
Again I have to consider the history of this matchup to be a draw, each team has a few advantages, but all of those advantages have down-sides as well.
Finally, an area where I can attribute a definitive advantage.
Most of the Steelers roster was around for the two consecutive AFC Championships and the Super Bowl victory just a few short years ago. The coaching staff, however is much different, though I don't believe that will effect Mike Tomlin all that much.
Bruce Arians, well he may be a different story, but that's why the Steelers have the $100 million man.
The Ravens, however, do not retain many members of their roster from their Super Bowl victory nine years ago. The coach and quarterback are both rookies in the league.
The Steelers have an advantage in this category.
Ben Roethlisberger has played many games in his five years in the league, two of them being the AFC Championship game. The pressure will not affect Ben, he knows how to win and he's been here before.
Joe Flacco is a rookie in the league and in Roethlisberger fashion he is in the AFC Championship in his first year. I don't know how this will affect Flacco; there is a chance that he will play at the same level that he did against the Steelers in the previous two contests, but he may be affected by the fact that he is one win away from the Super Bowl.
I encourage Ravens fans to give me input in this area, because I would actually like to know how people who've observed him more think he will respond.
Regardless the advantage in this area goes to Big Ben. He has over 50 wins in five years and one of them was in the Super Bowl. He is one of the must clutch quarterbacks in the league and if I were down with only one drive left there is no one I would rather have leading my offense.
The Ravens' offense has been slightly more effective than the Steelers, particularly when running the ball comes into question. They, however, have slowed down slightly on the offensive side. That may be because they played one of the better more physical defenses in the league in the Titans.
The Steelers, on the other-hand, seemed to have an offensive renaissance with their offensive line coming out of no where to be very skilled at blocking. Fast-Willie Parker also seemed healthy for the first time this year and propelled the Steelers by earning the most playoff rushing yards since 1975 (146-yd).
Ironically, that record is held by Franco Harris (153-yd). As an interesting side note, that game was the debut of the Terrible Towel.
I will include momentum in this section. Both teams are 4-1 in their last five and have put together fairly impressive winning streaks to end the season. This is partly caused by the two teams competing with each other to determine the division winner.
We don't know if the good or bad offense will show up for either team. We can, however be certain that neither team will gain as many total yards, or likely points, as they have in their previous home playoff games.
Well, eventually we would have to get here. I'm not even going to get into this one, we all know both teams will bring their defenses and play well in this category. I'm actually so certain on this if they don't play well defensively the game may be fixed.
The only major difference I can see here is that the Steelers have a better chance to confuse Joe Flacco than the other way around. The Ravens, however, have a better chance to get to Big Ben.
I'm not even going to say that a team can have an advantage in this category. Both defenses are so good that it's impossible to determine which one will hold the advantage.
The one thing that I will say is that the Steelers' defense finished first, not second.
Yeah, I went there.
Well, with all of that, this is really the biggest toss-up game that you could have. So I'm going to say the Steelers come out with a win 17-13, or maybe 2-0. You never know.
Regardless of who wins, the AFC Champion will have a distinct advantage, defensively, over their NFC counterpart. Especially if that NFC team thinks that they will win the Super Bowl by only playing offense and only by passing the ball *cough cough*.