Ravens to Battle Steelers in Steel Town: AFC Championship Preview

Bryan Hollister@too_old_4stupidAnalyst IJanuary 12, 2009

Head coach Mike Tomlin summed up the coming match between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens this way:

"It would be big if it was a scrimmage. This is for the AFC Championship."

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present the candidate for understatement of the year.

This game is more than big. It's colossal. Huge. Gigantic. Herculean. Pick a word that is synonymous for extremely large, and you still will fall short.

This is not just a battle between two teams fighting for the right to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLIII. The Titans and Chargers would be a battle. The Ravens and Colts would be a battle.

This, ladies and gentlemen, will be a death match.

Baltimore comes into this game knowing that they have failed twice already this season against the Steelers. One of the two is still being questioned. Losing three times to the Steelers in one season is unthinkable to them.

How much are the Ravens looking forward to next week's game? Consider Terrell Suggs's response when asked about his status for next week:

"The only way I wouldn't be there is if I didn't have air in my lungs. I'll see you next week."


This is not a new rivalry. The animosity between these two teams stretches all the way back to the Ravens' franchise history in Cleveland. Back then going to a Browns-Steelers game was to go see two teams out to get each other, no matter the stakes.

While the new Cleveland Browns are no slouches in the hits department, the level of dislike bordering on pure hatred just isn't there. No, the Steelers and the Ravens seem to save their best efforts for each other.

This third game in one year, and the first time it has happened since the Ravens moved to Baltimore, is as much another opportunity to knock a few more heads as it is to earn a trip to Tampa.

It's fortunate that there is a two-week break between the championship game and the Super Bowl. Whichever team emerges victorious from this one is going to need the extra time to learn how to walk again.

Key Matchups To Watch

Ben Roethlisberger vs. the Baltimore Pass Rush

If you think the Ravens aren't going to be gunning for Big Ben from the opening kickoff, you are either delusional or not a true football fan. It wouldn't surprise me if they figured out a way to hit him on the sidelines on the opening kickoff.

The Ravens are fully aware that Roethlisberger will be three weeks off of a concussion that saw him carted off the field on a stretcher. Although he showed no ill effects in yesterday's win over San Diego, head injuries can be tricky. All it could take is a glancing blow to the head and Big Ben is back in the locker room, drooling and thinking Jerome Bettis is still his running back.

Whatever Pittsburgh needs to do to fix this problem needs to be addressed immediately, or they could suffer yet another home loss in an AFC Championship game. Leftwich is a decent backup, but he won't be able to step in and carry the Steelers in Roethlisberger goes down.

Steelers Offensive Line vs. Ravens Defensive Line

It is no secret that the Steelers offensive line can be as porous as a sieve at times. When they are on, Roethlisberger has plenty of time to make plays with his arm or his legs. When they are off, as they have been frequently this season, Big Ben often times ends up on his back.

Again, I hate to belabor a point, but the front five for Pittsburgh need to bring their A+ game next week. No ifs, and, or buts about it.

Ray Lewis vs. Willie Parker

Willie Parker is crazy fast now that he appears to have recovered from an injury-plagued regular season. But he's a bit of a small running back by Steelers standards.

"Man of God" or not, when Ray Lewis straps on the pads, he is a large man with an unpleasant demeanor. He may not be as quick as he once was, but make no mistake: if he gets ahold of you, the run is over. That is Ray Lewis's job: stop the run and inflict pain.

Lots of pain.

If Parker can stay outside the tackle, he'll have a better than average chance of outrunning the pursuit. Take it inside, and Ray Lewis may steal his lunch money and hit him so hard that Willie's future children are born dizzy.

Hines Ward vs. Ravens Secondary

Ward is the self-proclaimed "most hated man in Baltimore." Terrell Suggs proclaimed, possibly tongue-in-cheek, that Hines had "a bounty on his head." In typical Hines Ward fashion, he smiled, widely, when asked about the upcoming game:

"It'll be a great AFC Championship game to watch."

Candidate No. 2 for understatement of the year.

Baltimore has to consider that Ward is not only a clutch receiver, but that he is the hardest-hitting, best-blocking wide receiver in the game. If he's not running a route to get open for a pass, he's looking to block you out of the play and give his teammates extra yardage.

Some people call him a cheap shot artist, others call him the most complete receiver playing the game—you can guess which side I come down on. No matter how you slice it, the Ravens defensive backs will have to have their heads on a swivel and account for Ward every time he is in the game. If they don't, he'll just as likely beat them for a big play as take their heads off with a bone-crushing block.

Joe Flacco vs. the Steelers Secondary

"Joe Cool" had best be on is game. Troy Polamalu leads this group with seven interceptions on the year, and is all over the field. He's the best safety in the game since Ronnie Lott. He's just as quick, just as alert, and hits just as hard. He can hurt you on the pass, and punish you on a blitz.

If you don't know where he is, that means he is either fixing to pick you off or about to hit you from the blindside and rock your world.

Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark, and DeShea Townsend contributed an additional four picks, and backups Bryant McFadden, Tyrone Carter, and William Gay added an additional six picks, with Carter and Townsend each returning a pick for a touchdown.

Throwing into coverage against this squad could spell the end of Flacco's rookie dreams.

James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley vs. Adam Terry, Jared Gaither, and Todd Heap

Harrison and Woodley combined for 27.5 sacks, 161 tackles, two interceptions, and nine forced fumbles against opponents this year, with Harrison having a team-record 16 sacks. These two guys are Jack Ham and Jack Lambert good. They both have tremendous ability to get to the quarterback, and they both have the ability to cover short pass routes.

Let these two get by you and your quarterback is toast. Challenge them on a pass and they will either knock it down or punish your receiver for daring to come into their area of the field.

Mike Tomlin vs. John Harbaugh

Tomlin is in his second year as a head coach entering the third game of his career in that position. Harbaugh is a rookie head coach who is entering his third game this year. Tomlin is 1-1, Harbaugh is 2-0. Both of these coaches have the ability to have long, illustrious careers in their current positions.

Both coaches inherited already solid teams, and they have each performed above par in maintaining, even improving, what they were given.

As close as this game is likely to be, there's a pretty good chance that the turning point will come down to which coach has the guts to go for it on fourth down and "oh my God I can't believe he's going for it" to win the game.

I absolutely refuse to call this one, other than to say that the team who wins this game will be the one that loses the fewest players to injury and scores more points than the other team. No, I'm not scared. You know who I'm pulling for, but I wouldn't put anyone's money on this game. Besides, I went 1-3 last week, so I'm still licking my wounds.

Regardless of the final outcome, this is poised to go down as one of the hardest-fought, hardest-played, hardest-earned win in NFL Championship history.

Here's to hoping they don't run out of ambulances before the final horn.


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