Previewing the AFC Championship Game from a Real Fan's Perspective
The second biggest week in the NFL is here, Championship Week, where the AFC and NFC Champions will be crowned. This is thought by some to be the most exciting week of the NFL season, and that will be especially true with the AFC Championship game.
These two teams are in the same division and have already faced eachother twice this season, with Pittsburgh winning both games by scores of 23-20 in an overtime battle and 13-9 in December.
For this game, instead of doing a regular preview, I have decided to leave no stone unturned as I will look at stats and opinions from everybody to make sure that you know everything heading into this game, and feel free to use these stats to impress your friends during the game.
Lets start with a position by position breakdown.
QB: Ben Roethlisberger (PIT) vs. Joe Flacco (BAL)
As you can see, these two quarterbacks spent most of the regular season neck and neck with each other stat-wise, however the situations have been very different. As shown by the sack totals, Roethlisberger met the ground once more time per game than Flacco, and only Matt Cassell was sacked more than Roethlisberger.
However, during the postseason, the trend has changed. In Pittsburgh's lone game against the a stout Chargers defense, Roethlisberger was sacked just once and he went on to have a great game with a 98.4 QB Rating. Flacco, on the other hand, has a pedestrian 73.9 rating in his two games this postseason.
RB: Willie Parker (PIT) vs. Willis McGahee/Le (BAL)
These two running backs have something in common besides the first five letters of their first name, they both saw a significantly fewer amount of carries than most other starting running backs.
For Parker, it was because he spent a lot of time injured and didn't play until later in the year. When he did finally get in, he was decent and was able to hold on to the ball, unlike McGahee who, despite having 40 fewer carries, fumbled the ball 3 times.
On the other hand, McGahee had slightly more yards per carry and had two more touchdowns in those 40 less carries.
The player that is going to be the X-Factor, however, is Le'Ron McClain. McClain had just under 1,000 yards this season along with 10 touchdowns, a great year for a player that most didn't know about before the season. He was also pivotal in the big win over the Cowboys in Week 16 and had 3.9 ypc.
WR: Hines Ward/Santonio Holmes (PIT) vs. Mark Clayton/Derrick Mason (BAL)
Because of the fact that there are more players at the positions from now on, I will only use stats in my explanations instead of just putting them out there.
One thing that the Steelers have going for them is that Derrick Mason, Baltimore's number two receiver, is officially listed as questionable, which could keep him from the game.
Hines Ward is still one of the better all around receivers, with good route running, catching, and blocking skills. Santonio Holmes has gotten much better since being drafted just a few years ago, having a great season with 821 yards receiving and five touchdowns.
Mark Clayton has had a decent year, with 695 yards and three touchdowns, but Derrick Mason has been the main man for the Ravens with 1,037 yards and five touchdowns, and if he is unavailable for the AFC Championship game it would be a huge blow to the Ravens.
TE: Heath Miller (PIT) vs. Todd Heap (BAL)
Heap has had an average year, under 500 yards receiving and three touchdowns, as Flacco hasn't really targeted his tight ends this year, with Daniel Wilcox also having just five catches for 19 yards but two touchdowns.
Miller is having a year slightly better than Heap, catching for 514 yards and three touchdowns of his own. Matt Spaeth has been a decent back-up with just under 200 yards but no touchdowns this year.
OL: Marvel Smith/Chris Kemoeatu/Justin Hartwig/Darnell Stapleton/Willie Colon (PIT) vs. Jared Gaither/Ben Grubbs/Jason Brown/Chris Chester/Adam Terry (BAL)
The Ravens have been better than the Steelers in every measurable category for offensive linemen. Joe Flacco has been sacked 14 fewer times than Ben Roethlisberger, and the Ravens have more yards per carry (4.0 to 3.7).
DL: Aaron Smith/Casey Hampton/Brett Keisel (PIT) vs. Trevor Pryce/Justin Bannan/Haloti Ngata (BAL)
Both teams use a base 3-4 defense, although the Ravens will also use the 4-3 with some regularity. Casey Hampton has been a strong nose tackle for the Steelers. Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel have combined for 6.5 sacks, a decent amount for defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme.
Justin Bannan has been comparable to Hampton statwise. Haloti Ngata has been outstanding for the Ravens and Trevor Pryce has just under five sacks this season.
LB: Lamarr Woodley/James Farrior/Larry Foote/James Harrison (PIT) vs. Jarret Johnson/Ray Lewis/Bart Scott/Terrell Suggs (BAL)
Both of these teams make their name with their linebackers, and it's almost impossible to choose between these two units.
The Steelers boast the Defensive Player of the Year in James Harrison, who has been beyond amazing going after the quarterback. With 16 sacks and seven fumbles forced, Harrison has been unstoppable. If Harrison is Batman, then Lamarr Woodley is Robin in the most respectable way possible, as he has been there for many of the Harrison's fumbles.
Woodley also has 11.5 sacks of his own, adding to the deadly combo. James Farrior and Larry Foote are no slouches either, each adding plenty to the linebacking core (133 tackles for Farrior, 63 tackles for Foote).
As for the Ravens, everybody already knows about Ray Lewis, and despite his age, he hasn't dropped off in production. With 117 tackles, Lewis has had another strong year. Terrell Suggs is questionable for the game and would be a big hit to the defense of the Ravens.
Bart Scott and Jarret Johnson have both had good years, each having over 50 tackles and making an impact on defense.
CB: Ike Taylor/Deshea Townsend (PIT) vs. Chris McAlister/Samari Rolle (BAL)
Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend have been great this year, helping to hold opposing offenses to just 156 yards per game passing, best in the NFL this year. However, Tayler and Townsend combined for just three interceptions, a low amount for two corners to have combined.
The Ravens were second in the NFL in passing yards against, allowing just 179.7 yards through the air. McAlister had three interceptions and Samari Rolle had three more of his own, which puts them at twice the amount of combined interceptions as the Steelers' duo.
Safties: Troy Polamalu/Ryan Clark (PIT) vs. Dawan Landry/Ed Reed (BAL)
Troy Polamalu has had another great year, showing that he is still among the elite safeties in the NFL, with 73 tackles and seven interceptions. Ryan Clark has had a strong season alongside Polamalu, with 87 tackles and an interception of his own.
Ed Reed has emerged of late as arguably the best defensive player in the NFL, and defenitely the best safety. Every time he touches the ball, he looks to bring it to the endzone, and he is generally able to. He had nine interceptions in the regular season this year, and two more this postseason, and he has returned three for touchdowns including the postseason.
Dawan Landry has spent most of the season injured, and only played two regular season games, accumulating just 11 tackles, but he will be ready to play. Jim Leonhard, who spent most of the season playing for Landry, had 69 tackles this season.
Special Teams: Jeff Reed/Mitch Berger (PIT) vs. Matt Stover/Sam Koch (BAL)
Jeff Reed was 27/31 this season, a good amount for a kicker, and he missed just one kick from under 40 yards. Mitch Berger has been having a good season, averaging 41.3 yards per punt.
Matt Stover was 27/33 this season, however he was 5/10 from over 40 yards. Sam Koch averaged 45 yards per punt.
Coaching: Mike Tomlin (PIT) vs. John Harbaugh (BAL)
Mike Tomlin came to the Steelers just two years ago with big shoes to fill, with Bill Cowher leaving after a Super Bowl win. Tomlin came in, however, and didn't miss a beat. He has shown to be one of the guys, even celebrating big plays with the players, something most coaches don't do. This season, he has done a great job of making their players ready for everything with a completely different style than the great coach before him.
John Harbaugh came in much the same way as Tomlin. Only he came to a team that was 5-11 just a year ago, a team with a rookie quarterback, a team that most people thought would have no chance to compete this year, and he made them contenders.
How will each team win this game?
The Steelers win if...
Ben Roethlisberger has to come out and play mistake-free football. If he can avoid making disastrous turnovers, the Steelers will do good. They have to keep the ball out of Ed Reed's hands, and they have to put it in Willie Parker's hands, as he has been hot as of late. If they can avoid a devestating play against them, they will be ready to head to Tampa.
The Ravens win if...
Joe Flacco can NOT be harrassed. He needs to have adequate time to find the open receiver, so the offensive line is going to have to find a way to stop the tandem of James Harrisson of Lamarr Woodley. Also, Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are going to lead a great defensive effort. The Steelers don't have an awful offense, and with a rookie quarterback going against the stout Steelers defense, you can't expect a high scoring game out of the Ravens.
Now it's time to see what the major players think about this game. I'm going to look at the preview and let you know what ESPN and Sports Illustrated think about this game.
What does ESPN say?
Four ESPN analysts are picking the Steelers for the AFC Championship game, and the other four haven't made their picks yet.
What does Sports Illustrated say?
Sports Illustrated picks the Steelers to win the game 20-14.
What is the line?
Steelers by 1.5.
What do I say?
I think that this game is going to be the better game this season from the standpoint that both of these teams have incredible defenses and offenses that don't make many mistakes. However, I think that the Steelers have a lot of momentum going into this game, and the Steelers linebackers are going to eat Joe Flacco alive. He faced them twice in the regular season, but he doesn't know what is going to be coming for him when the season is on the line. However, don't underestimate the impact of Ed Reed.
Steelers 17 Ravens 10
I'm Joe W.
Information for this article was used from ESPN.com, SportsIllustrated.com and NFL.com.
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