The biggest weekend in the NFL is finally upon us.
In just under 24 hours, the final four teams standing in the NFL playoffs will do battle to see what two teams will represent their respective conferences in Super Bowl 43.
Just like the regular season, the playoffs have been filled with just as much parity, as low seeds and road teams have been piling up victories.
The fourth-seed Arizona Cardinals and the sixth-seed Philadelphia Eagles are doing battle in the NFC Championship game, while the Pittsburgh Steelers, the only team to win their first game after a first-round bye, and the sixth-seed Baltimore Ravens are going to have a hard hitting affair in the AFC.
While high scoring and top plays are expected in the NFC game, the AFC title will be up for grabs as two power football teams take the field.
Usually the high scoring teams, with the powerful offenses, has everyone’s attention, but most people are looking forward to the AFC match.
Everyone knows how the Pittsburgh Steelers are undefeated (2-0) against the Baltimore Ravens this season, winning their Week 4 match up off the leg of Jeff Reed, as he hit a 46-yard field goal in overtime for the 23-20 victory, and in Week 15 that ended with a controversial touchdown pass, scored by Santonio Holmes with less than a minute left in the game to give the Steelers a 13-9 win.
People look too much into streaks though. Steeler fans are quick to bring up that Pittsburgh has had Baltimore’s number in three of their last four games and are 7-1 in the last eight meetings on the Steelers home field.
Baltimore fans, and even some people in the national media, are picking the Ravens based on the notion that losing three games to the same team during one season is impossible.
While those streaks might be nice to look at to make you feel better about the team you are rooting for, they will mean nothing in this game.
What will be important is can the Ravens get the running game going? How will rookie quarterback Joe Flacco play? Who will win the battle of defenses? Are the Ravens running out of players or will the veterans step up? Is Big Ben back?
Well, what about that Ravens defense?
The Baltimore defense has changed its tune this post-season. Instead of the dominating defense that teams went up against in the regular season, the Ravens switched to a "bend but not break" approach that has won them two low scoring games so far.
Even though the Ravens are letting up more total yards per game by almost 73 yards, and letting up more on the ground per game, Baltimore has only allowed 9.5 points per game this entire post-season.
The reason for this shocking stat is their ability to take the ball away and stepping up their defense inside the red zone.
The Ravens have forced eight turnovers in their first two post season games including three takeaways, against the Titans last week inside their own territory.
Takeaways are the reason that the Ravens have held their opponents to so few points and the reason they have made it this far, but the Baltimore defense has also looked weak in many areas of its game.
For starters the defense looks fatigued, although they do have a good reason to look so. Baltimore has played 18 straight weeks of football since their Week 2 bye.
With games every week, no rest, and the physical style of the defense, players have been dropping left and right.
In tomorrow night’s game ,it looks like the Ravens will be without cornerback Samari Rolle and one of their leaders at linebacker, Terrell Suggs.
Both safety Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are also banged up, but are listed as probable.
With a cold day expected tomorrow, the Ravens “D” will be seeing a lot of rushing attempts coming from the Steelers. It will be interesting to see if they can hold up. I expect some injuries coming from the defense, making them dig deep for depth.
The injury bug isn’t just hurting the defense, though, the offense has been hit just as hard.
Top receivers Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton are both banged up. Mason has somehow been playing for weeks with a torn labrum, making it through games with painkillers.
Tight end Todd Heap, running back Le’Ron McClain and fullback Lorenzo Neal are also feeling the pain.
Despite it not being mentioned much, Neal’s injury is the one that could have a great impact on this game.
He currently has a shoulder injury, and with the Ravens relying on smash mouth football for the most part of their offensive game plan, I doubt that Neal will be able to last the entire game. A lead blocker with a shoulder injury just doesn’t sound very good to me.
McClain is also going to have to push through the pain. He has been the most effective runner when Baltimore has played against the Steelers but he managed just 12 yards on 12 carries last week on his bum ankle.
With the running game not going to be very effective (not only because of injury, but because of the defense that is lining up opposite them), a larger role will be put on rookie Joe Flacco.
He has impressed everyone, showing his strong arm as he quietly becomes one of the best deep ball passers in the league. He has also looked like a 10-year vet, playing mistake free football.
Flacco has not thrown an interception, fumbled, or been sacked so far this post season.
How will he do though when the opposing team knows that he is passing?
The success of the passing game relies on the running game. Flacco is most effective against opposing defenses when using the play action pass.
It freezes the defensive backs from committing to the pass, and also allows time for the long developing routes to get open.
The Ravens have used it through the entire post-season, and Flacco’s strong arm has been completing wide-open passes.
However if the run game stalls out (they only had 50 yards total last week), Flacco will have to step up on all downs.
Baltimore runs the ball 70 percent on their first down attempts and on second and short (1-3 yards), the Ravens run the ball 85 percent of the time.
If the running game is not effective, the play action pass doesn’t work, it is as simple as that.
With the running game being down, Flacco will have to pass on all downs to a secondary that had twenty interceptions during the regular season.
With more pressure on Flacco and a running game not at 100 percent, I don’t see the Ravens putting up many points this week, especially going against the top ranked Steelers defense.
As much as the Ravens are beaten up and tired, the Steelers are healthy and rested.
They have only two players listed on the injury report this weekend (Justin Hartwig and Troy Polamalu, both probable).
On the offensive side of the ball, the Steelers have to be licking their chops.
Running back Willie Parker looks to be in top form again with 146 yards and two touchdowns last week.
While Parker was running all over the place against the Chargers, the Ravens looked sluggish.
Like I mentioned earlier, the Ravens are a fatigued and beaten-up ball club. Last week against the Titans, the defense looked slow, the corners struggled, and the linebackers couldn’t help out in pass coverage.
They also couldn’t stop the Titans running game with Chris Johnson, as Tennessee piled up 116 yards on the ground on Baltimore.
If Parker wants to have another big game, the Steelers have to do a couple easy things.
For starters, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can help out his running back by snapping the ball quickly when the Ravens defense is moving about.
Baltimore likes to move players around to confuse the offense but right when they start to do so, Roethlisberger has to snap the ball quickly, getting the Ravens defense out of position.
Second, Parker has to look for the cut back lines. The Ravens defense was over pursuing the football a ton in last week’s game, and Chris Johnson took advantage of that.
Just like him, Parker has to have his eyes open for cut back lanes. With the speed he has, he can really make the Ravens pay if they start to lose concentration. If they want to stop Parker, they will have to stay disciplined, something that will be hard to do in the big game.
With Suggs and Rolle out, and a secondary that can’t stop anybody, looking for the Steelers to throw quick, over the middle patterns that will force the Ravens linebackers to step up and make plays.
Slants should be thrown galore against the Baltimore “D” (anything to keep the ball away from Ed Reed).
Slants and short crossing patterns will work even more, based on how much the Ravens like to blitz. They dial up blitzes like crazy, which will give Pittsburgh the one-on-one coverage they will want to see. Look for tight end Heath Miller to have an effective day catching the football too, going against the linebackers.
The defense of Pittsburgh will be tough to gain anything on, too. Their 3-4 look will give the Ravens running game fits. They stay in their gaps, giving very little wiggle room for opposing backs, especially ones that are banged up.
In review, the Ravens are just too tired and too banged up to win this football game. Look for the Steelers to get the lead, and then just start pounding the rock for the rest of the game. The Ravens defense will be worn out in the fourth quarter, in which the Steelers will pull away.
Let’s be honest here, the Steelers have the better offense and quarterback, not to mention the rest and health that the Ravens just don’t have.
They are a well prepared team week in and week out, and the run of the Ravens will finally end this week, with the Steelers winning 24-10 and heading to the Super Bowl.
Matt Schaefer is an aspiring young sports writer. He is the community leader of the Buffalo Bills section on BleacherReport.com. Along with having his articles published on BleacherReport.com, he has had his work appear on FanNation.com, Youcastr.com and FanIQ.com.
He is also a contributor on SportsGuysBlog.com and worked on DieHardSportsFan.net, covering the Bills and Sabres. Matt has also had one piece of his work featured on CBSSports.com/NHL and is a host of two online radio shows, "The Schaefer Show" (on the national sports scene) and "Buffalo Sports Talk" on Youcastr.com.
You can contact Matt by sending over an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.