Sunday night features a blockbuster matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. Perennially the top two teams in the AFC North, they each reached the playoffs in four of the past five seasons.
The Ravens (7-2) and Steelers (6-3) both maintain realistic chances at getting the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC. However, they could both easily fall to the sixth seed as well in this bunched-up AFC.
For the Steelers, the timing of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's serious injury was unfortunate. They host the Ravens Sunday and then travel to Baltimore to play them again two weeks later. Injured last week against the Kansas City Chiefs, Roethlisberger was originally believed to have a shoulder injury. It was later discovered that he has a rare and more serious rib injury.
In a sudden and major reaction to Roethlisberger's injury, the point spread in Sunday's game shot from 4.5 points in favor of the Steelers to three points against the Steelers—a swing of more than a touchdown.
Is 7.5 points an overreaction?
The 4.5-point spread was in place despite the shoulder injury to Roethlisberger, with gamblers apparently feeling he could play through it. It was the discovery of the rib injury and the announcement that he would not play that moved the spread 7.5 points overnight.
Prominent former Steeler Hines Ward voiced his opinion, claiming that Pittsburgh would not be able to win games against Baltimore without Big Ben. Clearly Ben's absence weighs heavily on the outcome of this game.
There are two veteran backups in Pittsburgh, both of whom have taken snaps in the NFL before. Byron Leftwich played on Monday and will most likely get the start this weekend.
At age 32, he is the younger of the two backups (amazingly enough). The first two years Leftwich played in Pittsburgh (2008 and 2010), the Steelers went to the Super Bowl. He spent a year in Tampa Bay in the middle of that in 2009.
Leftwich has started in 49 NFL games for four different teams. His last start and significant playing time was in 2009 for the Buccaneers. On Monday he was 7-of-14, making conservative throws. He did not score a touchdown or throw an interception.
The older backup is Charlie Batch, who at age 37 is one of the oldest players in the NFL. Batch was part of two Steelers Super Bowl wins. In his 11 years with the Steelers, he has started seven games, the last occurring in 2011.
On the other side of the ball, Flacco continues to be the starting quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens. Opinions on Flacco tend to range from recklessly positive to wildly negative. In reality he has been in the middle of those two extremes, playing slightly-above-average football in 2012.
Out of 34 qualifying quarterbacks on 32 teams, Flacco is rated No. 14 this season, right behind Andrew Luck. He has a respectable 13 touchdowns to seven interceptions and an 88.7 quarterback rating.
Don't expect the passing game to go wild against the No. 1-rated Steelers passing defense. However, expect the Ravens to put up some points, enough to put pressure on the Pittsburgh offense.
Who will win Sunday night?
Without Roethlisberger, it is unlikely that the Steelers will be able to do much on offense. This should be a low-scoring game regardless of the winner. Due to the adequacy of the Ravens' passing attack and the quality of their running game—led by Ray Rice—I expect them to not only win but also to cover the three-point spread.
The Ravens will progress to 8-2, while the Steelers will fall to 6-4.
Assuming they do, this will make three consecutive wins for Baltimore. The last time the Steelers defeated the Ravens was in the 2011 playoffs.