A few weeks ago, this game looked to be a battle between descending powerhouse teams. Both at 5-6, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers are now in the thick of the playoff hunt. And the outcome of this game might seal the fate for both teams. Likely pushing one into the playoffs and crushing the hopes of the other.
Now this game is nothing to laugh at as Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston notes via Twitter:
Steelers-Ravens primetime matchup no longer looks like a dud: A few weeks ago there was laughter around the NF... http://t.co/C4vLgWyh0O— Mike Preston (@MikePrestonSun) November 26, 2013
You didn't honestly think the Ravens and Steelers could play a meaningless game in November, did you?
If the Ravens want to take a step toward defending the Lombardi Trophy, they will have to contain Antonio Brown, capitalize in the red zone, pressure and sack Ben Roethlisberger, throw the deep ball effectively and be creative on offense.
Here's a breakdown of those five keys to a Ravens' victory.
Contain Antonio Brown
In the Steeler's past three games, all victories, Brown has averaged over six receptions for over 100 yards and one touchdown per game. That's with two of those matchups against guys like Joe Haden and Stephon Gilmore. Prompting tweets like this:
Oh, and he ranks No. 2 in receiving yardage to a man nicknamed "Megatron."
To keep the Steelers offense under wraps, the Ravens will have to contain Brown. That means holding him to about six catches for 50 yards and no touchdowns, which the Ravens did in their 19-16 loss to the Steelers in Week 7.
If the Ravens secondary can hold Brown to similar numbers, then they'll have a chance to win.
Touchdowns over Field Goals
The Ravens offense ranks 20th in red-zone TD percentage at just 51.43 percent on the year. The Ravens have seen no improvement the past three games as they've scored TDs on 40 percent of red-zone possessions.
Luckily, the Steelers are even worse in the red zone, ranking 31st in the league. With that said these games always seem to be close, and scoring a TD instead of a field goal is often the difference. In fact, eight out of the past 10 Ravens vs. Steelers games have been decided by exactly three points. The margin for scoring a TD over a field goal?
That's four points and a likely victory.
Terrell Suggs and the Ravens pass rush have been historically great this season. But just getting to Roethlisberger isn't enough. One also has to bring the 6' 5", 241-pound quarterback to the ground.
Sacking Roethlisberger should help the Ravens keep the Steelers' passing attack off balance. Something they didn't do in their last meeting when Roethlisberger recorded his second-highest completion percentage of the season.
Big Ben was sacked three times in that game, but that only netted the Steelers 15 yards lost. That's an average of a false start penalty. As the crux of the Ravens defense, the pass rush will have to be dominant.
Air It Out
With the Ravens' running game stymied to say the least, it's time for Joe Flacco to air it out. With a struggling running game and an inconsistent short passing game, the Ravens rely on the deep ball for points. Last week against the Jets, Flacco's 66-yard pass to Jacoby Jones was the only TD of the game.
And Flacco would certainly like to heave more deep balls. At least more than lining up in the Wildcat.
"I don't want to be lining up at Z and X (wide receiver positions)," Flacco said via Kevin Patra of NFL.com. "I want to line up behind center."
Despite Flacco's dislike of the Wildcat, the Ravens need some creativity to get their offense going. Tyrod Taylor has had a few successful outings in the Wildcat, including a 17-yard scamper against the Jets last week and an 18-yard run against the Bengals in Week 10.
That's just the type of play that can take a drive from stalled at the 40-yard line to in scoring range. It's also the type of play that can fool an aging and aggressive Pittsburgh defense. If nothing else, Flacco might have had a fire lit under him:
Flacco has been far from elite this season. Even prompting some criticism from former teammate Ray Lewis. The good news for the Ravens is that Flacco doesn't have to be elite. He just needs to make one or two big plays.
As Luke Jones of 1570 WNST pointed out via Twitter, the Ravens' vertical passing game was the best development last week:
The buzz over the #Ravens running the Wildcat is cute and all, but hitting two verticals was a much bigger development yesterday.— Luke Jones (@BaltimoreLuke) November 25, 2013
This game will likely come down to who makes the big plays. Will it be a deep Flacco pass? A pick-six? A Wildcat run? It's tough to tell, but if the Ravens take their chances on offense and play stingy defense, they should come out on the winning side.
And a game like this can propel a team into the postseason.