“And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before.” That’s from Baltimore’s Edgar Allen Poe.
Here’s more from his famous poem, The Raven:
“So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating, 'tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door.”
The Baltimore Ravens are knocking on the door of yet another wild card run to the AFC Conference Championship game.
Filling opponents hearts with gridiron terrors, their rustling Purple Curtain defense is thrilling. At Heinz Field, they’ll battle the Pittsburgh Steelers this Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET on NBC. If they defeat Pittsburgh, then they’ll either travel to No. 1 seed New England or host the No. 6 seeded New York Jets.
It’s the same scenario for the AFC’s No. 2 seed—the Steelers—if they win. They have their own version of the legendary Steel Curtain defense. What else should we expect? Nothing less, I guess.
It’s how close these two teams are.
A strip fumble against Joe Flacco in the second meeting between the Ravens and Steelers, in effect, separates the division champion. Although Baltimore and Pittsburgh had the same regular season records (12-4), the Steelers won the AFC North.
Baltimore finished in second place in the division and they are the AFC’s No. 5 seed.
The Cincinnati Bengals won the division last year and failed to make the playoffs this season. At 5-1, the Steelers had a better division record than the Ravens (4-2). They split the first two games they’ve played already this season. Baltimore won the first one 17-14 in Pittsburgh.
Quarterback Big Ben Roethlisberger didn’t play due to his NFL Conduct Policy violation and suspension. He played with a broken nose, though, when Pittsburgh won the second matchup.
He threw the game-winning touchdown after Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley combined on a Flacco sack fumble and run.
On a blitz, Polamalu hit Flacco and forced a fumble in enemy territory late in the fourth quarter. The Ravens were winning—10-6. Woodley ran the fumble back 19 yards to Baltimore’s nine yard line. Big Ben then hit running back Isaac Redman with a touchdown pass on third down with 2:51 left.
Going into the second game, the teams were tied at 8-3 in the North. At 9-3, Pittsburgh came out of the game with the division lead, while Baltimore (8-4) dropped to second place. The Ravens haven’t lost a game since—make it five in a row counting the playoffs.
Which is the hotter team? Baltimore is the hotter team.
By NFL playoff standards, the hotter team usually has an advantage. Offensive execution, home-cooked meals and team rest, though, are points for Pittsburgh’s side.
In terms of points and passing and rushing yards per game, the Steelers offense is average. Baltimore's offense is run of the mill in points and rushing yards stats, but below average in passing and total yards.
It doesn’t matter, they score off turnovers and their placekicker pins the opposition deep in their own territory. Teams are forced to go 80 or more yards a lot against the Ravens to score a touchdown.
It’s a tall task to ask an offense to do it a lot against them.
It’s the same thing, again, for the Steelers. The defenses are twins; they stop the run and rush off the edges with Terrell Suggs, James Harrison, etc.
Ray Lewis plugs the middle for the Ravens. It’s always interesting to see the interaction between him and Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall. As a rookie in 2008, Mendenhall started for Pittsburgh in a game against Baltimore, as Willie Parker was injured. Lewis broke Mendenhall off with a clean tackle in the A-gap—a lesson-teaching hit.
Mendenhall had rushed for 30 yards on nine carries, but he left the game with a fractured shoulder in the third quarter.
He went on injured reserve and didn’t play another snap that season. He’d had the nerve to talk trash concerning the Ravens before that game. As Mendenhall jogged off the field injured Lewis calmly pointed it out, telling Baltimore’s huddle to take note.
Mendenhall will again be in Lewis' sights. He could be a bit timid going through the holes and hurt the Steelers running game. He’s averaged only 62 yards rushing against Baltimore, but he could be big in the screen game and pass protection.
Ray Rice averaged—get this—26 yards rushing and three yards per carry in the two games against Pittsburgh this season. Pittsburgh allows only 62.8 rushing yards per game, Baltimore gives up about 94.
They are going to beat themselves up, America, and maybe have to travel to play the AFC Conference Championship Game next week. That's why it's called football.
In another physical AFC game, the Jets would have to travel if they beat New England.
Physicality is on constant display from here on out in the Super Bowl playoffs. The non-physical teams are at home watching football.
Here’s my take on what, where, why and how the winner of the present game moves on in this year's edition of the playoffs.
This will be smashmouth football at its highest order.
The two teams are very close and know one another. The Steelers defense is ranked No. 1 in the NFL in allowing rushing yards per game. The Ravens could very well be held to less than 100 yards rushing.
Mendenhall probably won’t be able to run the ball for over 100 yards against the Ravens. Look for end-arounds to Mike Wallace and the Steelers specialty players to help in the run game.
It could come down to the kicking game, with Baltimore’s Billy Cundiff’s touchbacks and a game-winning field goal being the difference. Pittsburgh cut long time placekicker Jeff Reed earlier this season in favor of Shaun Suisham.
I’m picking the Steelers, however, due to the Heinz Field advantage and because Roethlisberger missed the first game. Don’t be surprised if this game ends in overtime on a long Mike Wallace touchdown reception.
However it happens, the Steelers will defeat the valiant Ravens team—and their mascot, Poe.