NFL Playoff Predictions: 10 Best Storylines in Ravens vs. Steelers
Well, well, well, the divisional round is set to kick off with a doozy.
The Steelers and Ravens know each other well, as regular combatants in the AFC North every year. They're usually the class of the division, with the Browns and Bengals never seeming to be able to get out of their own way.
Who's got the edge this Saturday afternoon?
Pittsburgh's the division champion, but both teams finished with the same 12-4 record. And looking to their results from earlier in the season does no good either, as the teams split the season series, each team winning on the other's home turf (and scoring the same number of combined points, to boot).
So what things will make a difference? I thought you'd never ask...
10) Big Ben's Got a Nose for Action
The last time these two teams squared off, in Baltimore on December 5th, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has his nose broken by some hands to the face on the part of Haloti Ngata, the Ravens' defensive tackle.
Incidental or intentional, Big Ben took it in stride, calmly having it popped back in place like a separated shoulder and leading the Steelers to victory. (He'd have it fixed for real during the week).
That dramatic event speaks to the larger story of Roethlisberger's regular success against Baltimore, as with the win in December, he's now won the last six games he's started against them and hasn't lost since 2007. Overall, he's 8-2 in his career when facing the Ravens.
That stat might not be the most unique or glamorous, but it certainly means something.
9) Will He Be Extra Fresh?
It's also worth noting that Roethlisberger missed the first four games of the season this year while serving his suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy.
The Steelers managed to weather that storm, and even thrived, going 3-1 in those first four games using a combination of Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch as their quarterbacks.
The one game they lost in that stretch was the last game of the suspension, the October 3rd game against Baltimore leading into their bye week. So there's a bit of an asterisk by the results of that game when we look to use them to inform what will happen this week.
More importantly for me is that in the end, the suspension may have actually helped Roethlisberger and the Steelers, by allowing him to be fresher at this point in the season than he usually is. The usual long grind of the 16-game regular season was reduced by a quarter of its length for him. As far as his body is concerned, somewhere around Thanksgiving right about now.
Add in the extra rest of the bye week, and we'll be looking at a fresh Steeler team and an extra fresh Big Ben.
8) Road Warriors
Joe Flacco and the Ravens have carved out a nice little bit of postseason history for themselves.
In the three years coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco have been together, Baltimore has made the playoffs as a wild card each year and has managed a cumulative record of 4-2.
That's no small feat. Four road-playoff wins as a wild card team in three years. Baltimore actually hasn't played a home playoff game since the 2006 season. But it hasn't seemed to faze them one bit.
Of course, one of the two losses they've suffered during that stretch was to this Pittsburgh Steelers team, 23-14 in the 2008 AFC Championship, a game in which they were only able to muster 198 yards of total offense.
They'll have to do better than that to succeed this time around.
7) What about Momentum?
Even going into Kansas City, a tough place to play for a road team as any venue in the league, the Ravens were already the favorites in the Wild Card Round.
But I don't think most people expected them to dominate as completely as they did. They thoroughly dismantled the AFC West Champions, surrendering a 41-yard touchdown run by ever elusive Jamaal Charles in the first quarter but giving up absolutely nothing after that.
Charles ended up carrying the ball just nine times all game because the Chiefs were battling from behind most of the way, and Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassell had a paltry stat line of 9-for-18 passing, for an anemic 70 yards.
Much of that was due to the three interceptions Baltimore managed to force him into, after Cassell had thrown just seven all season, as well as two fumble recoveries. Kansas City simply wasn't able to keep their offense on the field. And this was a team who's only home loss all year had been the last game of the regular season to Oakland, after the Chiefs had already wrapped up the division title.
Will there be a carryover where the Ravens can ride the momentum from that win into Pittsburgh?
6) What about Rust?
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Steelers haven't played since January 2nd.
That game was a drama and excitement-free drubbing of the sad-sack Browns in Cleveland, 41-9. It was an important win, as it clinched the division title for the Steelers, but it didn't have nearly the intensity that we'll see in a few days.
Add in their previous week's victory against the even more lowly Panthers, a dreary 27-3 affair where Carolina put up just 119 total yards of offense, and Pittsburgh hasn't played an exciting game in almost a month.
Of course, this is a home playoff game, and the fans at Heinz Field will be waving their terrible towels, and if you can't get up for a game like this, you shouldn't be playing football, but still. It's always a question when a team that's had a bye plays a team that hasn't.
Will it be rest, or rust?
5) Which Defense Will Bend?
For fans of old-time, hit-em-in-the-mouth football, this is a game for you.
True to their roots, the Steelers feature an intimidating defense that yielded the fewest points in the league this year, to go along with the second fewest yards. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley both reached double figures in sacks, and Troy Polamalu was his usual All-Pro self, grabbing seven interceptions and generally wreaking havoc all over the field.
On the other sideline, the Ravens defense are no slouches themselves. They gave up the third fewest points in the NFL this year. Ed Reed's eight interceptions led the league. Terrell Suggs is a handful for any offensive line. And Ray Lewis remains Ray Lewis.
This is going to be a low-scoring game where every possession matters. One big play can change everything. Who's going to blink?
4) Who Will Win the Turnover Battle?
It's a cliche that whoever wins the turnover battle will win the game, but it's a cliche for a reason. It's usually true.
I've already talked about how the Ravens were able to make things much easier for themselves this past week in Kansas City by creating five turnovers against a team that had previously committed just 14 all season. The Chiefs offense was never able to stay on the field.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, was one of the best teams this year at creating and taking advantage of turnovers. Their defense was third in the league with 35 takeaways, and their plus-17 turnover differential was second best (to the Patriots insane plus-28). The Ravens were a respectable plus-seven.
There will be lots of hands going for the football in this one.
3) The Weather
It's January, and it's Pittsburgh.
That means it's gonna be cold. The forecast for Saturday afternoon in western Pennsylvania is for temperatures right around freezing and a 30 to 50 percent chance of snow.
Both teams are used to playing in conditions like that, of course, and Baltimore just played a game in Kansas City where the wind chill was 16 degrees.
The frigid conditions will make the running game that much more important, as frozen fields, limited visibility and swirling winds don't make an ideal setting for airing things out. They will also make it that much more important for ball carriers to hold onto the ball tightly, as frozen footballs are more likely to pop out.
2) Playoff History
The Steelers have a lofty playoff history to live up to.
They've won seven of their last eight playoff games, including winning the Super Bowl twice in their last three playoff appearances. Their only playoff defeat during that time was a closely contested 2007 Wild Card loss to Jacksonville, 31-29.
They've also won their only two contests against the Ravens in the postseason, a 27-10 win in the Divisional round in 2001 and the aforementioned 23-14 win in the 2008 AFC title game.
Obviously, past results doesn't necessarily predict future performance, but in the absence of a crystal ball, it's all we have to go on.
1) Key Matchup
A major key here will be the Ravens' underneath passing attack, featuring tight end Todd Heap, versus the Steelers' middle-of-the-field defense led by Troy Polamalu.
Polamalu, as always seems to be the case, is not 100 percent, coming off an ankle injury that forced him to miss two of Pittsburgh's last three games, but after two weeks of rest, you can't count him out.
Heap had his best game of the season last week in Kansas City, catching 10 passes for 108 yards and routinely finding the soft spot in underneath coverage, allowing quarterback Joe Flacco to find him over and over again for quick strikes that kept the Chiefs defense on its heels.
If Baltimore can keep Polamalu guessing, they can take some of the pressure off the running game, which figures to run into a brick wall against Pittsburgh. But if Polamalu can make one of his patented big plays, and gets the crowd more frenzied than they already are, it could be enough to turn the momentum.
In the end, I predict a close, low-scoring contest won by Pittsburgh, as the Heinz home-field advantage helps Big Ben summon just enough to eke it out.
Steelers advance, 17-16.