If not having a viable defense and decent ground game is playoff suicide, then nagging injuries to ankles and hamstrings is playing Russian roulette in the postseason.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has different decisions to make than does Bill Belichick, but his decisions aren’t any less serious when it comes to his team.
Tomlin is treading on very tricky ground.
While Belichick's decisions are all personnel-based, in terms of trying to figure who can play a little bit of defense, Tomlin must decide between winning a division, and a first round bye, or rest, and possibly better health heading into the playoffs.
The Steelers, who can clinch a postseason berth with a win in San Francisco on Monday night, could be without the middle of their offense.
Star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey each have high ankle sprains, and both could miss the Monday night tilt with John Harbaugh's brother’s team.
If there is one positive about the injury to Roethlisberger, it’s that Tomlin even has a choice on whether to start or sit Big Ben.
If you saw Roethlisberger go down last Thursday night against the Browns, then how we're not talking about how the Steelers will cope without him for the rest of the season is a Christmas miracle.
We still could be if Tomlin decides to play him, and he injuries the ankle further, ala Sam Bradford. No one, other than those within the four walls of the Steelers' facility, really knows the extent of the injury, or how long this will take to heal.
I'm not a doctor, didn’t play one on TV and I don't need to stay at a Holiday Inn Express to tell you that playing through, or practicing on, a high ankle sprain isn't the best treatment for a quick recovery, especially in the bone-chilling damp cold of Pittsburgh.
Aside from Ben's and Maurkices ankles, defensive end Evander "Ziggy" Hood injured his groin, and all-world safety Troy Polamalu hurt his hamstring during the Browns game. Sounds like some big decisions lie ahead for head coach Mike Tomlin.
Both Baltimore and Pittsburgh are tied atop the AFC North with 10 wins, and even though Baltimore owns the tiebreaker as a result of beating Pittsburgh twice this season, the teams have to finish tied with the same record after 16 games for that to even matter.
The Steelers cannot let off the gas; one slip by Baltimore, who still has road games this Sunday night in San Diego and New Year’s Day in Cincinnati, and the division title could return to the Steel city once again.
Not to mention Pittsburgh could find themselves watching the Ravens play their eighth road playoff game in four seasons with a first-round bye on Wild Card weekend.
However, if Tomlin gambles and the Ravens do not slip, Roethlisberger gets no rest and may not even finish the year with the severity of the injury. Even if the Steelers can claim the division, how effective will they be with a beat-up Big Ben that didn’t get to rest? Worse yet, what if they lose the division, and their QB?
The Steelers are no longer the power running football team from the days of Bam Morris, Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker.
They can still pound the rock when they need to, but make no mistake, this is an offense that relies on the playmaking ability and arm of Roethlisberger. Without him, or with him at anything less than say 75 percent, would be disastrous for Pittsburgh should they have to face the Ravens for a third time this season.
In two games with a relatively healthy Roethlisberger this season, the Ravens beat up and had their way with the Pittsburgh offense.
Sure, the Steelers put up a good fight back in Week 9, but really folks, the Ravens defense was chasing Big Ben around like he stole Christmas presents from an orphanage during both games.
In the first game, they sacked him four times and added one more in November. Roethlisberger was personally accountable for turning the ball over seven times, as No. 7 coughed up three fumbles and threw four interceptions.
It would surprise exactly no one if Baltimore and Pittsburgh met for a third time this season sometime in January. In fact, most expect it to happen. This would be the third time in four years that the AFC North rivals needed another contest to determine the conference’s best team.
in that span, Baltimore lost both times in Pittsburgh. In January of 2009, the Ravens lost in the AFC Championship game, as Troy Polamalu picked off Joe Flacco late in the game and returned the INT for a TD as Baltimore was trying to drive for the game-winning field goal.
Last season the Ravens self-destructed after leading 21-7 at halftime. The Steelers, as they always seem to do, rallied and defeated the Ravens with a late TD to win 31-24. After beating the New York Jets the following week, the Steelers advanced to their second Super Bowl in three years.
Why Pittsburgh could beat the Ravens:
The only way the Steelers beat the Ravens in the playoffs this season is if the game is in the Steel City, and I’m not sure they do it there either.
The Steelers' best chance to beat Baltimore is to do what they always do when they beat the Ravens: keep the game close and capitalize on a Baltimore mistake, most notably a Flacco turnover at the end of the game.
Baltimore’s fourth-year signal caller could make a sizable name for himself by beating the Ravens arch rivals for a third time this season. However, if he thought he was criticized at times this season, he has not seen anything yet if he plays poorly during a loss to Pittsburgh again in January.
Instead of signing the contract extension he whined about not receiving last offseason, Flacco may as well change his number to seven and his name to Boller if he plays poorly in a loss to Pittsburgh this postseason.
Why they won’t
This is the Ravens' year; they have caught all of the breaks and stayed relatively healthy throughout the season (Knock on wood).
When you talk about the Steelers and Ravens, the conversation starts first and foremost with defense. Even if you talk about the offenses, you’re talking about how much success they must have versus the other defenses, which ultimately leads the conversation back to the defense.
Since the 2000 season the Ravens and Steelers are rankled one and two in most defensive categories that matter. The Ravens are ranked first in points allowed per game with 16.9, while the black and gold are second at 17.1.
Baltimore has allowed 99 touchdowns, while the Steelers 101—again, first and second. Total net yards allowed, Pittsburgh is first, while the Ravens are second. Rushing yards allowed, Steelers are No. 1, Ravens are No. 2. You get the point!
This season, the Steelers (No. 2) are ranked ahead of the Ravens (No. 3) in terms of total defense, but that doesn’t mean they have the better defense—they don’t, and it’s not really close in terms of the intangibles.
I like to point out and remind fans that the 2000 Ravens did not finish the year with the No. 1 overall defense. That honor went to the Tennessee Titans, who watched the Ravens use many of these same intangibles they currently possess to beat up, and beat down Kerry Collins and the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.
Baltimore is doing the things that make for a great postseason much better than Pittsburgh this season.
For starters, the Ravens are the best in the NFL at getting off the field on third down. Baltimore has held the opposition under 30 percent on third-down conversions. The Steelers are 22nd.
In just his first season as Ravens defensive coordinator, Chuck Pagano has dialed up the blitz early and often this season. As a result, Pagano’s aggressive defense has 15 more sacks than his Hall-of-Fame counterpart, Dick LeBeau's defense in Pittsburgh.
This also includes a franchise-record-tying nine QB takedowns on Thanksgiving night vs. the San Francisco 49ers. Aggressive defenses produce more than sacks. The Ravens also have secured 10 more turnovers than Pittsburgh, and this includes an NFL-best 19 forced fumbles.
The Ravens have scored 86 points after turnovers (fifth best in NFL), are first or second in either the conference or the league in six different categories and are third in three more.
Baltimore is the only team in the league that has not allowed an opponent to score on the opening drive this season. In fact, the Ravens defense has gone 21 consecutive games without allowing an opening score. That ranks as the longest streak over the past 20 NFL seasons.
So if its defense you think will make the difference in a playoff game between these two, I’m pretty confident the Ravens are the team with the better unit this year.
Yes, they are both great but the Ravens seem to do all of the little things that at present the Steelers are not. Last week, CBS color guy Steve Tasker said the Ravens' big flaw on their defense was their periodic communication breakdowns in their secondary.
The Ravens offense has been quite reliable since offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has turned to running back Ray Rice with much more consistency.
Playing at home will be critical to Joe Flacco. Joe Cool is exactly that at M&T Bank Stadium during his career' Flacco owns 26 career wins at home, good for the most among NFL starting quarterbacks since 2008, and is 26-5 all time at the big ATM.
Flacco is starting to have much more success versus the Steelers secondary.
He threw for 300 yards during the come-from-behind November win in which he took the team 92 yards in just over two minutes to win the game. Entering Week 15, the Ravens are sixth in point differential with a plus-118.
Ray Rice is the NFL’s leading multi-purpose back with 1,622 yards from scrimmage, and Joe Flacco proved he can beat the Steelers and Roethlisberger with November’s win, and even last October's win in Pittsburgh.
What it all means in the scheme of things:
No worries here, and let’s be honest Ravens fans, this team was specifically built to beat the Steelers.
The team released of Todd Heap, Derrick Mason, Kelly Gregg and half of the backfield, all in part to become younger and faster than Pittsburgh.
It’s no surprise that the Ravens struggle vs. the 4-3 defense as opposed to a 3-4' the Steelers don’t put four linemen down, with just three linebackers, if you catch my drift.
The Baltimore Ravens are starting to peak at the right time, and Roethlisberger’s injury only stands to determine the point differential in the game. Obviously with Big Ben under center, the game will be much closer than without him.
If Roethlisberger couldn’t get away from T-Sizzle with two healthy ankles, how in the hell is he going to elude the AFC’s sack leader with just one?
The answer is, he’s not, and the Steelers, who are aging just a little bit faster in the crucial areas than the Ravens, won’t have the January juice necessary this year. Even if Ben had two healthy ankles, the Ravens would beat him again.
But he doesn’t, so look for a potential playoff matchup to closely resemble the 35-7 Week 1 beat down, especially if Baltimore is home and rested from a bye week.
Ravens 38, Steelers 14 (In Baltimore)
Ravens 27, Steelers 17 (In Pittsburgh)