Last weekend saw three of four road teams come out and win, with the only home team to hold serve being the improbable Seattle Seahawks. What does that mean for this weekend, if anything? Well, home field advantage clearly isn’t what it used to be, and the lower seeded division winners in both conferences are somewhat inferior to the higher seeded wild cards. This weekend, however, the home teams are the top two teams in each conference, and that makes winning at home a more likely thing, right?
The first game of the divisional round of the NFL Playoffs is going to be a battle as the Pittsburgh Steelers host divisional blood rival, the Baltimore Ravens. Pittsburgh enters the playoffs, after a bye week, coming off of two easy wins over the Carolina Panthers and Cleveland Browns by a combined score of 68-12. Baltimore comes in fresh off of a total shellacking of the Chiefs in Kansas City last week, 30-7. The Ravens have won five in a row and seven out of eight. Their only loss? To these Steelers back in Week 13.
Which of these two dominant teams will be the first to earn a spot in the Conference Championships next week?
Pittsburgh is one of five playoff teams this season who finished up with a better record on the road than at home. They were 5-3 at Heinz Field, with losses to Baltimore, the New England Patriots and the New York Jets, the other three teams still alive in the AFC. That has to be a little disconcerting if you’re a Steelers fan. Other than the 15-9 win over the Atlanta Falcons way back in Week 1, Pittsburgh’s home wins consist of the Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland, Carolina and the Oakland Raiders. Not exactly overwhelming.
Baltimore is now 6-3 on the road this season, with wins on the road against playoff teams the Jets, Pittsburgh and now Kansas City. Perhaps more importantly, Baltimore and QB Joe Flacco have now played six postseason games over the past three years, all on the road, and are 4-2. Of all the teams in the playoffs this year, Baltimore is the one you don’t want to see come to town.
Considering these two teams split their games this season, each winning in the other’s home stadium, and the combined score of both games has them perfectly tied; where they play really doesn’t matter. They could suit up in the parking lot and it could still be anyone’s game.
Case In Point(s)
It’s a little strange talking about points when discussing these two teams, because this is going to be a defensive struggle through and through. If anyone reaches 20 points, that counts as an offensive outburst. The scores of the first two meetings were 17-14 and 13-10. Pittsburgh did score over 30 three times this year, but it’s what they hold other teams to that is their bread and butter. The Steelers held opponents under 14 points nine times this year. In fact, they are No. 1 in the league in keeping points off the board.
Baltimore isn’t exactly intimidated, however, as they rank third in scoring defense, and they held opponents under 14 points eight times, including the seven points they gave up to the Chiefs last week. Neither team likes to give up points, and both are playing well right now. In their last two games, the Steelers gave up a total of 12 points. In their last two, the Ravens have given up a total of 14. Is it becoming clearer that these teams are very evenly matched?
After the KC win, Baltimore is now 4-3 against playoff teams this year. However, Pittsburgh is only 2-4 against playoff teams, with a loss to the Saints added to losses to the three other AFC teams still standing. They did beat the Falcons, but that was very early in the season, and without Ben Roethlisberger, and they beat the Ravens.
In their four losses, they scored 67 total points, or a little under 17 per game. That’s almost a touchdown per game under their overall regular season average. Defensively it’s even worse, as they gave up 98 points in the losses, almost 25 per game, and over 10 points per game more than their season average. The moral of this is: If you can put up points on Pittsburgh, you’ll likely win.
The Guys Under Center
After struggling early last week with pressure from the Chiefs pass rush, Flacco settled in and played a great game, setting Ravens post-season records for completions, yards and touchdowns in the blowout win. If he handles the pressure from Pittsburgh today like he did last week, the Steelers could be in trouble. Pittsburgh's ace-in-the-hole, Troy Polamalu, is coming back from hamstring issues, and may not be 100%, either. If the last few seasons have shown anything about the Steelers, it’s that their defense is not the same if Polamalu isn’t right.
After a challenging season that started with a four-game suspension, Roethlisberger has really put together an excellent run. He finished up as seventh rated among all quarterbacks, only threw five interceptions all season and had a passer rating approaching 100. The Steelers did go 3-1 without him early in the year, but there is simply no doubt that Big Ben is the difference between a good team and a possible champion.
Pressure will be the key today, as Pittsburgh led the league in sacks and was tied for fifth in the league in interceptions. Baltimore was also a top-ten team in INTs, but their sack numbers were way down from previous years, finishing a paltry 27th in the league in taking down opposing quarterbacks. The Ravens are going to have to get pressure on Big Ben and Flacco is going to have to handle pressure from the Steelers well if Baltimore is going to pull out a win.
Can Anyone Run the Ball?
Both these teams are top-five in the league against the run, but the Steelers, No. 1, held teams to almost 30 yards-per-game less than the second ranked Chicago Bears. Let that sink in for a moment. They gave up only one rush of over 20 yards all season. One! They’re pretty good against the run, I think. In the two games against Baltimore, Pittsburgh allowed 70 and 43 yards on the ground. The Steelers, however, didn’t exactly run all over the Ravens, only producing 54 and 84 yards in the two games.
With both of these teams depending so much on the ground attack, it’s no surprise these games almost always end up low scoring. Don’t expect to see a 100-yard rusher today. Against these defenses, if someone puts up more than three yards-per-carry, that will be considered a good day’s work.
Who Will Win?
Put simply, whoever kicks the last field goal will win. I’m expecting a brutal, physical football game, the kind of game teams should be playing this time of year. No finesse, just smash the other guy in the mouth and see who’s left standing at the end.
Neither team will be able to run with much success, and the quarterbacks will be running for their lives all day. Ultimately, I think Baltimore has better offensive weapons than Pittsburgh does, and I think Flacco can handle the pressure as well as anyone. Look for both QBs to keep their teams in the game, but in the end Flacco will be the one to make the crucial big throws in the fourth quarter and the Ravens will win another road playoff game.
Final Score: Baltimore 21, Pittsburgh 18