By Browning Stupp
Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Saturday – January 3 – 7:15 pm
Heinz Field – Pittsburgh
One of the best rivalries in professional sports continues this Saturday night. Steelers-Ravens pretty much says it all. Two former Super Bowl Champions and divisional rivals who really don’t like each other, but respect the heck out of each other come game time. Smash mouth football with high flying offenses, personal fouls, taunting, and a fight after almost every play make this one of the best series in the NFL. How good is this rivalry? The Steelers and Ravens have split the last 26 games with each winning 13 with the Ravens totaling 504 points and 7,204 yards and the Steelers totaling 481 points and 7,627 yards in the series. The Steelers have dominated the Ravens in the most important category, the playoffs, with 3-0 record against them and hope to make it 4-0 after Saturday.
How They Got Here
The Steelers come into the playoffs as the winner of the AFC North for the first time since 2010 and the 3rd seed in the playoffs with a record of 11-5 and one of the hottest teams in the NFL going 4-0 in December. They have dominated their opponents with their high flying offense led by league leading wide receiver Antonio Brown and quarterback Ben Rothlisberger having a career year. The big question is the health of the AFC’s leading rusher, Le’Veon Bell whose knee was hyper extended in the season finale against the Bengals and is questionable to play in the game. The Ravens with a record of 10-6 led by quarterback Joe Flacco were just lucky to get in the playoffs. It took a loss by the Chargers on the last week of the NFL and a victory over the Browns to get them in as the 6th seed in the playoffs. None of that matters now because these two teams genuinely don’t like each other and the playoffs bring out the best and worst of them.
Super Bowl winning coach Mike Tomlin has the Steelers back in the playoffs after two consecutive 8-8 seasons since going to two Super bowls in four years and winning in 2009 and losing to the Packers in 2011. The high flying offense of the Steelers is ranked #2 in the NFL. ‘Big’ Ben Rothlisberger, 10-4 in the postseason and three Superbowl rings, has bought into offense coordinator, Todd Haley’s offensive philosophy and he tied Drew Brees with 4,952 yards for the most in the NFL. A big part of Rothlisberger’s success can also be attributed to a healthy offensive line led by center Maurkice Pouncey. Wide Receiver, Antonio Brown, led the league in yards with 1,698 yards and is also a dangerous threat for running punts back to the end zone. Running back, Le’Veon Bell led the AFC in rushing with 1,361 yards and had over 2,000 total yards. Unfortunately he may not be able to play with a hyper extended knee although he says he is ready should they need him. The Steelers picked up free agent Ben Tate to fill in for him just in case. The Steelers defense ranked #18 is full of young inexperienced players in the secondary with injuries to Troy Polomalu and Ike Taylor. Defensive guru Dick LeBeau convinced LB James Harrison and DT Brett Keisel to come out of retirement and help the defense out. Linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Jason Worlds will put constant pressure on Flacco.
The Ravens also missed the playoffs last year, but thanks to the Chiefs beating the Chargers in the last game of the season Coach John Harbaugh has them ready to make a run in the playoffs especially with one of the best NFL defensive tackles in Haloti Ngata back from a four game suspension for violating the performance enhancing drug policy. The Ray Rice fiasco could have derailed the Ravens season, but RB Justin Forsett stepped up and ran for 1,266 yards. The Ravens offense ranked # 6 set record for points (409) and yards (5,838) with Super Bowl winning quarterback Joe Flacco throwing for almost 4,000 yards throwing over a 1,000 yards to Steve Smith who has one of his best years after leaving the Carolina Panthers. The Ravens defense is ranked #8 and are led by DE Terrell Suggs who has had 12 sacks in 15 playoff games. Suggs is still one of the best pass rushers in the NFL and he is not above taunting the Steelers coach after a play or stomping on an opposing player when they are down. LB C.J. Moseley has become one of the best young linebackers in the league and will team up with Suggs to wreak havoc on the Steelers offense.
If Le’Veon Bell were healthy the Steelers would be favorites for this game after beating up on the Ravens 43-23 in November, but even without Bell the Steelers should still manage to survive this game led by Rothlisberger who is having one of his best years and has a flare for dramatic comebacks in playoff games. The last time these teams faced off in the playoffs in 2010 Rothlisberger brought them back from a 7-21 halftime deficit to a 31-24 last minute victory. This is a must see playoff football between two bitter divisional rivals.
Prediction – STEELERS 27 – Ravens 20