AFC Championship Game Preview – Baltimore at Pittsburgh

By Josh Salter –

When the 13-5 Baltimore Ravens head into Pittsburgh to take on the 13-4 Steelers, it’ll mark the third time these two have played. And if the first two times are any indication of what will take place in this one, then we are all in for a treat.

Both of the previous contests have been decided in the final seconds of play; Pittsburgh won in September on an OT FG 23-20 while in December, they pulled out a controversial 13-9 win.

The game was decided on a call which ruled that WR Santonio Holmes had crossed the goal line with the ball. Replay evidence didn’t confirm such a ruling.

Here’s how we see the third matchup playing out.

When the Ravens have the football, look for them to run. The reason for this is two fold: by running the ball they’ll hope to wear down the Steelers’ front seven in the third and fourth quarters and secondly, they don’t want to put rookie QB Joe Flacco in compromising passing situations. A place you don’t want to find yourself in against this ferocious Steelers’ defense.

So look for a heavy dose of Le’Ron McClain and Willis McGahee and for OC Cam Cameron to incorporate the screen pass to neutralize the blitz.

When they drop back to pass, look for Flacco to target TE Todd Heap and WR Derrick Mason. Heap will be used as a safety valve, primarily on shorter passes that attack the middle of the field while Mason, the deep threat, will be used to stretch this defense (and keep them honest).

Regardless, don’t expect too much from this Ravens’ offense on Sunday.

When the Steelers have the ball, they’ll do the exact opposite: pass to set-up the run. And the reason for this is that “Steeler football,” a phrase coined for the power running game this franchise employed for most of its existence, is no longer around.

Instead, they’re slashing and fast (“fast” Willie Parker).

And going against the second rated defense in the NFL (Pittsburgh’s No. 1), they’re not going to have much success if they begin with this approach anyway.

So look for Roethlisberger to start with the quick pass—the three-to-five step drops—and locate WR’s Ward, Holmes and TE Miller on short to medium routes. And when they look to go deep, keep an eye on Nate Washington as he’ll be the guy they target. And playing against the Ravens’ third corner, he should have a lot of success.

While the earlier contests have been nail bitingly close, don’t expect this one to follow suit.

Baltimore won’t find the Steelers to be as gracious hosts as the Titans were last weekend. Tennessee thoroughly outplayed the Ravens in last Saturday’s Divisional Round and if not for a few crucial turnovers—one by RB White and another by TE Crumpler—they’d be hosting Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.

On the flip side of the coin, the Steelers dominated the Chargers and put the game out of reach by the start of the 4th quarter. And with this one being played at home, we expect a 17-7 or 20-10 margin of victory.

So the Steelers will move on and have a chance to become the NFL’s first six-time Super Bowl Champion while the Ravens, 5-11 just a year ago, have far exceeded all expectations for this season and have a lot to look forward to in 2009.

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