A Ravens-Steelers divisional round bout is a display of two of the most successful young coaches in the NFL, two of the most successful young QB’s, two of the best safeties of all time, two of the most physical wide receivers of all time, two of the scariest front sevens on defense and two of the more suspect offensive lines in the AFC. Did I mention that these two teams hate each other?
When the Ravens are throwing: This is the match-up to watch. I expect Cam Cameron to finally attack the Steelers secondary consistently. Ike Taylor and William Gay have been beatable most of the year and Bryant McFadden is good but over-matched when guarding Anquan Boldin. Let’s not forget: this secondary struggled against Steve Johnson when they were mostly healthy. Their bottom-of-the-barrel corners will likely elevate their game a smidge in the postseason which is what the best teams often do. What makes this dicey is – regardless of the match-ups they create – this offense did have a recent hiccup against the Bungles and the elite pass rush and safety play of the Steelers will come into play. If Flacco doesn’t recognize the blitzers, it will be difficult for them to win this game. Edge: Ravens, slightly.
When the Ravens are running: This is where you start talking about Hall of Fame meeting Hall of Fame. Matt Birk, who’s questionable with a knee injury, and Todd Heap are two Hall of Fame blockers (Heap being borderline yet having two of his best seasons last year and this year) who will anchor an often unbalanced line. Ray Rice is one of the most excellent all-purpose backs in the game, and Willis McGahee is 10th in yards on the ground among active players. All that said, on the opposite side, there’s James Harrison, Troy Polamalu and Casey Hampton. Those three are all locks for the Hall of Fame with Harrison being the only one who might not be first ballot, just because of his reputation. Part of me thinks Rice and McGahee might be able to churn up some yardage if they can get to a certain number of carries but the best game plan is to not bother against the Steelers, who allowed just 3.0 yards per carry. Edge: Steelers.
When the Steelers are throwing: I have enormous respect for Ben Roethlisberger. If I were building a team, I’d be more confident taking Ben, Aaron Rodgers or over Tom Brady and Peyton Manning because we know Manning will throw the ball away when he has pressure in his face and we don’t know how Brady would do without a top-notch offensive line. The Ravens have what I consider to be the best pass coverage in football (and it’s best to judge them on their last six games, since their two best defensive players Jarret Johnson and Ed Reed, have finally gotten back to playing shape). It took Harbaugh, a former defensive backs coach, and Greg Mattison a little while to figure out the strengths of the corners and awhile for their linebackers to get healthy but – given the NFL rules – I think a good passing attack can overwhelm good pass coverage. That said, the Ravens also have a powerful pass rush that picks up in the big games. We already know Suggs is up for this one but the deep linebacking corps will be key in batting down passes and minimizing gains. I’m hoping Reed baits Roethlisberger into throwing deep. Edge: Ravens.
When the Steelers are running: Let’s throw out most of the field. I did this with the Chiefs. Immediately following Jamaal Charles’ 44-yard run, I pronounced that to be the last touchdown the Chiefs would score. My confidence comes from the Ravens’ red zone defense. Look at the last time they played. The only touchdown the Steelers scored was because they had advantageous field position. All that said, I fear Roethlisberger, Mendenhall is playoff-tested, and Isaac Redman and Mewelde Moore are both great complimentary pieces. Edge: Even.
PREDICTION: The intangibles are wild for this one. The Steelers have advantages in that they’ve won more of the games in the rivalry and that their players have won more Super Bowls (even if Farrior, Ward, Taylor and Randle El are not in their primes anymore) which makes you hungrier to get back. The Ravens are rallying around Ed Reed with his brother’s disappearance and they have – in my opinion – a slight advantage in the leadership department (Rice and Boldin are the offensive leaders), though Ben Roethlisberger has finally embraced that role for his team and done a great job with it. Both offensive coordinators have been criticized by their fan bases. This game could be disconcerting for me, a Ravens fan, if it does become an aerial battle because Flacco is not in Roethlisberger’s league yet. Cam will get the ball to Boldin, and the Ravens defense will force just enough punts with their pass rush and get some plays from Josh Wilson, Dawan Landry and Fabian Washington in dime packages (or filling in for Carr). Neither team would be troubled by a re-match in New England. This is the AFC Championship. Disruption. Chaos. Emotion. Will. Ravens 31, Steelers 30.