Steelers-Ravens: It’s As Good As It Gets in the NFL

The Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the Baltimore Ravens.   This is about as real as it gets, the epitome of playoff football in the middle of January.

As two of the league’s best defensive units, there’s no need to manufacture good old fashioned hate between these two teams.  The best rivalry takes center stage this afternoon the winner gets four more quarters of playoff football, with a chance to go to the Super Bowl and the loser will be forced to cope with what went wrong, an opportunity not seized and coping with the realization that your hated rival just knocked you out of the playoffs.

Today marks the eighth time in the past three seasons the Ravens and Steelers will lock horns, trying to further the claim the title of alpha dog of the AFC North.   It’s only fitting that Ravens-Steelers III marks the rubber match this season.  Each team finished the season 12-4.  Each team was victorious on the other one’s home turf.  Minus QB Ben Roethlisberger under center for the Steelers, Baltimore drew first blood, capturing a 17-14 win at Pittsburgh on Oct.3 .  The Steelers, however, evened the score in front of a national audience on Sunday Night Football, 13-10, with Roethlisberger back as the starting quarterback for the Steelers.

This rivalry features both a healthy respect and a heatlthy hatred.  It reminds alot of the rivalry between the Indiana Pacers and the New York Knicks during the mid 90’s.  Both had star players, nasty streaks, and stingy defense.  They respected one another.  They also couldn’t stand one another.

Pittsburgh and Baltimore feature the same elements.  Young up-and-coming head coaches ascending to the top of the coaching heap (Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh), cornerstone signal callers (Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco), All-Pro safeties (Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed) and feared men in the midde (Baltimore’s Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs, Pittsburgh’s James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley).

The elements are compelling.  It’s almost like one team can look in the mirror and see the other staring back at them.  Each of the past four games has been decided by three points.  Since 2003, the combined score for the Ravens is 302 and the Steelers 302.

But where the Steelers hold an ever-so-slightly upper hand is Heinz Field, where the Steelers are 2-0 against the Ravens in the playoffs.  The last time they clashed in the playoffs was in 2008.  It was Ravens QB Joe Flacco in his rookie year.  He came, the Steelers conquered 23-14 in the AFC Championship en route to their sixth Super Bowl title.  Now, a bit more seasoned, can Flacco and the Ravens succeed where they’ve failed the past two times in the postseason?

The Ravens have a sense of urgency, knowing their time is right now and tomorrow may not appear as brights as it does today.  Scan the Baltimore roster and you’ll find a total of 17 players over the age of 30.  Half the Ravens roster will be eligible for free agency at the end of the season.  With age, free agency and the dark cloud in the shape of a lockout looming overhead, there’s a very real threat (potentially as threatening as the rush of James Harrison and Troy Polamalu) that this could be the Ravens’ last stand to return to the Super Bowl.

One has to believe if you’re a Ravens fan that Ray Lewis won’t let his tribe squander away a golden chance to cash the golden ticket and put themselves in prime position in the AFC Championship game next Sunday.  It’s tough to believe that Lewis has only made one Super Bowl appearance in his illustrious career.  Perhaps the game’s greatest middle linebacker, Lewis isn’t getting any younger despite no signs of dropoff in play.  Lewis turns 35 in May.  Derrick Mason is 36.  Matt Birk is 34.  Baltimore has been to the AFC Championship.  They’ve won wild card games.  They’ve been successful in the divisional round.  They’re the only team in the NFL to have won a game in the playoffs in the last three seasons.  But will that be enough for Baltimore to hang their hat on without another Super Bowl appearance or Super Bowl title?

The Ravens realize the future is now and they might not like what tomorrow holds.  Getting past Roethlisberger and the Steelers won’t be any bag of sunshine.

When he’s played, Roethlisberger is 6-0 in the past six games he’s started when facing the Ravens.  On the other side of the fence, Flacco hasn’t performed so well against the Steelers.  He’s 2-5 in seven starts against the Steelers with six touchdowns and seven interceptions.  Flacco has a good playoff record (4-2) and turned in his best playoff performance last week, leading the Ravens to a 30-7 rout of Kansas City with 265 yards and two touchdowns.  It’ll take a similar, if not better performance, to conquer his Pittsburgh demons.

The Steelers enjoyed some rest and relaxation while the Ravens played in the wild card round last weekend.  Could rust play a factor for Pittsburgh?  The Steelers haven’t played a game since Jan.2, a 41-9 trouncing against Cleveland.  The Steelers can’t afford to waste the first quarter of the game finding their legs and getting back their groove.  The Ravens looked sharp and hungry last week against the Chiefs.  The Steelers must find a way to regain their edge early.

PredictionSteelers 23, Ravens 20. These two teams play so many close games, why predict a blowout by like, say…seven or ten points??  It’s a game of survival.  Neither team wants to face the prospects of their last loss of the season coming at the hands of their arch rival.  The last time they squared off in the playoffs, the winner went on to win the Super Bowl.  You’ve got two of the top three defenses in points allowed (Pittsburgh 1st, Baltimore 3rd).  That’s what got these teams here and it’s defense that will carry the victor.   The Ravens looked good last week, but the Chiefs helped them out with five turnovers.  The Steelers aren’t an offensive juggernaut, but I don’t expect them to commit five turnovers.  Until Flacco figures out how to play against the Steelers defense and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, and despite wanting to pick the Ravens, I’m going black and yellow.  Flacco’s 2-5 in seven starts against Pittsburgh.  Roethlisberger is 6-0 in his last six starts against Baltimore.  I’ll bank on Big Ben making a few more plays than Jersey Joe.  Steelers in squeeker.


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