NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (8-3) at Baltimore (8-3)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Anytime the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens get together on the gridiron, it's a big deal for each team. But the stakes and the intensity will be a little greater than usual this Sunday, when the two bitter rivals square off at M&T Bank Stadium in a primetime grudge match that stands as one of the highlights of the Week 13 schedule.
Both clubs are presently deadlocked atop the AFC North standings with identical 8-3 records entering the regular-season's final five weeks, meaning Sunday's winner will hold a clear advantage towards claiming the division title and possibly a first-round bye in the upcoming conference playoffs as well. The matchup is especially crucial for the Steelers, who would be faced with essentially a two-game deficit if they lose due to the Ravens having prevailed in the first meeting between the foes earlier in the year.
Baltimore rallied for a 17-14 decision over Pittsburgh in the Steel City back in Week 4, with young quarterback Joe Flacco orchestrating a late touchdown drive capped by his go-ahead 18-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh with only 34 seconds left to play. The Ravens' defense played a major role in the key victory as well, limiting the Steelers to a mere 210 total yards and coming up with two pivotal stops in the final three minutes.
Pittsburgh did play that contest without the services of starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was finishing out a season-opening four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, and the two-time Super Bowl champion is expected to be on the field on Sunday despite aggravating an existing injury to his right foot in last weekend's 19-16 overtime win at Buffalo. Since-released kicker Jeff Reed also misfired on a pair of field goal attempts for the Steelers in that early October clash.
Shaun Suisham has since replaced Reed and was one of Pittsburgh's heroes in the hard-fought triumph over the Bills, with the well-traveled specialist connecting on all four of his three-point tries, each from 41 yards out or more. The Steelers also had a little help from their opponent, as Buffalo receiver Steve Johnson dropped a would-be game-winning touchdown pass during the overtime session.
Last Sunday's verdict improved Pittsburgh to 5-1 on the road this season and was the team's third in its last four outings. Improving that glossy away mark figures to be a challenge, however, considering Baltimore is 5-0 at home thus far in 2010 and has ripped off eight consecutive wins at M&T Bank Stadium dating back to last year.
The Ravens extended that impressive streak with a 17-10 besting of upstart Tampa Bay this past Sunday, with Flacco throwing for 289 yards and two touchdowns and the defense holding the young Buccaneers to 263 total yards, its lowest amount since the Week 4 game against the Roethlisberger-less Steelers.
Baltimore, victors in four of its last five tilts overall, has yielded an average of 14.4 points over the course of its unbeaten run at home.
The Steelers hold a 17-12 lead in their regular-season series against Baltimore, with the Ravens closing the gap with the aforementioned three-point win in Pittsburgh during Week 4, but have lost in six of their last seven visits to M&T Bank Stadium. The Steelers' only victory over that span came via a 13-9 verdict in 2008, and the Ravens came through with a 23-20 overtime decision when the teams met in Baltimore last season. Three of the last seven games between the clubs held in the Charm City have been decided in OT.
Baltimore has produced a home-and-home sweep of the Steelers just once in its 15-year history, taking both encounters back in 2006.
Pittsburgh is 2-0 against Baltimore in postseason play. In addition to a 23-14 home win for the Steelers in the 2008 AFC Championship, Pittsburgh also earned a 27-10 triumph in a 2001 AFC Divisional Playoff at Heinz Field.
Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh improved to 2-4 all-time against the Steelers with October's win, while Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin owns a 5-3 overall record versus the Ravens and is 4-2 in head-to-head matchups with Harbaugh.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
This will definitely be a much different Pittsburgh offense than the one the Ravens saw in October, as the Steelers are a far more balanced and dangerous group with Roethlisberger (1825 passing yards, 12 TD, 4 INT) under center. The team has averaged nearly 250 passing yards per game since the standout signal- caller returned from his early-season ban, compared to a subpar output of 136 per week when reserves Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch were at the controls early on. The receiving corps has remained status quo, however, with crafty veteran Hines Ward (40 receptions, 4 TD) continuing to be Roethlisberger's go- to guy in tough spots and second-year speedster Mike Wallace (36 receptions, 792 yards, 8 TD) the field-stretching deep threat. Ward is coming off a seven- catch, 107-yard performance against the Bills and Wallace, the NFL's leader in yards per reception (22.0), had a string of three straight games of eclipsing the century mark in receiving yards end last week. Pittsburgh is capable of pounding the ball on the ground as well, ranking ninth in the league in rushing yards (126.0 ypg), and ran for a season-best 206 yards in the Week 12 victory over Buffalo. Workhorse back Rashard Mendenhall (962 rushing yards, 9 TD, 16 receptions) did the heavy lifting in that one, piling up 151 yards and a touchdown on a career-high 36 carries. The 2008 first-round pick entered this week's play with the most rush attempts (238) of any individual player.
Roethlisberger will be attempting to navigate a stout Baltimore defense that's tied for seventh in the NFL against the pass (205.6 ypg) and frustrated Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman into an off-target 46 percent (17-of-37) completion rate a week ago. Although the cornerback play has been inconsistent, the Ravens do possess one of the game's premier playmakers in the secondary in free safety Ed Reed (15 tackles, 4 INT, 9 PD), who was unavailable for these teams' earlier meeting while recovering from offseason hip surgery. The perennial All-Pro has certainly made his mark since coming back in late October, compiling four interceptions in five games and being credited for five pass breakups in last Sunday's triumph. Baltimore has managed a modest 19 sacks for the season, but outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (50 tackles, 7.5 sacks) and lineman Haloti Ngata (50 tackles, 5 sacks) are both quality pass rushers who could create some uncomfortable moments for Roethlisberger, who was taken to the turf five times by the Bills in Week 12. Ngata had a monster showing in the Week 4 win over the Steelers, amassing 11 tackles and a sack to spearhead the team's strong overall effort. Inside linebacker and emotional leader Ray Lewis (95 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) was also a factor in that game, making nine stops as well as a late interception while helping hold Mendenhall to 79 yards on 25 totes.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
If the Ravens are to come out on top in this critical showdown, it's imperative that Flacco (2722 passing yards, 18 TD, 8 INT) continues to perform at the high level he's been at as of late. The 25-year-old has been one of the league's best quarterbacks over the past seven weeks, having made good on a sharp 68 percent of his throws and delivering 13 touchdown passes against just two interceptions during that six-game stretch, and he's been picked off only one time at home this year. Though offseason addition Anquan Boldin (51 receptions, 6 TD) is still viewed as the headliner of a high-caliber cast of receivers, fellow wideout Derrick Mason (45 receptions, 4 TD) and tight end Todd Heap (37 receptions, 5 TD) have had better recent production as opponents have shown a tendency to roll coverage Boldin's way. The 36-year-old Mason came through with 87 yards and a touchdown on eight catches versus the Bucs, while Heap hooked up with Flacco for a career-long 65-yard score in last Sunday's win. Baltimore also has an outstanding receiver out of the backfield in running back Ray Rice (815 rushing yards, 3 TD, 47 receptions), whom the Steelers will need to account for as well. The Ravens will go into Sunday's bout with a few injury concerns, with valuable fullback and Rice's lead blocker Le'Ron McClain (64 rushing yards, 15 receptions) very questionable after spraining an ankle against the Bucs and starting linemen Michael Oher (knee sprain) and Chris Chester (cellulitis) also dealing with injuries, though both are expected to play.
Flacco's going to need to be on top of his game once again, as it's likely the Ravens will encounter trouble trying to run on a fierce Pittsburgh defense that's permitted league-bests of 64.0 rushing yards per game and 3.0 yards per carry on the season and made Rice (eight rushes, 20 yards) a non-factor in that area back in October. Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons (97 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT), who posted 15 tackles in the Week 4 loss to Baltimore, heads up a formidable interior core anchored by five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton (10 tackles, 1 sack), and the unit's play hasn't dropped off despite sturdy end Aaron Smith having missed the last five games with a triceps tear. Teams have been able to gain yards through the air on the Steelers, who rate just 22nd overall in pass defense (240.5 ypg), but a secondary featuring game- changing strong safety Troy Polamalu (55 tackles, 4 INT, 7 PD) has garnered 13 interceptions and allowed just 12 touchdown throws thus far. The backfield is aided by the excellent pass-rushing combo of outside linebackers James Harrison (75 tackles, 10 sacks, 2 INT) and LaMarr Woodley (37 tackles, 6.5 sacks), with the former riding a two-game tear in which he's registered three sacks and two forced fumbles along with an interception.
Defense is usually the first subject that comes to mind regarding these two teams, but there are still quite a few worthwhile fantasy options on the other side of the ball to choose from here. Mendenhall is the one obvious lock as Pittsburgh's unquestioned featured back, and while Rice will find the rushing yards tough to come by in this matchup, his potential as a receiver still makes him useful in most formats. Mason's recent reemergence has made the accomplished vet close to Boldin's equal from a production standpoint, and both receivers look like solid plays in a game where the Ravens may have to air it out a bunch. If that's indeed the case, both Flacco and Heap get boosts in value that should help their owners' prospects as well. Wallace is the clear-cut Steelers receiver to have from a fantasy perspective, as both Ward and tight end Heath Miller's up-and-down weekly numbers assigns risk to each. Roethlisberger has been a good fantasy quarterback since returning to action, albeit not an elite one. Finally, start both defenses but look elsewhere at the kicker position, as neither Suisham nor Baltimore's Billy Cundiff's career track records are anything special.
Five of the past six meetings between these two hated foes have been decided by four or less points, so it's reasonable to expect another slugfest where the outcome won't be determined until the final stages. From what's transpired over the last few weeks, the belief here is that the Ravens are the more complete team at the moment, as the only thing preventing Harbaugh's squad from entering this monumental matchup on a five-game win streak was a last- second touchdown drive Baltimore allowed in a mid-November setback at NFC front-runner Atlanta. On the other hand, the Steelers looked overmatched in a 13-point home loss to mighty New England just three weeks back and had their hands completely full with the lowly Bills last Sunday. Factor in the Ravens' success at home and Pittsburgh's lack thereof at M&T Bank Stadium in past years, and the trends seem to favor Baltimore. The Ravens are going have to throw the ball effectively to win, but it's debatable as to whether the Steelers can prevent them from doing so with Flacco having played so well lately.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 23, Steelers 17
12/03 12:12:18 ET