NFL Preview - Baltimore (8-6) at Pittsburgh (7-7)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The NFL's schedule makers probably figured that this weekend's matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field would be a late-season clash with the AFC North title on the line.
While the game will factor into the division crown for one team, the Steelers and Ravens, who met last year in the AFC Championship Game, instead find themselves battling not for an AFC North crown or first-round bye, but for their respective playoff lives.
Inconsistency has plagued the Ravens all year, as they are 8-6 and currently hold one of the two AFC Wild Card spots. And although they have won two straight, beating Detroit and Chicago by a combined 79-10 margin over the past two weeks, it does mark only the team's first winning streak since starting the season 3-0.
The two-game burst has also allowed Baltimore to move within one game of division-leading Cincinnati, losers of two straight, but the Ravens' shot at their first AFC North title since 2006 ends with their next loss or the Bengals' next victory.
Still, Baltimore is closing in on a second straight playoff appearance. That quest needs another win this weekend, and there are three different scenarios in which the Ravens can wrap a playoff spot with a victory and a combination of losses or ties by Jacksonville, the New York Jets, Denver and Miami.
The Ravens have used a soft spot in their schedule to strengthen their position, as they pounded the Lions, 48-3, two weekends ago before last Sunday's 31-7 victory over the Bears.
Baltimore did it with offense and defense last week, as quarterback Joe Flacco threw a career-high four touchdown passes and the Ravens defense matched a team record with six turnovers. Four of those came on interceptions, and the club notched 24 points off Chicago miscues.
The Ravens did not come out of the game unscathed, though. Cornerback Lardarius Webb is out for the season after suffering a torn ACL, while safety Ed Reed missed his third game in a row due to hip and groin issues. That led to Baltimore adding depth on Tuesday with the signings of corner Corey Ivy and safety Keith Fitzhugh.
Baltimore ends its regular-season next weekend in Oakland and is just 2-4 on the road this year.
Meanwhile, the Steelers try to keep their playoff hopes alive this Sunday. They are one of six 7-7 teams that are chasing the 8-4 Ravens and Broncos for the Wild Card spots and ended a five-game losing streak -- which included an overtime loss to the Ravens on November 29 -- on Sunday with a last-second 37-36 victory over Green Bay.
As the game went back-and-forth in a final quarter which saw a combined 35 points scored, it was Pittsburgh left standing when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found Mike Wallace in the front left corner of the end zone with no time left on the clock. Wallace made a diving catch on the play, which was ruled a touchdown, and a video review confirmed he kept both feet in bounds.
Wallace ended with two catches, both touchdowns, while Roethlisberger threw for a franchise record 503 yards with three scoring passes.
Pittsburgh did lose long snapper Greg Warren to a torn ACL in his right knee on the game's final play, prompting the team to sign Jared Retkofsky as a replacement on Tuesday.
The Steelers improved to 5-2 at home and will end their season at Miami on January 3.
The Steelers hold a 16-11 edge in the all-time regular season series with the Ravens, but were 20-17 overtime losers when the teams met in Baltimore in Week 12. Pittsburgh swept last year's home-and-home, scoring a 23-20 home win in overtime when the teams met in a Monday Night contest in Week 4, then wrapping up the AFC North title with a 13-9 win at M&T Bank Stadium in Week 15.
Pittsburgh is 2-0 against Baltimore in the postseason all-time. In addition to last year's 23-14 win for the Steelers in the AFC Championship, Pittsburgh also earned a 27-10 triumph in a 2001 AFC Divisional Playoff at Heinz Field.
Including playoffs, the Ravens are 0-3 in Pittsburgh since winning there in 2006.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is 4-2 against the Ravens in his career, while Baltimore's John Harbaugh is 1-3 against both Tomlin and Pittsburgh as a head coach.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
The Steelers will need to zero in on stopping running back Ray Rice (1128 rushing yards, 73 receptions, 8 total TD) if they hope to contain the Ravens' offense. Rice needs just 203 yards from scrimmage over the next two games to become the first Baltimore player to reach 2,000 in a season since Jamal Lewis in 2003. Rice ran for 87 yards on 16 carries and added five receptions for 17 yards versus the Bears before taking an early seat. He totaled 155 yards from scrimmage the last time he faced the Steelers. Flacco (3345 passing yards, 19 TD, 11 INT) threw for 289 yards with a touchdown pass in that win over Pittsburgh, and completed a pair of scoring throws to tight end Todd Heap (49 receptions, 4 TD) this past weekend. Wideouts Demetrius Williams and Derrick Mason (65 receptions, 7 TD) also hauled in scoring throws, with Mason adding his 850th career catch in the game. He needs 72 receiving yards to become the first Raven to reach 1,000 in three straight seasons. Willis McGahee (360 rushing yards, 9 TD) notched a short TD run versus the Steelers in November, while kicker Billy Cundiff hit a pair of field goals in that game.
Getting into the backfield may be key for the Steelers to win this game. Putting pressure on Flacco shouldn't be a big issue, as Pittsburgh is tied for second in the NFL with 40 sacks. However, they did manage to get to Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers just once, even though he leads the league in sacks taken. That sack was split between nose tackle Casey Hampton (38 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and linebacker LaMarr Woodley (49 tackles, 9.5 sacks). Flacco may see a lot of Woodley this weekend, as he is second on the team in sacks behind only linebacker James Harrison (71 tackles, 10 sacks), the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. With safety Troy Polamalu (20 tackles, 3 INT) likely to miss his sixth straight game and 10th this year due to a left knee injury, the pressure will be on safeties Ryan Clark (75 tackles, 2 INT) and Tyrone Carter (53 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) to help the secondary and make sure Rice doesn't break off a big one in the passing or run game. Pittsburgh, though, is the league's top-ranked run defense, allowing 83.1 yards per game, and is sixth in total defense (304.2 ypg). However, the club is 11th in scoring defense at 20 points allowed per game.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Thanks to Roethlisberger's big game last weekend, the Steelers rank sixth in passing yards (264.9 ypg) and eighth in total offense (375.1 ypg). Roethlisberger (3849 passing yards, 22 TD, 11 INT) also helped guide Pittsburgh to its second-highest scoring output this season, behind only the 38 points the team totaled versus San Diego on October 4, and has surpassed Terry Bradshaw's single-season team record of 3,724 passing yards set in 1979. Roethlisberger, who missed the teams' first meeting of the season due to a concussion, has eight touchdown passes and 901 passing yards to just one interception in his last four games (including playoffs) versus the Ravens, while wideout Santonio Holmes (73 receptions, 3 TD) has seven touchdown receptions in his last six versus Baltimore. Holmes had three catches for 77 yards versus the Packers and wide receiver Hines Ward (83 receptions, 6 TD) had seven receptions for 126 yards, with both wideouts going over 1,000 yards receiving on the season. Tight end Heath Miller (68 receptions, 5 TD) also had a big game, posting seven catches for 118 yards, while running back Rashard Mendenhall (978 rushing yards, 6 TD) managed only 38 rushing yards on 11 carries. With wide receiver Limas Sweed getting placed on the reserve/non- football illness list on Tuesday, the Steelers signed veteran Joey Galloway.
The Ravens defense has dominated opponents over the last two weekends, holding the Lions to three points and 229 yards of offense on December 13 before limiting the Bears to seven points and 220 yards last Sunday. Baltimore now ranks second in scoring defense (16.1 ppg) and fourth in total defense (299.8 ypg). Baltimore may dare Roethlisberger to throw again in this game, as its 20 interceptions this year are fifth-most in the NFL. Eight of those picks have come in the last three games, with cornerback Domonique Foxworth (46 tackles, 3 INT) grabbing two of the Ravens' four picks versus Chicago. Linebacker Jarret Johnson (48 tackles, 6 sacks, 2 INT) and corner Frank Walker also had interceptions. With Webb (35 tackles, 1 sack), who also returned kicks, suffering a torn ACL in last weekend's game, Chris Carr (29 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) will start opposite of Foxworth. Linebacker Ray Lewis (117 tackles, 3 sacks) had a team-high nine tackles and a sack last weekend versus Chicago, while safety Tom Zbikowski (26 tackles, 2 INT), starting again in place of Reed (45 tackles, 3 INT), had seven stops. Nose tackle Kelly Gregg (54 tackles, 1 sack) also came away with a sack last weekend and linebacker Terrell Suggs (51 tackles, 3.5 sacks) made five tackles.
The Ravens were able to rest a few of their starters late in last weekend's blowout win, but that won't happen in this one unless they somehow jump out and hold a big lead. Barring that circumstance, Rice remains a must-start, while McGahee, a touchdown vulture, is a sleeper play in deep leagues because of his high scoring total. Flacco is also coming off a big game and may need to throw again this weekend due to the Steelers' strong run defense. He should also face pressure, so see if there are better options available before rolling with Flacco. Mason and Heap are good plays, while Cundiff has missed three of his 10 field goal attempts since joining the club last month. That includes a pair from inside 40 yards. Baltimore's defense is good, but is not a sure thing this weekend.
It appears as if the Steelers' run game will not be coming out of its slump anytime soon, so Mendenhall's value is limited. However, Roethlisberger, Ward, Holmes and Miller are all good fantasy options because of it. Holmes has the better big-play ability, but Ward and Miller are favorite targets of Big Ben. Roethlisberger likely won't come near matching last week's production, but don't be afraid to ride a hot hand. The Steelers' defense hasn't lived up to its preseason hype and isn't a sure thing this weekend. Kicker Jeff Reed is 21-of-25 on field goal tries this year, and three of those four misses have come from beyond 40 yards.
This contest was looking like a sure Ravens win until the Steelers ended their five-game skid in a big way last weekend. Though Pittsburgh's defense has been less than impressive at times, Roethlisberger seems intent on not letting his offense be the reason Pittsburgh is defeated on the field. The Steelers dropped a tough overtime decision in Baltimore a few weeks ago without Roethlisberger, and even if they don't reach the postseason, they would love to be the reason the Ravens join them on the couch this January. Both clubs really need this victory, but Baltimore's inconsistency makes them a tough team to predict. That is why we will go with the home team in this one on a late field goal.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 24, Ravens 21
12/24 09:33:59 ET