NFL Playoff Preview - Baltimore (13-4) at Pittsburgh (13-4)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A 16-game regular-season schedule and two head-to-head meetings did little to distinguish the Pittsburgh Steelers from the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North race.
Therefore, it's only fitting that these heated division rivals will again be locking horns in Saturday's AFC Divisional Playoffs, where considerably more than simple bragging rights will be at stake.
Both the Steelers and Ravens concluded the regular season with 12-4 records while splitting the home-and-home series, with both contests each decided by three points and neither outcome determined until the final minutes. Baltimore rallied for a 17-14 triumph at Heinz Field in Week 4, with quarterback Joe Flacco's touchdown strike to wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh with 32 seconds remaining accounting for the winning margin, while Pittsburgh exacted revenge with a 13-10 decision on the road on Dec. 5, going ahead for good on a late touchdown set up by playmaking safety Troy Polamalu's sack of Flacco that forced a fumble.
Close calls are nothing new when these two evenly-matched combatants get together. Six of the past seven games between the Steelers and Ravens have had a final difference of four points or less, and the teams have gone into overtime three times during that stretch.
Pittsburgh was granted the AFC North title by virtue of a better record than the Ravens within the division, which also gave the Black and Gold the conference's No. 2 overall seed, an opening-round bye in the playoffs, and the right to host Saturday's tilt.
Baltimore may be coming in as the hotter team, however. The Ravens won their final four tests of the regular season following their frustrating Week 13 defeat to Pittsburgh, then ran roughshod over AFC West champion Kansas City in last Sunday's Wild Card Round to keep their Super Bowl dreams alive.
A determined Baltimore defense limited the Chiefs to a paltry 161 total yards -- including 25 in the second half -- in the 30-7 rout, while Flacco did his part by setting franchise postseason records with 265 passing yards and a pair of touchdown throws.
Saturday's matchup will likely be a sterner challenge, however, especially considering Pittsburgh's success in this series when Roethlisberger has played. The standout signal-caller owns an 8-2 lifetime record against the Ravens and has guided the Steelers to victory in each of his last six tussles with Baltimore.
Roethlisberger, who's also guided Pittsburgh to eight wins in 10 career postseason starts, was not available for the Steelers' early-October loss to the Ravens while serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.
The Steelers closed out the regular season by winning six of their last seven outings and secured the division crown with a 41-9 thrashing of Cleveland in Week 17, with Roethlisberger throwing for 280 yards and two scores on a sharp 15-of-22 passing.
This will be the third time the Steelers and Ravens have squared off in the postseason, with Pittsburgh winning the first two meetings. The Steelers trumped Baltimore by a 23-14 score at Heinz Field in the 2008 AFC Championship, and also posted a 27-10 home victory in a 2001 AFC Divisional Playoff.
Pittsburgh holds an 18-12 lead in the all-time regular-season series between the clubs following this year's aforementioned season split. Including the playoffs, the Ravens had lost in four straight trips to Heinz Field prior to their Week 4 win, and they're just 2-9 over their 11 most recent stops in the Steel City.
Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh owns a 4-2 career postseason record, including a 1-1 mark in the Divisional Round, but is only 2-5 lifetime against the Steelers. Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin has a 3-1 playoff record and a 6-3 overall mark versus the Ravens, and is 5-2 in head-to-head encounters with Harbaugh.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Flacco's outstanding showing against the Chiefs was a welcome sight, as not only had the third-year pro struggled in five previous playoff appearances, but the Ravens will need to be effective throwing the ball in order to solve a stern Pittsburgh defense that's tops in the NFL against the run. The 25-year- old did complete a solid 24-of-37 attempts for 256 yards and the go-ahead touchdown in Baltimore's Week 4 win at Heinz Field, and managed 266 yards through the air in the early-December rematch. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin (64 receptions, 7 TD) also had a productive night in that loss, gaining 118 yards on five catches, and the first-year Raven combines with steady 14-year vet Derrick Mason (61 receptions, 7 TD) to give Flacco (3622 passing yards, 25 TD, 10 INT) two quality outside targets. Tight end Todd Heap (40 receptions, 5 TD) was the go-to guy in the Wild Card win, however, with the two-time Pro Bowler establishing club playoff bests of 10 catches and 108 receiving yards. The backfield tandem of Ray Rice (1220 rushing yards, 63 receptions, 6 total TD) and Willis McGahee (380 rushing yards, 14 receptions, 6 total TD) has had trouble getting untracked in recent skirmishes with the Steelers, as the Ravens averaged under three yards per rush attempt in the two previous bouts this season.
Pittsburgh has been consistently able to shut down enemy ground attacks all throughout this 2010 campaign, having yielded league-lows of 62.8 rushing yards per game and 3.0 yards per carry. A stout front seven anchored by active inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons (135 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) and James Farrior (109 tackles, 6 sacks) held Baltimore to a meager 43 yards on the ground in Week 13, while Polamalu's (63 tackles, 1 sack, 7 INT) game-changing sack of Flacco was one of four generated by coordinator Dick LeBeau's blitz-happy scheme on the evening. The soft-spoken safety has also come up with five interceptions in his last five games and along with cornerback Ike Taylor (66 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT), has galvanized a defense that surrendered a mere 138.3 passing yards and recorded seven picks over the regular season's final four weeks. The secondary has gotten help from the pass-rushing exploits of outside linebackers James Harrison (100 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 2 INT) and LaMarr Woodley (50 tackles, 10 sacks, 2 INT), the top pressure-producers of a unit that topped the NFL with 48 sacks.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
As has been the case for most of this season's second half, expect the Steelers to rely on the powerful right arm of Roethlisberger (3200 passing yards, 17 TD, 5 INT) come Saturday. The battle-tested quarterback averaged over 285 passing yards over the final eight games and enters the playoffs on a career-best streak of 158 consecutive attempts without an interception. He'll be looking in the direction of sure-handed veteran Hines Ward (59 receptions, 5 TD) to move the chains, while taking a few shots deep to wide receiver Mike Wallace (60 receptions, 1257 yards, 10 TD), who's emerged as one of the league's best big- play performers in his second season. The young speedster averaged an excellent 21 yards per catch in 2010, while all but one of his team-best 10 touchdown grabs have been from 29 yards out or more. Trusty tight end Heath Miller (42 receptions, 2 TD) and promising rookie receiver Emmanuel Sanders (28 receptions, 2 TD) round out a solid pass-catching corps that complements the rushing talents of workhorse running back Rashard Mendenhall (1273 rushing yards, 13 TD, 23 receptions), who finished second in the AFC in both carries (324) and rushing touchdowns (13).
The Steelers aren't the only team in this clash that excels at stopping the run. Baltimore ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing defense (93.9 ypg) during the regular season and did a very good job containing Mendenhall in the two prior meetings, with the Pittsburgh factor back mustering a non-threatening 2.8 yards per attempt. The Ravens were even more impressive against the pass in their last game, however, reducing the Chiefs to an anemic 53 yards through the air and sacking quarterback Matt Cassel three times, with Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (68 tackles, 11 sacks) registering two of those takedowns. Baltimore also picked off Cassel three times, while a secondary headlined by ball-hawking free safety Ed Reed (37 tackles, 8 INT, 16 PD) and unheralded cornerback Josh Wilson (40 tackles, 3 INT, 14 PD) held dangerous receiver Dwayne Bowe without a catch. Suggs was also a factor in the Week 13 loss to Pittsburgh, delivering 1 1/2 sacks of Roethlisberger while being credited for five quarterback hurries, while inside linebacker and emotional leader Ray Lewis (139 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) had 13 tackles (12 solo) and a forced fumble in that game. Count on the fiery 35-year-old and massive lineman Haloti Ngata (63 tackles, 5.5 sacks) both making their presence felt up front.
In a game that could come down to the kickers, both sides appear to be in good shape at the position. Baltimore's Billy Cundiff was named to the AFC's Pro Bowl roster after connecting on 26-of-29 field goal attempts, while the Steelers' Shaun Suisham made good on 14-of-15 tries -- including 8-of-9 from beyond 40 yards -- after replacing incumbent Jeff Reed at midseason. The Ravens have a clear edge on kickoffs, though, as Cundiff tied a league record with 40 touchbacks.
Punter Sam Koch (43.6 avg.) also made a significant impact for Baltimore, pinning 39 kicks inside the opponent's 20-yard line and helping his team place fourth in the NFL in net punting (39.2 avg.). Rookie David Reed averaged a terrific 29.3 yards on kick returns and may be back from a wrist injury that's held him out of the Ravens' past three contests. Reserve running back Jalen Parmele (23.4 avg.) has been handling those duties in Reed's absence, with sophomore corner Lardarius Webb (9.5 avg.) the primary punt returner who had a season-best 35-yard runback against the Steelers in December.
Pittsburgh endured a key special teams loss when strong-legged punter Daniel Sepulveda (45.5 avg.) suffered a season-ending torn ACL in the Week 13 win over Baltimore. Replacement Jeremy Kapinos (41.1 avg.) has been a downgrade, though the journeyman has put five of his 14 attempts inside the 20. With Sanders (25.1 avg.) earning a greater role on offense late in the season, fellow rookie Antonio Brown (23.4 avg., 1 TD) added kick-returning assignments to his chores as the Steelers' main punt returner, where he's averaged a pedestrian 6.1 yards for the year.
History says this game is going to be both highly competitive and low scoring, with the end result likely determined by a handful of important plays. Playing at home should benefit the Steelers, who may have two other distinct advantages that could very well work in their favor. One is Wallace, the best candidate to come up with a momentum-changing spark in what figures to be a typical defensive struggle. The other is Roethlisberger, whose astounding playoff track record and past success against the Ravens are clear-cut positives. In a matchup where quarterback play is going to be essential to the final outcome, go with the team led by the guy with a pair of Super Bowl rings.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 17, Ravens 13
01/12 15:32:30 ET