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NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (6-4) at Baltimore (5-5)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A Super Bowl berth was on the line the last time the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens renewed their bitter rivalry. While the stakes won't be quite as high when the two AFC North inhabitants square off this Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, both teams still have plenty of incentive for this primetime showdown.
Ten months after competing in the AFC Championship Game, the Steelers and Ravens each find themselves on the fringe of the conference's playoff picture entering the final six weeks of this season. Baltimore's predicament is particularly perilous, as last Sunday's painfully-tough loss to the still- unbeaten Indianapolis Colts dropped the club to 5-5 on the year and a game off the pace in the Wild Card race.
The defending world champion Steelers, who downed Baltimore by a 23-14 count for the right to represent the AFC in last February's Big Game, are in better shape in regards to their postseason hopes, but still trail surprising Cincinnati by one game for first place in the competitive AFC North. The Bengals also hold the tiebreaker in the event the teams wind up with the same final record, by virtue of having already swept its season series with Pittsburgh.
At 6-4, the Steelers are presently tied with Jacksonville and Denver for the AFC's two Wild Card spots, but missed out on a chance to move in front of those squads after being dealt a startling overtime loss by non-contending Kansas City this past weekend. Despite outgaining the Chiefs by a sizeable 515-282 margin in total yards, Pittsburgh committed three turnovers and had a costly breakdown on special teams that resulted in a 27-24 defeat.
The Steelers allowed Kansas City's Jamaal Charles to run back the opening kickoff 97 yards and gave up a 61-yard pass to wide receiver Chris Chambers in overtime that set up the winning points. And while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger piled up 398 passing yards and three touchdowns on the day, Pittsburgh's hard-nosed field general was intercepted two times and had one of those picks stall a potential scoring drive deep in Chiefs' territory.
Roethlisberger also failed to finish out the game after suffering a concussion when being sacked on the Steelers' only drive of overtime, and the incident is expected to keep the two-time Super Bowl winner from suiting up on Sunday. Following an injury to former backup Charlie Batch's left wrist last week, second-year-man Dennis Dixon could be in line for his first career NFL start on Sunday night.
Dixon, the former University of Oregon star, has thrown one career NFL pass.
Pittsburgh will also be without playmaking safety Troy Polamalu for a second straight contest due to a left knee sprain the five-time Pro Bowler incurred in his team's 18-12 loss at Cincinnati back in Week 10.
The Ravens won't have one of their defensive stars available for Sunday's clash as well, with outside linebacker and proven pass rusher Terrell Suggs still dealing with a sprained knee that forced him to exit Baltimore's 16-0 win at Cleveland on November 16.
The Steelers hold a 16-10 edge in the all-time regular season series with the Ravens, including a sweep of last year's home-and-home. Pittsburgh scored a 23-20 home win in overtime when the teams met in a Monday Night contest in Week 4, then wrapped up the AFC North title with a 13-9 win at M&T Bank Stadium in Week 15. The clubs embarked on a conventional home-and-home split of the 2007 series, including a 27-21 home victory for Baltimore over the Steelers.
Pittsburgh is 2-0 against Baltimore in the postseason all-time. In addition to last year's aforementioned win for the Steelers in the AFC Championship, Pittsburgh also earned a 27-10 triumph in a 2001 AFC Divisional Playoff at Heinz Field.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is 4-1 against the Ravens in his career, while Baltimore's John Harbaugh is 0-3 against both Tomlin and Pittsburgh as a head coach.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Pittsburgh sports the NFL's fifth-ranked passing offense (268.1 ypg), but the likely absence of one of the game's most resourceful quarterbacks in Roethlisberger (2867 passing yards, 17 TD, 10 INT) figures to cut into that number. Dixon's objective will be getting the ball into the sure hands of wide receivers Hines Ward (63 receptions, 798 yards, 5 TD) and Santonio Holmes (50 receptions, 764, 1 TD), as well as finding standout tight end Heath Miller (54 receptions, 5 TD) over the middle. Ward clearly hasn'tlost a step at age 33, as evidenced by last week's 10-catch, 128-yard outing against the Chiefs, while Miller contributed a season-best 95 yards and a touchdown on seven grabs in the frustrating loss. The younger players have made an impact as well, with sophomore Rashard Mendenhall (689 rushing yards, 14 receptions, 5 total TD) averaging over 90 rushing yards per game since taking over as the Steelers' main running back in early October, and rookie wideout Mike Wallace (28 receptions, 3 TD) providing big-play potential as the No. 3 receiver. Pittsburgh will be without its best run blocker on Sunday after rugged left guard Chris Kemoeatu left the Kansas City game with a sprained knee, a significant blow to a ground game that's been inconsistent over the course of this year.
The Steelers may have found establishing the run a challenge anyway, considering the Ravens are yielding a scant 92.1 rushing yards per game (5th overall) and 3.5 yards per attempt. Two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Ray Lewis (83 tackles, 2 sacks) remains the headliner of a formidable front seven that also sports two excellent anchors up front in linemen Haloti Ngata (20 tackles, 0.5 sacks) and Kelly Gregg (37 tackles). Throwing the ball seems to be an easier task on a Baltimore defense that ranks a so-so 17th against the pass (217.9 ypg) and lost starting corner Fabian Washington (36 tackles, 6 PD) to a season-ending ACL tear in last week's loss. The absence of Suggs (42 tackles, 3.5 sacks), who's garnered eight or more sacks in five of his first six NFL campaigns, compounds matters as well, although outside linebacker Jarret Johnson (37 tackles, 6 sacks) and veteran end Trevor Pryce (22 tackles, 5 sacks) are both effective at getting to the quarterback. Sacking Roethlisberger hasn't been all that difficult this year, as the competitive quarterback has been brought down 30 times in Pittsburgh's 10 games. Perennial Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed (42 tackles, 3 INT, 3 forced fumbles) and counterpart Dawan Landry (51 tackles, 4 INT, 6 PD) are adept at forcing turnovers, and their job would be made easier if the Ravens are able to generate consistent pressure.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Baltimore's 13th-rated offense (349.4 ypg) is centered around the considerable talents of young running back Ray Rice (733 rushing yards, 56 receptions, 7 total TD), who's quickly emerged as one of the NFL's premier weapons out of the backfield. The versatile 22-year-old leads all backs in both catches and receiving yards (515) in addition to averaging a robust 5.0 yards per rush attempt, and he hasn't fumbled once despite touching the ball over 200 times this year. Fellow second-year pro Joe Flacco (2455 passing yards, 12 TD, 8 INT) has made noticeable strides as well as the team's quarterback, often displaying uncommon poise and sound decision-making skills to complement a rocket throwing arm. Unheralded wide receiver Derrick Mason (45 receptions, 672 yards, 4 TD) remains the Ravens' top target in the passing game and is on pace for an eighth career 1,000-yard season, one highlighted by a terrific nine-catch, 142-yard outburst in last week's narrow loss to the Colts. While Baltimore is very good at protecting the football, having committed only 11 turnovers in its 10 games, the offense could be more productive within the red zone. The Ravens moved inside the Indianapolis 20-yard line four times last Sunday, but settled for field goal attempts by newly-signed kicker Billy Cundiff on each occasion.
Baltimore faces a tough chore this week from a Pittsburgh defense that has permitted the fewest total yards (277.9 ypg) and rushing yards in the league, and is tied for second overall with 30 sacks. Opponents are managing a paltry 69.2 yards per game on the ground against an accomplished group led by four- time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton (25 tackles, 2 sacks) and steady inside linebacker James Farrior (66 tackles, 2 sacks), while 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison (55 tackles, 4 forced fumbles) has amassed 10 sacks from his outside linebacker spot. The Steelers, who enter Sunday's test having not allowed an enemy running back to eclipse 100 yards in 28 straight regular-season games, have also received strong years out of linebackers LaMarr Woodley (24 tackles, 5 sacks) and Lawrence Timmons (41 tackles, 4 sacks) and cornerback Ike Taylor (45 tackles, 11 PD), while capable reserve Tyrone Carter (26 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) has stepped in nicely in the five games Polamalu has missed due to two separate knee injuries. Woodley had two of Pittsburgh's five sacks of the Chiefs' Matt Cassel last week and got to the quarterback 11 1/2 times during a breakthrough 2008 season.
Defense usually reigns supreme whenever these two divisional foes get together, and this week shouldn't be any different. The Steelers would have seemed to have an opportunity to get some yards through the air on Baltimore's nicked-up defense, but the probable absence of Roethlisberger makes Ward, Holmes and Miller all risky plays. Rice probably won't be the one to end Pittsburgh's string of not allowing a 100-yard rusher, but the gritty Baltimore back should still make a fantasy impact as the focal point of his team's offense. Mason is a reliable choice as well at wide receiver, and Flacco could be worth a flier with the Ravens likely passing more due to the Steelers' prowess against the run. While Mendenhall doesn't have many threats to his workload anymore, Pittsburgh's primary runner could see some stacked fronts against a Baltimore defense likely to challenge Dixon to throw. Start both defenses in a matchup where points could be at a premium, and sacks and turnovers may be prevalent.
Forget the fact that the Ravens lost to the Steelers three times last season, with two of those losses coming in gut-wrenching fashion. This game will be more about necessity than revenge, and Baltimore's backs are clearly against the wall at this point. While it's very hard to envision a team that's been as successful as the Steelers losing in three straight weeks, last Sunday's setback to the overmatched Chiefs may turn out to be more revealing than initially perceived. Whomever wins the turnover battle has a good chance of coming out on top in this one, and the Ravens have been the more proficient team in that area this season. Flacco's going to have to play well for Baltimore to overtake a Pittsburgh squad that surely will be motivated for this one - with or without Roethlisberger - and the feeling here is that Roethlisberger will.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 16, Steelers 13
11/28 16:30:54 ET