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This has all the makings of a classic defensive battle: two of the top defenses in the league, led by two stellar defensive minds - Dick LeBeau from Pittsburgh and Rex Ryan from Baltimore, are going to inflict huge amounts of pain on the opposing offense’s, and at the end of the day, the AFC North race will be one won.
The Steelers come into this game still in the race for home field throughout. While the odds aren’t great that they’ll get it, if Pittsburgh wins out, and one of the remaining games is vs. Tennessee, and the Titans lose their final game to the Colts, both teams will have equal records but the Steelers will get the top seed due to the head to head victory. But at the very least, Pittsburgh wants to bury their rival and secure a 1st round bye.
But so does Baltimore, who’s in a position that no one predicted at the beginning of this NFL season when they turned to rookie Joe Flacco as their starter. If they win this game, they’ll be 10-4 and very much alive for the 1st round bye and the division title.
The first time these two teams played the Steelers pulled out the slimmest of victories in OT: 23-20. Round two should feature more of the same, although the intensity is certain to rise. In addition to everything at stake regarding the division and the playoffs, after WR Hines Ward ended Cincinnati Bengals’ rookie LB Keith Rivers season with a vicious hit to the jaw, rumors began to spread that Ravens’ defensive players had put a bounty on the receiver which was of course denied. I guess we’ll see if that’s the case this Sunday.
When Pittsburgh has the ball on offense, we see them abandoning the running game very early. Nobody, outside of the NY Giants, runs on the Baltimore Ravens. They lead the league in that department and very few running backs find any lanes to run through when facing Ray Lewis and Co.
So we see Roethlisberger having to pick up the slack, and as evidenced by his game against the Cowboys, the results are somewhere in between. He has a terrible tendency to hold onto the football too long and this leads to an enormous amount of coverage sacks, but he also has the ability to make big plays through the air, which he did in the final five minutes of play vs. Dallas. Look for him to spread the ball around to Ward, Holmes and Washington and for this to be the Steelers best way to move the ball.
When Baltimore has the ball on offense, we see a similar blue print as used by the Steelers. They’re not quite as difficult to run on as the Ravens, but it’s still an uphill battle. We don’t see much coming out of the ground game from McGahee, Rice or McClain, so we think the Ravens’ fate offensively will fall squarely on Flacco’s shoulders.
And while he’s been very good all year, we don’t see him succeeding. LeBeau’s been around the game far too long to not have a superior defensive game plan in place for a rookie who has only seen him once.
All factors considered, look for a 17-13 or 20-14 victory from the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. In games of this magnitude, experience often times wins out, and that’s why when analyzing two pretty equal teams, we’ll go with the veteran QB.
So the Steelers will move to 11-3 and wrap up the AFC North, while the Ravens will fall to 9-5, but still find themselves right in the thick of the playoff race.