The Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC Championship, a chance to play for all the marbles, a shot at the Super Bowl.
The story lines filling this game are enough to make a journalist’s mouth water.
Can you beat a team 3 times in one season? It’s happened 11 times out of 18 in NFL history, but those remaining seven leave plenty of room for doubt.
- There are the Steelers, fighting through the league’s toughest schedule. They didn’t always look dominant; they simply played well enough to win.
- There are the Ravens, coming out of nowhere to finish 11-5. They may have been a sixth seed, but they knocked off the number three and number two seeds and are aiming for number two… Just like the Steelers did in 2005.
But the Ravens aren’t merely trying to emulate Steelers history, they’re trying to recreate some of their own. No one, it seems, can avoid reading about the eerie similarities between the Ravens of 2008 and the Ravens of 2000, you know the Wild Card team that won with smart quarterback play, solid running, and dominating defense.
If the Raven’s are trying to emulate history, the Steelers, perhaps, are at least trying to rewrite some of their own. How many times have we heard it? The AFC Championship has been played in Pittsburgh 5 times in the last 14 years, and yet the Steelers only have a 1-4 record in those games.
To top it off, the one opponent which the Steelers vanquished at home during that span are the Colts.
These Colts were of course 13 years removed from the Mayflower trucks that performed the sacrilege of ripping the Colts away from Baltimore, but they did happened to be quarterbacked by a man named whose name was Harbaugh, and whose brother John will lead Baltimore’s new NFL standard bearer.
The Men Who Can Make a Difference
All of that makes for good copy, but when all is said and done this game will be decided, as all games are decided, by the men who play between the lines. Winning and losing is always a team effort, but in a game where teams are as evenly matched as these two are, you can look to certain players to be difference makers. And that’s what we’ll do here.
Living down in Buenos Aires as I do, my exposure to Ed Reed has been somewhat limited. But if there’s a more dominate safety in the league than Tory Polamalu, its Ed Reed, and those who say that statement should be flipped have a lot of merit to their argument.
Ed Reed has 43 picks in 106 games and seven touchdowns. He had nine picks this year and added 2 more in the playoffs already and returned one for a touchdown.
- Ed Reed didn't have a pick against the Steelers in 2008. In fact, his last interception came in the Steelers 75th Anniversary game... Suffice to say, the Steelers are unlikely to re-live that game’s glory Ed Reed’s hands spend a lot of time in contact with the pig skin.
Ben’s taken a lot of heat this year, but whenever he’s delivered down the clutch. The wrap on Ben is simple. He’s got to balance doing what he does, creating the time that allows him to make the incredible throws, and not trying do to much.
- Ben Roethlisberger is a gamer. He needs to play smart and just be himself. It says here he will do that.
For so long Ray Lewis has set the tone for this defense, and that tone has not been a pleasant one for opposing offenses. Ray Lewis has been around long enough to have seen Kordell Stewart lead a 5 touchdown rally at Memorial Stadium, and then find himself as the team’s lone bright spot as they went down 37-0 at Three Rivers Stadium.
- Some people think the Lewis is losing a step. Tell that to Rashard Mendenhall. Lewis is always going to be tough, the key to is to never be intimidated by him.
The Steelers Offensive Line
The Raven’s defense ran during the first half of the first match up in October. Ben Roethlisberger apparently called on them to step up and they did so in the second half. Maligned as the team’s Achilles heel for much of the year, the unit has taken it personally and really stepped up their preparation.
- The Ravens are going to come after Ben, and come after him with a fury. It’s unlikely they can provide the kind of time they did against San Diego, but if the line can give Ben some decent protection, he will force Rex Ryan to respect the passing game.
- The boys up front also need to show Ray Lewis and company that they are not afraid to be physical.
McClain would be a hero in Steelers nation had he played for Pittsburgh. A brusing full back who can run the ball. McClain ran for 150 yards in two games against the Steelers, impressive numbers.
- McClain is nursing an injury. But he'll will play, and he will play hard. The Steelers must shut down McClain and the rest of the Raven's running game.
It’s been ages since the Steelers have had a 100 yard rusher against the Ravens, in fact Willie Parker has never done it. He missed the first game against the Ravens, and only managed 47 yards in the second meeting.
- Parker will not duplicate the 150 yard performance he had against San Diego. But if he and Mewelde Moore can help the Steelers move the chains with some frequency it will go a long way to lowering the collective blood pressure of Steelers Nation.
The Flacco Factor
Derided by Steelers Digest’s Bob Labriola, as a “poor man’s Vinny Testerverde” when he was drafted early this year, Flacco has turned more than a few heads, in fact his rookie campaign has drawn comparisons between Ben Roethlisberger’s. While his rookie season’s numbers are below Ben’s, he’s accomplished something that Ben did not – he’s won two playoff games as a rookie.
- The conventional wisdom is that at some point he’ll actually begin playing like a rookie, but so far he’s bucked the conventional wisdom. Flacco’s post-season numbers have been quite pedestrian, but did not give up a sack or throw an interception in either playoff appearance. He’s also looked cool under fire, particularly on the final drive against Tennessee.
- Then again, Joe Flacco didn’t have James Harrison rushing him….
James Harrison the Hell Raiser
Of all the players that have the potential to impact this game, none stirs the imagination like James Harrison. The reining AFC Defensive Player of the year does not like the Ravens. He’s never forgiven them for shipping him off to the Rhine Fire and then cutting him without so much a thank you.
- And James Harrison has made the Ravens pay.
- The Ravens have faced James Harrison five times at Heinz Field. In those games Harrison has recorded 32 tackles, six sacks and forced five fumbles. He’s also defensed two passes and intercepted one more.
James Harrison is a dominant player, but he becomes more so against Baltimore. How much does he step it up? In those five games mentioned above James Harrison has made 10.5% of his tackles, dropped 21% of his quarterbacks, and forced 35% fumbles in games against Baltimore at Pittsburgh.
Oh, and only three of those games were starts…
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