The Steelers and Ravens will kick off the AFC side of the Wildcard playoff round in Pittsburgh in a meeting of very familiar foes. The AFC North got three of their four teams into the playoffs this season with these two teams being joined by Cincinnati who will face the Colts in the wildcard round. The season series was split between the two but the most recent matchup in Pittsburgh, where the wildcard game will be played, was a blowout that went the way of the Steelers 43-23.
While the Steelers won 4 straight to win the AFC North the Baltimore Ravens were limping into the playoffs winning their last two of three unconvincingly and needing a Chargers week 17 loss just to secure the sixth seed. In their last three games the Ravens beat the Jaguars in Baltimore by 8, lost in Houston to the Texans who were forced to start Case Keenum at quarterback and finished off with an unconvincing 10 point win over the fledgling Browns.
It may seem like a perfect time for the Steelers to get a win over their bitter rivals, but because of the knowledge the two have of each other Baltimore can never be too much of an underdog even in Pittsburgh. The betting line has Pittsburgh as a 3.5-point favorite, which seems low considering how well the Steelers have played as of late. Even the Vegas bookmakers know that no matter how the teams are playing at the time the game is likely to be very close.
Close was not how one would describe either two regular season meeting of these teams as the Ravens won in week 2 26-6 and the Steelers dominated the week 9 matchup 43-23. The Steelers victory was more recent and part of a two game string of 6 touchdown-passing games from Ben Roethlisberger. It would be hard to imagine either team could muster 6 touchdown passes in what is sure to be a hard-fought physical game in the wildcard round of the playoffs.
A big boost for the Baltimore defense will come in this game in the form of defensive lineman Haloti Ngata returning to the lineup after a four game suspension for performance enhancing drugs. He will undoubtedly boost the Ravens pass and rush defense, as he is as stout as they come in the middle of the defensive line. His return will boost a Ravens rush defense that will already have a big advantage because the Steelers star running back LeVeon Bell will miss the game due to a hyper-extended knee he sustained in the week 17 win over the Bengals. The loss of Bell will be a huge blow as he has been one of if not Pittsburgh’s best player in their run to become AFC North champs.
How the Steelers go about slowing the potent Ravens run offense will be a factor in how well Baltimore can keep their offense as balanced as they would like. The Ravens running attack was really humming through the middle part of the season, but has slowed in recent weeks. They will need to recapture that run attack if they want to have any chance of being able to keep the Steelers near the line of scrimmage so they can try to attack the more vulnerable Pittsburgh secondary.
Pittsburgh will need to have some sort of running attack as well to keep the Baltimore defense honest, which will be exceedingly tough without Bell. Not only is Bell an enormous loss in the run game but also in the passing game, as he was the Steelers second leading receiver with over 800 yards. Bell catching screens and all types of passes out of the backfield and offensive coordinator Todd Haley will have to come up with some new ways to get the short passing game going without Bell. Rookie Dri Archer will likely get an opportunity to show his speed in the screen game, but his lack of experience will be a huge factor against a very experienced Ravens defense.
For the Steelers the game plan will likely be very heavy in the deep passing game considering that was what helped them to the 20 point win over the Ravens in week 9. The Baltimore secondary has been below average at best this season and the Steelers will be very happy to attack that with downfield weapons like Antonio Brown and rookie Martavis Bryant. It will just be harder to attack downfield with out the threat of Bell out of the backfield.
All the records can get thrown out when the Steelers and Ravens meet and even more so when it’s in the playoffs. Their wildcard weekend matchup in Pittsburgh will undoubtedly be a physical and close game. Prediction – Steelers 29 – Ravens 24
Commentary By Max Petkevicius
Photo Courtesy of Damian Spain – Creativecommons Flickr License