NFL Playoff Preview - Baltimore (10-6) at Pittsburgh (11-5)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers have always made a name for themselves through dominating defenses, but this season it was record-breaking offensive showings that helped get the rivals to the playoffs.
Quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco will again lead the charge on Saturday night when the Ravens visit Heinz Field looking for their first postseason victory over the Steelers.
Joe Greene, James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are just a few names that come to mind when discussions about the Steelers and Ravens take place, but both teams set franchise records this season in points and yards.
Behind an excellent effort from Roethlisberger, which included him becoming the first player in NFL history to throw six touchdown passes in back-to-back weeks, the Steelers set new marks in 2014 with 436 points and 6,577 yards. They ranked second in the league with 411.1 yards per game and seventh with 27.3 points per game.
The Ravens were right behind with 25.6 points per game and ranked 12th with 364.9 yards per game. In all, Baltimore set new club records with 409 points and 5,838 yards.
Baltimore won three of its final four games of the regular season to earn a wild card spot, yielding 13 points or fewer in each victory to finish at 10-6. The Ravens were fourth against the run and eighth in total defense while allowing 18.9 points per game to rank sixth in the NFL.
Still, the Ravens needed a little help to make the postseason for the sixth time in seven seasons as they needed to couple last Sunday's 20-10 win over Cleveland with Kansas City's 19-7 triumph over San Diego. That put Baltimore back in the playoffs after sitting out in 2013.
"It feels good. I remember sitting at home last year, a week from now, and it didn't feel very good," said Flacco. "So, that at least won't be happening this year, and it feels very good. It's a great locker room right now, and we've just got to do all we can to go get ready, have fun this week and get ready for another challenge."
It's a big challenge for the Ravens, who are 0-3 versus the Steelers in the playoffs. All three setbacks have come in Pittsburgh.
"It is just going to be another one of those great moments in the Ravens- Steelers rivalry that we are looking forward to," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. "It's another playoff game there. We'd like to win one of those one of these days in their place, and we're going to do our darndest to try to pull that off Saturday night."
Baltimore has split 14 meetings with Pittsburgh in the regular season since Harbaugh took over as coach in 2008 and 10 of the those meetings have been decided by three points or fewer.
That was not the case when the Ravens last visited the Steelers, a 43-23 win for Pittsburgh in which Roethlisberger threw six touchdown passes and 340 yards without getting picked for a 136.6 passer rating.
Pittsburgh comes into this meeting having captured the AFC North for the first time since 2010, doing so thanks to a 27-17 win over second-place Cincinnati last weekend.
Pittsburgh went 11-5 and brings a four-game winning streak into its first playoff meeting with Baltimore since a 31-24 victory in the 2010 divisional playoffs.
"It's typical AFC North ball. We take a lot of pride in being from the North. I look forward to it. It's going to be typical Steelers-Ravens." said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who has guided Pittsburgh to a pair of wins over Baltimore in the playoffs."
Pittsburgh is back in the postseason for the first time in three years following a pair of 8-8 seasons and won the AFC North for the fourth time in Tomlin's eight seasons as coach.
The Steelers have won nine of their last 12 postseason games, but will be without running back Le'Veon Bell for this game after he suffered a right knee injury in the third quarter against the Bengals.
That could be a major loss for the Steelers as Bell amassed over 2,000 yards from scrimmage this season while accounting for 11 total touchdowns.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Injuries always play a key part in postseason football and the Steelers face a big one with the loss of Bell, who led the AFC with a club-record 2,215 yards from scrimmage. He ran for 1,361 yards and his 564 receiving yards were the most by a Pittsburgh running back in team annals.
In fact, Bell joined Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk as the only players in NFL history with at least 1,300 yards rushing and 850 yards receiving.
With Bell out, Roethlisberger may be forced to air it out even more without his top safety target as Bell was second on the club with 83 receptions.
"It's the playoffs. You always have to take more. There's a sense of urgency from all of us. We're not going to rule anybody out yet. I'm not a doctor but we'll see what happens," said Roethlisberger, who is 10-4 all-time as a starting quarterback in the playoffs.
Roethlisberger had an excellent season, setting new club records with 408 completions, 4,952 passing yards and a 67.1 completion percentage. His passing yards tied Drew Brees of New Orleans for the NFL lead and Roethlisberger matched his own club record with 32 touchdown passes set in 2007.
Wide receiver Antonio Brown played a big part in Roethlisberger's season, leading the NFL with 129 catches and 1,698 receiving yards. Both of those also set club records as did Brown's 13 touchdown receptions.
Consistency is a big part of Brown's game as he has at least five catches and 50 receiving yards in an NFL-record 32 straight games. He had a late 63-yard TD reception from Roethlisberger last weekend and also added a 71-yard punt return for a score.
"Antonio Brown is gifted. He runs all the routes; he's not just a deep threat, he's a route runner; reverses; as a punt returner, as we saw in the Cincinnati game last week. He's a multi-dimensional guy that can score at any point in time," noted Harbaugh.
The Ravens may be able to zero in closer on the QB-WR duo with Bell unable to play. The Steelers will try to replace Bell's production with rookies Josh Harris and Dri Archer. Pittsburgh also signed veteran Ben Tate earlier this week, but Tomlin admitted it may take more than one guy to help fill Bell's production.
"Le'Veon contributes in a lot of ways. When you're talking about replacing an impact guy like him it's not a one-man job. It never is. It's a multiple-man job and it might be a multiple-man job across positions," said Tomlin.
The Ravens were excellent against the run this season, but lost Jimmy Smith and Asa Jackson to injury among others and allowed 248.7 yards per game through the air. That ranked 24th in the NFL, but Baltimore also tied for second with 49 sacks.
No NFL duo had more quarterback takedowns this season than Ravens linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs. Dumervil produced a club-record 17 sacks and Suggs finished with 12.
Suggs has 12 career playoff sacks, tied with Hall of Famer Reggie White for third all-time.
Baltimore rookie defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan has his status for the game in doubt due to a foot injury, but the Ravens do catch a break as talented defensive tackle Haloti Ngata is eligible to return from a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's performance enhancing drug policy.
The 30-year-old had 31 tackles in 12 games with two sacks and a pair of interceptions.
"I just feel like I owe these guys," said Ngata of his teammates. "So, I'm just going to do whatever I can to help the team, and I'm definitely just ready to get back out there again."
Said Roethlisberger of Ngata, "He's tough. He can the run. He can rush the passer. You don't usually get that from an interior guy. Usually that's the outside guys. Just the physical presence that he is, is what makes him so good."
As Baltimore yielded just 19 sacks on the season, Flacco was able to set career highs with 3,987 passing yards and 27 touchdown passes. Wide receiver Torrey Smith was on the receiving end of 11 of those, ranking second in team history behind Michael Jackson's 14 in 1996, while first-year Raven Steve Smith led the team with 79 receptions and 1,065 yards.
Running back Justin Forsett had a career-high 1,266 rushing yards for the Ravens and his 5.4 average yard per carry led the NFL. However, he had been held to just 67 yards rushing the previous two games before ripping off 119 versus the Browns.
"We have to be a good running team, because that's who we think we are," declared Harbaugh.
Like the Ravens, the Steelers were solid against the run (100.3 YPG to rank sixth in the NFL) but yielded 253.1 passing yards per game and 23.0 points per contest.
Still, linebacker Lawrence Timmons is coming off a Pro Bowl season with a club-high 132 tackles, defensive end Cam Heyward tied for the team lead with a career-best 7 1/2 sacks and cornerback William Gay returned all three of his interceptions for touchdowns.
Pittsburgh has a pair of solid veteran defenders it can lean on in Harrison and Polamalu. Harrison has 6 1/2 sacks in 13 career playoff games along with a 100-yard pick six versus Arizona in Super Bowl XLIII, while Polamalu has three career postseason interceptions. Among those is a 40-yard pick-six versus Baltimore on Jan. 18, 2009.
The only thing better than playoff football is playoff football between division rivals and the Steelers and Ravens should put forth an epic battle regardless of whatever struggles they had this season.
"It's a great challenge," said Harbaugh. We love this rivalry. We love being a part of it. We've said that many times before, and I believe they feel the same way about it."
"This is probably what the NFL wanted more than anything to see these two AFC North teams go at it. I like to think we're different. I like to think we're still moving up but I'm sure they'll say the same thing about themselves," said Roethlisberger.
This game becomes a little less cut-and-dry with the absence of Bell, but home-field advantage should be huge for the Steelers. After all, there is a reason that the Ravens are 0-3 in the Steel City during the postseason.
The Steelers have won four straight home playoff games at Heinz Field, going 7-3 all-time there in the postseason since it opened in 2001. Given Pittsburgh is the more consistent offensive threat, it should be able to improve on that record this Saturday.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 27, Ravens 23
01/03 11:42:57 ET