AFC Championship Preview: Ravens @ Steelers
No sense in bringing up the stats this time around. Everything that has happened over the last 19 weeks gets tossed out with the
terrible towels garbage. Steelers-Ravens for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. How fitting. Extremely unlikely just a few short months ago, but then again you could say the same about the Eagles-Cardinals NFC Championship. As if this grudge match didn’t already have all the necessary ingredients to become a classic…the forecast for Sunday evening in Pittsburgh calls for snow. Is it just me, or does snow add to the mystique of any football game? The “tuck rule” game wouldn’t be quite as legendary if it hadn’t taken place during a New England blizzard, right?
The Ravens not only get a chance to avenge Pittsburgh’s 2 skin-of-their-teeth victories over them this season, they get to do so with everything on the line. The Steelers’ 2 wins came by a total of 7 points, 23-20 in OT in Pittsburgh, and 13-9 in B’More. The Ravens held the lead for long stretches in both those contests, but to no ultimate consequence. They shouldn’t need any reminding that the only score that matters during the game is the one that is showing when the clock reads 0:00. It’s a very rare occurrence in what has arguably become the fiercest rivalry in the NFL that one team sweep the season series; they have split 1-1 in 7 of the past 10 years. They haven’t met three times in one season, though, since 2001, when the Ravens lost in the Divisional Round, 27-10 at Heinz Field.
The talking heads have made a big to do this week about how tough it is to beat a team 3 times in the same season. As
Professor Egghead John Clayton over at ESPN points out though, history in that respect is actually working in the Steelers’ favor. On the other hand, Pittsburgh has pulled some monumental choke jobs in their previous 3 AFC Championship games at home, losing in 1997, 2001 and 2004.
Unfortunately, injuries and fatigue could have the Ravens starting this one off in a bit of a hole before they even step foot on that sorry excuse for turf they call a field up at Heinz. First the bad news: after shaking off some early season injuries to key players, the Ravens managed to stay relatively healthy throughout their run into and through the playoffs – up to this point. Cornerback Samari Rolle, the Ravens’ best cover man, will likely miss the game after straining his groin in Tennessee. Linebacker Terrell Suggs busted up his shoulder sacking Kerry Collins last week, and is said to be a game-time decision. Suggs seems determined to play, but concedes that he will sit out if he can’t perform at his usual high level. Crap crap crappity crap.
I guess I promised some good news though, right? Well, this is the best I got: The Ravens looked very flat-footed and slow against Tennessee in the first half, getting gashed by Chris Johnson and Justin Gage. They looked like a team that never had a bye week, a team that was playing on short rest. Both of which were the case, of course.
- From kickoff in Miami to kickoff in Tennessee: 146.5 hours, or 6 days, 2.5 hours
- From kickoff in Tennessee to kickoff in Pittsburgh: 195 hours, or 8 days, 3 hours
So let’s hope the extra 2 days rest shows for the Ravens, in the form of fewer missed tackles, better pursuit, and more sound blocking up front.
It also helps that the Steelers don’t have anybody with the kind of speed the Titans’ Chris Johnson possesses. Willie “Slow Bill” Parker ran for over 140 yards against San Diego last week, and is as healthy as he’s been all season, but doesn’t scare the Ravens. Parker averages 2.8 ypc in his career against B’More, and has never given Rex Ryan’s defenses much of a problem. Bottling up Slow Bill Raven-style (not to be confused with Ravenstahl) will limit the effectiveness of play-action, which Pittsburgh used to eat up the Chargers. It becomes doubly important with the loss of Rolle, as the thought of Frank Walker and Corey Ivy out there chasing around Cheap Shot and Santonio Holmes (and Nate Washington! PLEASE don’t forget about him, Ravens secondary) again makes it tough to keep my breakfast off the keyboard, if you catch my drift. Walker may have the talent somewhere inside him to step up big for 4 quarters, but Ivy is Grade A dog shit. Sure, he’s brave for going through his ordeal in 06, and he’s probably a great guy and all that…but he’s awful (although, it is kind of amusing that a guy with the name “Ivy” can’t cover anything). Come on Rex, throw Darren Stone or Evan Oglesby out there and give us a chance. Even Fast Eddie can’t cover the wide open spaces that show up whenever Ivy is on the field.
Best case scenario: Haloti Ngata slams Baby Ben’s big stupid swollen head (see above photo) into the frozen tundra on about the 2nd series, and Roethlisberger is forced to watch from the sidelines (or hospital). I mean…of course I don’t WANT anybody to get hurt. For shame! Seriously though, the deal with Baby Ben is the same as always: get to him quickly, and get him down when you get your hands on him. When pressured, but not allowed to escape the pocket and improvise, he will make mistakes. Mistakes that will have Fast Eddie Reed and the Ravens defense intercepting passes all the way to Tampa.
For the Ravens’ on offense, Cam Cameron will need to be particularly crafty. His game plans against Pittsburgh so far have been extremely conservative and lacking any of the trickery we have seen at other times this season. The rationale for that, that the Steelers are too good to fall for anything cute, is sound. However, there comes a time when laying it all on the line becomes necessary, and the AFC Championship game is that time. Nine points won’t get it done. Le’Run McClain is dealing with ankle pain, and may not be as effective as we’d like. Willis McGahee is more than capable as a 2nd option, but if he is unable to find any room in that Pittsburgh D, Cameron may just need to put the game on Joe Flacco’s shoulders. Every time he has had to make a play, Flacco has delivered. He had his worst game of the season against Pittsburgh in Baltimore, but that just means he is ready for some revenge. He’s seen them twice already, he threw one (should have been 2) score on Heinz field in Week 4, and the coaching staff shouldn’t be afraid to let him get after it a little bit early to try to build a lead. If, for some reason, Flacco and the Ravens have to play from behind against that Pittsburgh defense, all bets are off.
Expect all manner of crazy, ridiculous things to transpire in this game. Blocked kicks, missed field goals, safeties, tipped passes going the other way, mysterious calls and non-calls, you name it. Let’s hope that the officials at least let the players decide this game, and keep their flags in their pockets as much as possible. Because of the known bad blood in this rivalry though, that seems pretty unlikely. The Ravens did a good job of letting Tennessee be the ones to get caught in the after-the-whistle action last week; hopefully they can manage more of the same Sunday.
The Ravens may get outgained in this game. They may even get outplayed. However, that horseshoe that Pittsburgh had up their backsides all season seems to have been transferred to the purple and black; therefore, they won’t be outscored. And here at the Nest, we can’t imagine a more beautiful scene than the Ravens accepting the Lamar Hunt Trophy on Heinz Field. See you in Tampa.
Ravens 19 Steelers 15 (yes, even a crazy final score seems likely)