Wild Card Weekend preview: Ravens-Steelers

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The backstory


"This is what the NFL wants" -- Ben Roethlisberger.

This has been the best rivalry in the league for years, although the games weren't quite as memorable in 2014. Baltimore's secondary wants to make amends after giving up six touchdowns to Roethlisberger in primetime in Week 9. Baltimore's 26-6 domination in early September might as well have happened when Chuck Noll was the Steelers coach.

The Steelers won their last four games to take the AFC North, with their defense rounding into form late in the season. The Ravens won three of their last four, but their offense struggled down the stretch. Le'Veon Bell's recent injury is one of the rare things in this game not trending toward the Steelers: he's been ruled out for Saturday.

Under pressure


Ravens offensive line: Overpaid left tackle Eugene Monroe might miss his second straight week, with undrafted rookie James Hurst filling in. Coach John Harbaugh doesn't sound too concerned, possibly because Monroe has had a disastrous season. With excellent right tackle Ricky Wagner out for the year, the Ravens also weakened their interior line against Cleveland by moving Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda to right tackle.

Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has done a fantastic job this year, in large part because his line has worked well together. Now a re-formed group has to deal with Pittsburgh's improved pass rush: Jason Worilds, Cameron Heyward, James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons have all played their best ball in December. This Ravens squad mauled opponents by pushing them around up front and hitting opponents with play-action passes. They might not have the guys up front to pull it off any more.

Matchup to watch


Steelers receivers vs. Ravens cornerbacks

Veteran Baltimore cornerback Lardarius Webb has played better of late, but he's not back to his pre-injury level of play. The other Ravens players in coverage that will have a big role Saturday? Rashaan Melvin, Anthony Levine and safety Matt Elam trying to cover receivers in the slot. It's not just Antonio Brown that Baltimore will have to contend with: Rookie Martavis Bryant has emerged as a great deep threat for Pittsburgh, and Markus Wheaton can make plays. Heath Miller is also playing well late in the year.

The return from suspension of Ravens nose tackle Haloti Ngata gives the Ravens defense a huge boost. But Ngata, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil could all be neutralized by an underrated Steelers line. If Roethlisberger gets time to throw, he's going to carve up this Ravens group.

Mind-blowing stats


The Steelers were 5-1 against playoff teams in 2014, while Baltimore was 1-6 against teams with winning records. The Steelers averaged 34 points-per-game against playoff opponents. ... Pittsburgh has won both playoff games against Baltimore since Flacco was drafted. Flacco has more road playoff wins than any quarterback in NFL history. ... Flacco and Roethlisberger are 19-8 combined in the playoffs.

The Ravens offense combines explosiveness with few mistakes. They ranked fourth in the NFL in plays over 20 yards, while sixth in fewest takeways. ... The Ravens defense was the only one in the league not to allow a 100-yard rusher. ... Despite all their passing, Pittsburgh led the league in time of possession. ... How imbalanced are the Steelers? They finished second in the NFL in yards-per-play, and third worst in yards-per-play allowed. ... Bell accounted for 32.8 percent of the Steelers offense, third most in the league.

Prediction


This matchup brings up an annual conundrum. When picking playoff games, do you base the answer on the body of work during the season or how the team has looked lately? For most of 2014, I thought the Ravens were the most underrated, balanced, sneakily playoff-ready team in the league. They can rush the passer and stop the run. The Ravens' running game is strong, and Flacco makes throws few other quarterbacks can. But we haven't seen that team since November.

The Steelers' loaded offense will not be the same without Bell, but they have enough weapons to survive without him. Including the offensive line. Baltimore's pressure won't get to Big Ben, which means the Steelers will put up big numbers.

Pittsburgh Steelers 34, Baltimore Ravens 24

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