Defenses will tell the tale in AFC Championship Game

There are no secrets between the Ravens and Steelers. Both teams are built on defense, as Pittsburgh and Baltimore finished No. 1 and 2 in total defense respectively during the regular season.

The two regular-season games between these AFC North rivals resulted in a sweep for Pittsburgh, but only by a combined score of 36-29. Pittsburgh won the time of possession battle by a mere 37 seconds. When it came to third down conversions, the Steelers moved the chains 13 of 32 times while the Ravens got a first down on 11 of 31 opportunities.

The Ravens have played 17 straight games without a break and three of the last four have come on the road. Baltimore has won seven of their last eight games with the only loss coming against the Steelers, the team standing between the Ravens and a trip to Super Bowl XLIII.

Despite pulling off two road playoff wins, Baltimore paid a price. A number of players, especially on defense, are working through injuries.

On the other side, Pittsburgh looked well rested against San Diego coming off a bye and appears to be peaking at the right time. The Steelers comes into the matchup relatively healthy for this time of year.

The last two times they played

In examining the AFC title game, the battle of first down may be the most critical component to deciding who moves on. Here's a look at how the two sides did on first down in the first two games.

With rookie QB Joe Flacco it's understandable that the Ravens want to be conservative on first down, so the more than 2:1 run-to-pass ratio is no surprise. But the top-ranked Steelers defense will play the run until Baltimore improves its first-down passing. Flacco completed 3 of 14 passes for 13 yards on first downs, but was sacked twice for minus-20 yards, including a fumble that resulted in a touchdown.

The Ravens ran Le'Ron McClain 23 times for 96 yards and a 4.2 per carry average, which was by far the best thing Baltimore did on first down. Expect Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to run blitz McClain on first downs. Against Tennessee, Baltimore did throw two deep balls on first down and expect some of the same this week, especially in the first quarter to make Pittsburgh think there's a risk to overplaying the run.

The Steelers were balanced on first down in the two games -- 24 runs and 24 passes -- which makes it tough on the Ravens. It's worth noting that Willie Parker missed the first meeting and only had 14 carries in the second matchup. Last week he had 17 first down runs in the win over San Diego and look for the run ratio to be slightly higher in this game. However, for Pittsburgh to ignore what it accomplished in the first-down passing attack in the two previous games would be a mistake.

Ben Roethlisberger completed 12-of-21 for 159 yards. He added two scrambles for another 15 yards and was sacked once for a loss of 7 yards. The key player in the first-down pass game was Hines Ward with five receptions for 87 yards. Ray Lewis and Co. can't overplay Parker at the risk of play-action on first down to Ward. It will be a tough conflict for Baltimore.

Which tandem wins this time?

There are so many great defensive players in this game it's tough to single out individuals. Both quarterbacks have to identify where the All-Pro safety from the opposition is on the field. Both Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu will come to the line of scrimmage like they are blitzing and wind up in the deep middle stealing a pass. Each will line up deep and blitz unaccounted for.

The linebackers for each team also need to be watched very closely. Pittsburgh outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley vs. Baltimore's inside linebackers Ray Lewis and Bart Scott. Check out the production of both tandems in the two previous games. Harrison and Woodley combined for 25 tackles, a touchdown on a fumble return, four sacks, four tackles for loss, five hits on the quarterback and a forced fumble. Lewis and Scott had 35 tackles, two sacks, four tackles for loss, three hits on the quarterback and a forced fumble. Defensive football doesn't get any better than these four men can produce. The Steelers get a slight edge this time around at home against a rookie QB.

When the Steelers have the ball

Pittsburgh has returned to the formula that won them Super Bowl XL. They ran the ball 42 times to 27 pass plays in the win over San Diego. They got back to the "G" power run game they used so often when Alan Faneca was the pulling guard. Expect more of the same Sunday. Look for Pittsburgh to double nose tackle Haloti Ngata and pull guard Chris Kemoeatu around to the point of attack toward tight end Heath Miller with Parker carrying the ball.

Terrell Suggs is the featured pass rusher for Baltimore, but may not be able to go because of a shoulder injury. Even if he plays, he will not be 100 percent. He had two sacks along with three hits on Roethlisberger earlier this season and the pass protections are designed to go to him. Without Suggs, Roethlisberger should expect more blitzing from Scott. The key receiver when the inside linebackers blitz should be Miller in the short to medium range.

Expect Pittsburgh to move the ball and score points against a banged-up Baltimore defense. While the Steelers won't get the 35 points they had last week, keep in mind the Titans had 256 yards in the first half against the Ravens but three turnovers in the red zone led to their defeat.

When the Ravens have the ball

Carucci's call

Vic Carucci breaks down the matchups in this third meeting between AFC North rivals and makes his prediction. Who did he go with? Watch ...

Baltimore is going to have to take advantage of Flacco's arm strength and mobility to offset the Steelers defense. Running the ball into the teeth of the defense would be a mistake. Flacco only threw one touchdown pass in the first two games but was sacked seven times and threw two interceptions. Still, the risk is worth it this time around.

Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel did not play in either regular-season game but returned last week against the Chargers to record a sack, two tackles for loss and a QB hit. Also James Farrior, Aaron Smith and James Harrison combined for 147 tackles for a gain of 2 yards or less this season and they will slow down Baltimore's run game.

The Ravens can't settle for field goals or they will lose. Derrick Mason has to come through with a few big receptions and the best opportunity will be on first down outside and deep against the corners.

The bottom line

The Ravens have been a great story all year with a rookie head coach and quarterback. The team also lost offensive lineman Jonathan Ogden to retirement and nose tackle Kelly Gregg to injury.

However, the wear and tear outweighs the idea that it's hard to beat a team three times in a season. I'll take the Steelers in a game that should see a defensive score or two and have more than 35 points combined.

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