Joe Flacco had the best playoff game of his career at Kansas City. He has four postseason victories, all on the road, but doesn't get a whole lot of credit for them because of his mostly poor showings in the playoffs. The impressive mobility Flacco displayed vs. the Chiefs' strong pass rush will be crucial, given the heavy pressure he is likely to see from Pittsburgh.
For three quarters, the Ravens struggled on the ground vs. Kansas City. But they finished strong. Ray Rice and Willis McGahee are likely to find even less daylight vs. the No. 1 run-stuffing defense in the NFL. The Ravens need to keep pounding the ball as much as possible to help slow down the Steelers' pass rush and enhance Flacco's ability to sell play fakes.
The return of TE Todd Heap from an injured hamstring couldn't have come at a better time, as he shredded the Chiefs for 10 receptions and 108 yards. Anquan Boldin was the Ravens' receiver to make an impact vs. Kansas City. Derrick Mason and T.J. Houshmandzadeh need to step up with some big plays to stretch the Steelers' defense. Of course, Flacco must do his part.
The Chiefs' outside pass rushers generally got the better of OTs Michael Oher and Marshal Yanda. Flacco was sacked four times and often had to run for his life. The Ravens' running game didn't get rolling until the fourth quarter at Kansas City. This group will need to show dramatic improvement against OLB James Harrison and the rest of the Steelers' relentless defensive front.
After a sluggish first half, this group did manage to eventually wear down the Chiefs' offensive line. Part of the problem was DT Haloti Ngata being slowed by a thigh injury and aching knees, although they won't keep him out of this game. When the teams last met, he drew a $15,000 fine for breaking Roethlisberger's nose. NT Kelly Gregg had a strong game at Kansas City.
ILBs Ray Lewis and Jameel McClain rebounded from a poor first half against the Chiefs' Jamaal Charles. They can't struggle early with Rashard Mendenhall, because the Steelers' passing attack is too good. OLB Jarret Johnson is a solid run defender. Pass rushing OLB Terrell Suggs is still inconsistent, but give him a big enough lead, especially late in the game, and he can dominate.
Learning two days before kickoff that his brother had disappeared after jumping into the Mississippi River, SS Ed Reed played with a heavy heart vs. the Chiefs. His focus in this game is something to watch. CB Chris Carr did a nice job of making Dwayne Bowe disappear, and the coverage mostly limited what was open to short routes. Can the same be done to Mike Wallace?
As K Billy Cundiff and P Sam Koch showed against the Chiefs, they can do any sort of kicking (deep or directional) that the situation requires. Cundiff also delivered three field goals at Kansas City. David Reed, the league's leading kickoff-returner, missed the wild-card game with an injured wrist that probably will sideline him again. Jalen Parmele is an adequate replacement.
John Harbaugh has quietly built a nice postseason résumé. His 4-2 playoff record is impressive, especially considering that all six games have been on the road. Given that his last playoff visit to Pittsburgh was a loss in the 2008 AFC Championship Game, a win here would be a major boost to his career. OC Cam Cameron needs to keep trusting Flacco to make plays.
This team should feel good about its chances of winning a road playoff game. It won its last game at Heinz Field, in Week 4. But that was while Roethlisberger was serving the final game of his suspension. Things will likely be different this time around. Big Ben is rested and playing well. And the Steelers' defense will be too much for the Ravens to handle.
Ben Roethlisberger ended a season that began with a four-game suspension on a high note with a strong performance at Cleveland. He took a pounding during the year, and the bye gave him extra time to heal. He'll put those fresh legs to good use. Roethlisberger's string of four games and 158 passes without an interception will be put to the test vs. the Ravens' opportunistic defense.
Rashard Mendenhall had to be encouraged by Jamaal Charles' 9.1-yards-per carry vs. the Ravens. However, the Steelers had to be somewhat disappointed with Mendenhall's modest performance vs. the Browns. Mendenhall is a consistent threat near the goal line; his 13 rushing touchdowns were one short of the single-season franchise record.
WR Mike Wallace is a game-breaker and has become Pittsburgh's most productive target. In the last five games of the regular season, he caught 30 passes for 465 yards and two touchdowns. Wallace is particularly dangerous when Roethlisberger is flushed from the pocket and looks for someone to shake free. WR Hines Ward and TE Heath Miller need to help keep the chains moving.
Remarkable rookie C Maurkice Pouncey excels at diagnosing defensive fronts as they change throughout a game and making the proper calls. Pouncey should be up to the challenge of facing the ultra-strong interior of the Ravens' defensive line. The only other Steelers offensive lineman to start every game is OT Flozell Adams, a summer pickup who has done a nice job replacing injured Willie Colon.
Despite being hit with a rash of injuries at this position, the Steelers still managed to have one of the best run defenses in league history by giving up only 62.8 yards per game. DE Brett Keisel does an excellent job of setting the edge and is a disruptive force. DE Ziggy Hood finished the season with a sack in each of his last two games.
After watching tape of how poorly the Ravens blocked Tamba Hali, James Harrison can't wait for his turn to spend an afternoon in Baltimore's backfield. If the Steelers play up to their No. 1 run-defense ranking, the pass rush is likely to be the biggest difference in the outcome. ILB Lawrence Timmons is a major factor in the run-stuffing effort and a highly disruptive force.
The Steelers finished the season with 21 interceptions and have had three in three games. SS Troy Polamalu, one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history, had a career-best seven picks. He'll do plenty to help take away Flacco's best go-to option, Todd Heap. Keeping Boldin and Derrick Mason in check will be a challenge.
Squib-kicking proved to be effective in limiting the Browns, whose Joshua Cribbs has three career scoring returns vs. the Steelers, to a 9.1-yard average on eight returns in the regular-season finale. That could be a tactic they'll consider using vs. the Ravens, even if David Reed doesn't play. Shaun Suisham is reliable on field goals, hitting 14 of 15 in seven games since replacing Jeff Reed.
Mike Tomlin has done an amazing job of managing his team through the four-game suspension of its starting quarterback, season-ending injuries to both starting offensive tackles, as well as injuries on the defensive line. Tomlin knows just the right motivational buttons to push.
As easy as the Ravens made it look at Kansas City, they had far too much trouble dealing with the Chiefs' pass rush. Harrison and the rest of the Steelers' pass-rushers should be every bit as dominant, only in this game it will cost Baltimore. The Steelers should run well enough and Roethlisberger should connect on enough big plays to reach another AFC Championship Game.