The end of the National Football League season brings a fleeting moment of fear - "only a month of football left" - and then is replaced by the exhilaration and anticipation of a month of playoff football. It really is the most wonderful time of the year!
When the dust settled on the playoff picture on Sunday night, two longtime rivals found themselves in each other's crosshairs - the Divisional Round will feature an all-AFC North slugfest between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers locked up the division crown with a win over Cincinnati on Sunday night, but does that make them the automatic favorite going into the latest showdown against the Ravens?
Stats can usually be thrown out the window when it comes to these two teams - the winner of this game is going to be the one who can withstand the brutal physicality that will take place on Saturday night. Despite this, let's take a look at what might tilt the result in the favor of both sides.
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3 Why The Steelers Can Win
The Steelers showed a bit of a new identity this season. Pittsburgh is often associated with a strong defense and an average offense that puts up just enough points to surpass whatever measly number of points the defence allowed.
This year, the Iron Curtain was nowhere to be seen - the Steelers finished 18th in total defense, so it's hard to say that Mike Tomlin will be able to rely on a strong defensive performance to win this game.
If the Steelers are going to win this matchup, it'll be on the arm of Ben Roethlisberger and (hopefully) workhorse running back Le'Veon Bell, whose status is unclear going into Saturday. The Steelers finished the regular season 2nd in total yards and 7th in total points. Roethlisberger had one of the best seasons of his career, throwing for 32 scores and nearly 5,000 yards, while Bell finished second to only DeMarco Murray in rushing yards with 1,361 rushing yards.
If the Steelers want to get past the Ravens, they'll have to have a couple of things go their way. For starters, they better hope that Bell can play - it's safe to say offensive coordinator Todd Haley does not want to have to rely on recently signed Ben Tate against one of the best run-defenses in the league (not to mention Bell is a threat as a receiver as well).
They'll also have to hope that Roethlisberger is on his game - especially considering that the Steelers will have home-field advantage. If the Steelers don't have Bell, they'll have to rely on Big Ben and his big arm; the Ravens have been kind to opposing quarterbacks when on the road - quarterbacks playing at home against the Ravens have averaged a 95.7 passer rating, a 65.9% completion percentage and have thrown for 15 touchdowns (six of those thrown by Roethlisberger in the Steelers 43-23 win at Heinz Field). The Steelers will need a repeat performance by Roethlisberger and make sure to hit on the long-ball (like they did in that Week 9 win) against a secondary that has been soft against shots down the field - and it helps when those long bombs are being chased down by Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant.
2 Why the Ravens Can Win
The Ravens got lucky, in a sense, to squeak into the sixth AFC postseason spot thanks to a late rally against the hapless Browns (who were being led by undrafted rookie quarterback Connor Shaw). They ended up winning, but it wasn't pretty. Joe Flacco has been decent at times throughout the year, but he's had a couple of clunkers down the stretch and this should be an area of concern for Ravens fans. Flacco has shown that he can elevate his game come the postseason, though, so Flacco shouldn't be the team's main concern.
If the Ravens are smart, they won't need to rely on Flacco to win this weekend - the Steelers were fairly good in run defense (allowing only 100.3 yards on the ground per game) but they gave up an average of 4.4 yards per carry, which was tied for seventh highest in the league. The Ravens finally found Ray Rice's replacement in Justin Forsett, who was remarkable for the Ravens all season long - he finished with 1,266 yards (5.4 yards per carry) and eight scores. Forsett didn't do much against the Steelers during the first two matchups, but he went off for 119 yards last week and looks to be rounding back into peak form. If the Ravens can lean on Forsett early and often, they'll kill clock, quiet the raucous Steelers fans and keep Roethlisberger off the field.
The Ravens have a major advantage overall in the run-game thanks to an already stifling front-seven welcoming run-stuffing behemoth Haloti Ngata back from his suspension. He'll be fresh and raring to go - the Steelers should be incredibly concerned about their run-game considering all the factors already affecting this matchup. If it's Ben Tate against Ngata and the Ravens defense, Baltimore will have the Steelers run-game shut-down before the end of the first-half.
1 Who Will Win?
They say defense wins championships, and by that logic the easy choice would be to pick the Ravens to stifle the potentially undermanned Steelers offense - not to mention Baltimore had the second best red-zone defense in the league this season, allowing touchdowns on only 42.59% of their opponents attempts, while the Steelers offense was a measly 18th in red zone offense, only putting the ball in the endzone 52.73% of the time in 2014.
Despite all the solid numbers the Ravens put up, one troubling statistic was the 2-4 record they had against playoff teams - and one of those was against the Carolina Panthers, who would not be in the playoff conversation had they been in any other division in the league. The early season win against the Steelers was just that - an early season win. We've seen in this season just how meaningless early season wins or losses can be (see Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks).
The Steelers come into this game with a solid 6-2 home record, winners of their last four straight, and are able to rely on a two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback coming off the best season of his 11-year career.
The Ravens come into Saturday's tilt with the Week 9 drubbing at the hands of the Steelers in the back of their minds, coming off a Week 16 loss to the Case Keenum-led Houston Texans and an uninspiring win against the Connor Shaw-led Cleveland Browns.
Unless the Ravens are able to flip the switch come Saturday, the Steelers should have no problems in this one - with or without Le'Veon Bell.
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