It's an East Coast grudge match that leads off the playoff weekend on Saturday at 4:30 PM (CBS) when the stalwart Baltimore Ravens travel to Heinz Field and face the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers. This is a dangerous game to try to analyze between two 12-4 teams. Both teams could win, but who will? Whoever does, it's likely to be by a field goal.
Home field advantage is huge in this game. The Steelers are run stoppers, and the kicking game is always sketchy at Heinz field. The wind is supposed to be whipping in Pittsburgh with a dusting of snow coming through and the weather system moving out in the early part of the game. The crowd, as well as the wind, will both be blowing in Pittsburgh's favor. Terrible towels and terrible weather could rule the day and force this to become a defensive duel, and with a truly deafening and distracting crowd, the cold weather will feel colder than it really is for the visiting team at Heinz Field this Saturday.
On paper, it's a statistical dead heat. Baltimore has a slightly better passing game, but Pittsburgh has rushing specialist Rashard Mendenhall with a baker's dozen running touchdowns and 1,273 yards on the ground to go with 167 yards through the air. Ray Rice and Willis McGahee on the Baltimore offense only eclipse Mendenhall's numbers if you combine their running stats, and even then they have three less touchdowns.
The quarterback situation puts Joe Flacco (306-489, 3,622, 25 TDs, 10 Int.) against "Big Ben" Rothlisberger (240-389, 3,200 yards, 17 TDs, 5 Int.). Big Ben is not only a prolific passer for this team, though. He's also the squad's third leading rusher with two touchdowns and 176 yards, averaging over 5 yards per carry. Flacco isn't half as good in that category with 43 attempts and 84 yards for one touchdown.
Defensively, this is shaping up to be a true war between two of the absolute best defenses in the league. Both teams are historically known for their strengths on defense with Safety Troy Polamalu (7 Interceptions, 101 yards, 1 TD) the major standout for the Steelers and Baltimore's defensive captain at Linebacker, Ray Lewis (139 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions), accompanying Safety Ed Reed (8 Interceptions, 183 yards) in stopping big plays when it counts. Still, the Steelers have the equalizer in their own linebacker corps. Lawrence Timmons (132 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions), James Harrison (100 tackles, 11 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions), and James Farrior (109 tackles, 6 sacks, one forced fumble) are just three big reasons why the Steelers defense allowed the fewest points this season, the least rushing yards, and the second fewest total yards in the league.
It's no wonder when these two teams meet (they split the season series by each winning one game) the scores are typically low. This one should be no exception. The Steelers defense will neutralize Tight End Todd Heap and prevent him from having a repeat of last week when he romped for 108 yards on 10 grabs in a route of the Kansas City Chiefs. It will come down to who makes the bigger mistakes on offense, and Joe Flacco has more interceptions and less mobility. Chances are he'll be the one to misfire or have to rely too much on the passing game when Ray Rice gets shut down.
Anquan Boldin (837 yards, 7 TDs) and Derrick Mason (802 yards, 7 TDs) are near mirror images of each other as Flacco's go-to receivers, both averaging just over 13 yards per catch. They will have to work incredibly hard to challenge the Steelers linebackers and secondary. When Pittsburgh's Leading Receiver Mike Wallace plays his 60 minutes on Saturday he comes in with 3 more touchdowns (10) than either Baltimore receiver to go with around 400 more total yards (1,257 total) and an 8-yard advantage in the average yardage per catch category (21 yards). Hines Ward has 5 scores on 755 yards receiving in a declining year. He's still the second leading receiver on a diverse and dynamic offensive unit, though.
Pittsburgh wins this game by 10 points if they follow Coach Mike Tomlin's game plan and play tough football at home. Rothlisberger and his running backs will shred Baltimore early while Ray Rice will never get untracked in the cold confines of Heinz Field. Flacco will have to rely on the passing game, and that will result in some major mistakes under pressure. Baltimore's impressive season ends Saturday unless the Baltimore defense outscores the offense in this one, which will be tough to do in such a hostile environment against the Steelers with home field advantage.