Game breakdown: Ravens-Steelers
Both teams know how to win in the playoffs, no matter where the games are played, witness their No. 1 and 2 ranking in terms of all-time playoff winning percentage -- Baltimore is 9-5 (.643) and Pittsburgh is 31-19 (.620). Since both Flacco and head coach John Harbaugh arrived in 2008, Baltimore is 4-2 in the playoffs (all on the road as a wild card), with wins at No. 3 seed Miami, No. 1 seed Tennessee, No. 3 seed New England and No. 4 seed Kansas City, by an average margin of 15.8 points per game. Flacco is the only quarterback to both start and win a playoff game in each of his first three seasons, and Harbaugh has tied Barry Switzer's feat of winning at least one playoff game in each of his first three seasons as a head coach (1994-96).
The Ravens are just a resilient and tough-minded team that has learned to take its act on the road and deal with whatever hostile environment and disadvantages await. Interestingly, while Harbaugh has never coached a playoff game at home, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is 3-1 in the playoffs since coming to Pittsburgh in 2007, but all of those were played at Heinz Field or a neutral site (Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa two years ago).
Naturally, the Ravens and Steelers split their AFC North season series this year, with Baltimore winning on the road 17-14 in Week 4, and Pittsburgh returning the favor 13-10 in Week 13. The teams are so familiar with one another they could probably play this one with their eyes closed. This will be their eighth meeting since the start of the 2008 season, and the second time in three years that they've met in the playoffs, with the Steelers beating Baltimore 23-14 in the 2008 AFC title game in Pittsburgh.
The last time these two played, in that Week 13 Sunday nighter in Baltimore, Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata broke Roethlisberger's nose with a hand that found its way inside his face mask early in the first quarter. Roethlisberger's schnozz went sideways, but his game didn't go south. He got his nose pushed back in place, and went about his business, having surgery to correct things later that week.
Roethlisberger doesn't usually light up the Ravens defense, or anything close to it. His 10-game totals against Baltimore shows he averages 210.2 yards per game, with 16 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a ho-hum 57.5 completion percentage. But the percentage that really counts is .800, based on his 8-2 record when he starts against the Ravens.
"I've lost to Ben Roethlisberger seven times,'' Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said this week. "He's definitely my biggest problem I'm facing.''
All of Baltimore echoes those sentiments exactly.
Flacco relies heavily on both Heap and running back Ray Rice in the passing game, and they're vital on third downs as underneath targets who usually create matchup problems for the defense. When one of them is out of the game, it's far easier for an opponent to cover the other one, and that gives Flacco one fewer outlet guy to look for when things start to break down in the pocket.
We saw how effective Heap can be last week at Kansas City. Flacco hit his sure-handed tight end 10 times for a game-best 108 yards, and both were season-highs for the underrated 10th year veteran. Heap's presence helped make Rice a more effective weapon as well, and the third-year back caught five passes for 42 yards and a touchdown, with 17 carries for another 57 yards.
Rice is adept at making the first tackler miss and getting quality yardage when Baltimore swings it to him out of the backfield, and Heap usually can't be covered by a linebacker in the middle of the field, giving Flacco and the Ravens a matchup they can exploit between the numbers. As much as the Steelers love to blitz, Baltimore's answer will be to slow down the Pittsburgh rush with a series of quick-hitting screens to their tight end and running back.
"I don't think either team is going to be able to run the ball much against the other one, so it's going to come down to who can protect their quarterback and throw the ball, and then not turning the ball over. I think the Ravens can make some plays in the passing game against the Steelers, if they stay aggressive, because Pittsburgh doesn't have great corners. But they have to protect Joe Flacco and he has to be able to get rid of the ball quickly and negate some of Pittsburgh's pass rush. Also, Baltimore can't afford any turnovers either in the first quarter, or the fourth quarter, because either scenario could be a killer playing the Steelers at home, once their crowd gets into it. Those are two critical points in this game.
"These two always play tough, low-scoring games, and if anybody can get to 20 points on Saturday, that's going to win it. This game won't be exactly like their earlier games, especially the Week 4 game, because both teams had to play that one at least thinking about the rest of your season. Not so in this game. This is it. If you don't win, the season's over. So I expect them both to take more chances.
"Troy Polamalu is probably sore with his ankle injury, but you know he'll play. He'll do what he has to do to play. The Ravens know how he can turn the game around with just one play, so they have to know where he is at all times. That's key. He can't be a big factor in the game if Baltimore hopes to win. It sounds simplistic, but if he's lined up deep, I think the Ravens will try to run the ball, and if he's up close, they'll probably throw the ball. You can kind of predict what's going to happen from where he is, that's how much of a factor he can be.''
Last week, before the playoffs began, I picked the Steelers to beat the Colts and the Patriots to beat the Ravens in the AFC's divisional round, so I didn't foresee this third Baltimore-Pittsburgh unfolding in the second weekend of the postseason. But now that it has, I'm going to put my money on Baltimore continuing its road playoff magic for one more week. My sense is the breaks are due to go the Ravens' way for a change in a big showdown with the Steelers, and rust could be a bit of a factor for Pittsburgh, which hasn't played in a true big-game atmosphere since losing at home to the Jets almost four weeks ago. Look for Baltimore to quiet the Heinz Field crazies with a fast start, and then hold off the inevitable Ben Roethlisberger-led fourth-quarter rally.