2008 Conference Championships Round: Ravens at Steelers

AFC Championship Game Preview

Baltimore Ravens (13-5) at Pittsburgh Steelers (14-4), Sunday, Jan. 18th, 6:30 p.m. ET (CBS)

Broadcast Team: Jim Nantz and Phil Simms

Next up for the Steelers in their NFL record tying 14th AFC Championship game is their hated AFC North rival the Baltimore Ravens.  For the 13th time since 1990 when the NFL went to the 12-team playoff format, teams that played at least once during the regular season will meet in the AFC Championship Game. If Pittsburgh defeats Baltimore, it will mark the ninth time in 13 opportunities that the team that won the regular-season meeting(s) won the AFC Championship.

These teams are the NFL’s version of the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s (allegations of bounties) and it will real be interesting to see if the Steelers can beat the tough Ray Lewis led Ravens three times in one season.  There is a lot of history between these two teams – met 26 times including twice this year (both Steelers wins) with the Steelers holding a 16-10 edge including a 2-1 record in the playoffs.  In their prior games in Weeks 4 and 15, the Ravens hung around, but the Steelers always found a way to make a play when needed to produce a victory.

The game will be a battle to two defenses that love to get after the passer looking for sacks and turnovers.  The Ravens were the NFL’s leader in takeaways with 34 and the Steelers were ranked #1 in every category except for the run where they finished second.  Both teams are led by young charismatic head coaches with the title of  the “NFL’s rising new young head coach” at stake — the two coaches have only led their teams for a  combined 48 regular-season games (the second fewest such games by opposing coaches in a conference championship game in the Super Bowl era since 1966).   Though John Harbaugh’s Ravens are a mix of older and younger players, they are perceived as upstarts Ravens compared to Mike Tomlin’s veteran Steelers team.

On offense the Steelers will need to continue to play with balance after a 2008 regular season, where quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (281-469, 3301 yards, and  17 TDs) threw the ball entirely too much – usually over 25 times a game.  With Roethlisberger recovering from a concussion and a minor spine injury from the regular season, last week the Steelers and their offensive coordinator Bruce Arians went back to Steelers’ black-and-blue offense.  Roethlisberger was efficient throwing for numbers of 17-26, 181 yards, 1TD, and 0 INTs in a solid win over the Chargers and veteran running back Willie Parker was the teams catalyst (career postseason high of 146 rushing yards).  The Steelers will need to continue to protect Big Ben, who was one of the NFL’s most it passers in 2008, from the Ravens’ “Organized Chaos” defense led by Pro Bowl players LB Ray Lewis, NT Haloti Ngata, and safety Ed Reed.  The Ravens defense, who have some injury problems (Rolle – groin and Suggs – Shoulder) will need to keep an eye on Steelers third-down chain moving receiver Hines Ward, who is on the verge of passing 1,000 yards in receptions in his postseason career.  Also another huge factor offensively for the Steelers maybe receiver Santonio Holmes, who turned last week’s Chargers game around with a huge punt return for a touchdown.

Plain and simple I believe this game will come down to the Steelers pass rush led by Defensive MVP James Harrison (2nd in the AFC in Sacks with 16) getting pressure on Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco (257-428, 2971 yards, 14 TDs and 12 INTs) to force turnovers by their back four — safety Troy Polamalu (7 INTs).  Flacco, a former 1-AA player from Delaware, has been as cool as a cucumber throughout the playoffs winning an NFL rookie record two postseason games.  However the stakes are higher than ever and the former University of Pittsburgh transfer will need to show the country something in terms of that he is more than just a “Game Manager” – only had numbers 11-22, 161 yards and 1 TD in last week’s 13-10 win over the Titans. 

In the postseason the Ravens have lived on the edge producing turnovers that have helped their offense, but the Steelers are a veteran team and the Ravens offense will need to put some drives together.  The Ravens have to get the ball down the field to WR Mark Clayton and WR Derrick Mason (80-receptions for 1,037 yards and 5 TDs), because their running backs LeRon McClain (ankle) and Willis McGahee are very banged up going into this game.

LV‘s Pick: After 18 straight weeks of play without a bye, the Ravens have seemed to have hit a wall.  They were outgained in every category in last week’s win over the Titans, but they will need more in cold snowy Pittsburgh.  The Ravens’ magic run of winning 11 of their last 13 comes to an end at the hands of the Steelers.  Mike Tomlin’s group will make Flacco beat them and I don’t see that happening.  I expect the rookie quarterback to play like a “rookie quarterback” with at least two turnovers.  It will be a “Keystone State” Super Bowl in Tampa as the Steelers and Eagles square off in Super Bowl XLIII. Steelers 24, Ravens 10

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

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