Call it act three, the rubber game, part three, whatever. As the opening kickoff of the Baltimore Ravens at the Pittsburgh Steelers gets closer, it's obvious that this is much more than just an NFL Divisional Playoff game. In fact, regardless of who wins this or any future game, be it the AFC Championship Game or the Super Bowl, it may not have the hype, tension or attention of fans in either city more than this game today.
If When the Ravens beat Pittsburgh and then make it to the Super Bowl, fans will not rub the Lombardi Trophy into the Steelers fans' faces, instead we will remind their fans that we beat them!
At a local pub yesterday, I encountered a decked out, trash-talking Steelers fan in Ravens territory. He was doing all he could to bait Ravens' fans into a worthless grade-school argument, but all I could tell him was how thankful I am that we both have teams playing so well that they have the best rivalry in the NFL and perhaps in all of sports right now. However, now it is time to tilt the playing field in Baltimore's favor.
(Read more, including my prediction, after the 'Jump' and be sure to join us at 4pm this afternoon for a gametime 'Open Thread')
Looking at the two regular season games that the teams split, one could say there was one play in each game that could have turn the win into a loss and vice versa. In most Ravens fans' minds, had the Ravens not turned the ball over deep in their own territory late in the game here in Baltimore, the Ravens would have swept the season series and today's game would be about to start in Baltimore, not Pittsburgh.
However, that didn't happen and now we go where we have already won, and the Steelers are only 5-3 at home this season at Heinz Field, losing to not only the Ravens, but the Patriots and Jets as well. Home field advantage might be fun, but will have no effect on the outcome of the game beyond the horrible condition of the playing surface in Pittsburgh.
While the Pittsburgh Steelers rested and got healthy last week, the Baltimore Ravens proved they actually do have an offense that can put an opponent away in the fourth quarter last week in demolishing the Kansas City Chiefs 30-7. Perhaps Cam Cameron has fooled the fans and critics all season long, opening up the playbook only enough to just win the games in the regular season, and now has added a few chapters for the post season. The weapons the Ravens added prior to the season not only made an impact, but tight end Todd Heap had a career game and took advantage of a defense that refused to adjust to what was consistently successful for this offense.
As much as the Steelers want to point out that QB Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for that first loss, the Ravens know Ed Reed missed that game as well. As much as they want to say Ben played and won in the second game, we can counter with the fact that Todd Heap pulled his hamstring on the first play of the game and never returned, taking a huge chunk of our offense and game plan out of the game. Heap is back and the Ravens plan to target him, and that threat will open the field for the other receivers.
That will also open the running game and you can be sure that the team is prepared for the Steelers blitz packages, especially making sure they are aware of Troy Polamalu each time he lines up prior to the snap. Even a slight improvement in pass protection will have a huge effect on this game, as the Ravens offense can move the ball against this Steelers defense with time for Joe Flacco to look around.
Defensively, the Ravens are actually seeming to peak now, as opposed to earlier in the season. Despite the offensive woes towards the end of the season, the Ravens held the Browns, Bengal and Chiefs combined to one total TD in the second half and no team scored more than 10 points against them during that span. In fact, their streak of not allowing a single point in the third quarter is now up to 26 straight games, stretching back to early in the 2009 season!
In the two team's last six regular season game, no one has won by more than four points and the last five have been by a mere three points. Only the Steelers' 23-14 2008 AFC Championship Game victory broke that trend and that was only because the Ravens were on their way to perhaps what might have been a game-winning field goal before Steelers safety Troy Polamalu put an end to that with a game-clinching interception for a TD.
That will not be happening today, as the Ravens are filled with momentum and have the confidence that they are the better team on both sides of the ball They plan to play mistake-free football, as the team that makes not only the most mistakes, but the last mistake, usually comes out on the short end of this rivalry. Today the Ravens will play like the champions that they were ten years ago and go into enemy territory and prove that they are indeed the better team and emerge victorious, to play another week for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl next month, and perhaps even more importantly, to prove their superiority over the Pittsburgh Steelers.