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The winner and third place finisher of the AFC North will face off in the Divisional round of the AFC Playoffs. The Baltimore Ravens finished the season 10-6 and needed some help to get in the playoffs, but did during week 17. The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals in primetime to win the division. The two division rivals, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, split the season series. The Ravens won in week 2, in a blowout game 26-6. There were six field goals and only two touchdowns. The second time these two teams met, Ben Roethlisberger threw for 340 yards and 6 touchdowns in a 43-23 Steelers victory. This rivalry has been very evenly matched in recent years. Since the turn of the century, they have split the regular season head-to-head matchup with each team winning 14 games.
 

This rivalry has always been defined by tough defense and hard hits from the likes of Troy Polamalu, Ray Lewis, James Harrison, Ed Reed, Joey Porter and Terrell Suggs but that’s starting to change. Polamalu has been plagued by injuries and has only started all 16 games in two of the past five seasons. Lewis retired after winning his second Super Bowl. Harrison spent last season with the Cincinnati Bengals before rejoining the Steelers midway through the season. Reed and Porter both retired a couple of years ago. Suggs is still on the Ravens and could be the most dominant player left.

 

The days of low scoring hard-hitting games are pretty much in the past four this rivalry. Both defenses are good at stopping the run. The Ravens rank fourth in opposing team’s rushing yards per game, the Steelers rank sixth. Baltimore’s defensive end Haloti Ngata will play his first game coming off of a four game suspension for violating the league’s drug policy. Ngata could prove to be a difference maker. But both secondaries are a mess. Neither defense tackles well and they both allow big plays down the field. The Steelers average to give up over 250 passing yards a game, ranking 27th in the league, while the Ravens rank 23rd. These teams are now, like the rest of the league, focused more on putting points on the board, then keeping them off.
 

Each team has a number of playmakers that can change the dynamics of the game in a single play but it starts behind center. Ben Roethlisberger is having arguably the best season of his career. He has completed 67.1% of his passes this season, which is good for third in the league behind Tony Romo and Drew Brees. Roethlisberger and Brees each threw for 4,952 yards this season leading the league, which is a high for the Steelers’ signal caller. The Miami (of Ohio) graduate finished the year with 32 touchdown passes, an average of two a game. Six of the seven quarterbacks who threw for more TDs are also in the playoffs. 

 

On the other hand, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco hasn’t had a great season, but has had great postseason success. When he led the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory, he completed 57.9% of his passes: mediocre. However, Flacco threw 11 touchdown passes and not a single interception during that postseason. The Ravens’ success will require more from Flacco, than the Steelers’ success rests on Big Ben’s shoulders.

 

The Steelers will go into this game shorthanded. Second year running back Le’Veon Bell will not play after hyper-extending his knee last week. Bell is without a doubt one of the most versatile players in the league and the Steelers’ recent success is correlated to how he’s been playing. Bell totaled 1,361 rushing yards, finishing second in the league. He also had 854 receiving yards, the highest total of any running back, which is good for second on the team. The Michigan State grad had 11 total touchdowns, 8 of which were scored in the last six weeks. He has been a workhorse for the team. He has accumulated 78% of the team’s total rushing yards this season. Bell has accounted for approximately a third of the team’s total yards from scrimmage. That percentage rises to 40% since Week 11, which is the most in the NFL. It will be extremely difficult to replace Le’Veon Bell. It might actually prove beneficial for him to get some rest if the team can advance to the next round.

 

The Steelers’ second leading rusher is LeGarrette Blount, but he was cut and is now playing for the Patriots. The third and fourth running backs to start the season are now the top two. Rookie Dri Archer and rookie Josh Harris have combined for 19 carries 56 yards for an average of less than 3 yards per carry. The Steelers also signed veteran running back Ben Tate. This is Tate’s third team this season and he has rushed for only 371 yards. Archer, Harris and Tate need to step up for the Steelers to get a win this week.
 

The Ravens’ run game has also been a big key for the team’s success. Going into the season, they knew their running back Ray Rice would be suspended for two games. So, Baltimore signed Justin Forsett as a replacement. Well Rice hasn’t played all season, and Forsett has been better than anyone could’ve expected. He has rushed for 1,266 yards this season. That’s more than double any of his other seasons total.  He finished fifth in rushing yards this season. Forsett leads the league with 17 carries of twenty or more yards. He has been the team’s biggest surprise and now has to keep it up if the Ravens’ want to make a deep playoff run.

 

The best player on either of these teams is Steelers’ receiver Antonio Brown. He was a 6th round pick, 195th overall, out of Central Michigan University. Brown has had a career year, one for the record books. He had 129 receptions this season.  Not only did that lead the league, but also it is second in history behind Marvin Harrison who had 143 catches in 2002. Brown’s receptions went for 1,698 yards, which is good for sixth all time. Harrison in 2002 and Calvin Johnson in 2012 are the only two players to have more receiving yards than Antonio Brown since 1995. He is arguably the best receiver in the NFL. No team has been able to stop him and the Baltimore secondary will be no exception.


My Prediction: This game will be high scoring. Both quarterbacks will throw a ton of deep balls down the field. None of the running backs will have great games. Ben Roethlisberger will throw for over 300 yards and 3 touchdowns. Joe Flacco will throw for about 250 yards and 2 touchdowns. Antonio Brown will have over 150 receiving yards, a season high, with a touchdown or two. Steve Smith Sr. will have his first 100 receiving yard game since October. The Steelers will win 34-24.

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