By Vic Carucci | NFL.com
AND:::AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREVIEW:::Five pressing questionsThis isn't something that has been manufactured for the sake of cheap publicity.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens genuinely don't like each other.
And that mutual hostility, which has played itself out in their two AFC North meetings each year during the regular season, is going to take on an even greater level of intensity when they clash in the AFC Championship Game.
"It's kind of like Rocky vs. Drago almost," Steelers offensive guard Willie Colon said. "It's going to be a slugfest. It's going to be nasty."
Added Steelers offensive tackle Max Starks: "Every time you say, 'Baltimore-Pittsburgh in a football game,' you know it's going to be a tough, physical, grind-out, bloodbath."
The Steelers' 35-24 divisional-round playoff victory over the Chargers had ended only moments earlier, but few players in the Pittsburgh dressing room wanted to talk about or even savor the game that had just been played.
The focus had promptly been placed on the task ahead.
Earlier in the season, Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward called himself the "most hated man in Baltimore" because of the bone-crushing blocks he had delivered to Ravens players and the subsequent revelation by Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs that there was a "bounty on his head." Ward smiled at the prospect of facing the Ravens for a third time, especially with so much at stake.
"It'll be a great AFC Championship Game to watch," Ward said.
The Steelers needed little time to put aside their triumph over the Chargers, during which they came back from 7-0 and 10-7 deficits in the first half before running away with the game in the final two quarters. They ran the ball well (Willie Parker had 146 yards and two touchdowns). Ben Roethlisberger showed no ill affects from the concussion he suffered in the regular-season finale. And the defense stuffed running back Darren Sproles and pressured Philip Rivers.
Still, it's a little hard to be satisfied with beating an opponent that had entered the postseason with an 8-8 record. A team that also needed to win its last four games in a row just to make the playoffs and then won an overtime game in the wild-card round before taking a cross-country flight to temperatures more than 50 degrees colder than back home. That was a game the Steelers fully expected to win, and should have won as the No. 2 seed in the AFC that had the benefit of a first-round bye.
It didn't matter that three other playoff teams with byes had lost. All that mattered was that the Steelers took care of business. And as far as they're concerned, the right team emerged from the other divisional-round game. As awkward as it was, Steelers players were openly rooting for the Ravens to beat Tennessee on Saturday, but not only because it gave them the opportunity to host the AFC title game.
If you ask some members of the Steelers, the most logical showdown to determine the AFC representative for Super Bowl XLIII was not Pittsburgh and the top-seeded Titans or two opponents from the division that had widely been viewed as the AFC's best, the South.
It was between two clubs from the AFC North -- between the team that finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in defense (the Steelers) against the one ranked No. 2 (the Ravens).
"I knew all year long we were the two best teams in the AFC, just my opinion (from) watching all the other teams," inside linebacker Larry Foote said. "When you've got a good defense like (the Steelers and Ravens have), you can be in any game. Teams want to simulate Pittsburgh and Baltimore, just the way we play. But you can't coach what we've got. You've got to do a good job and bring the right players in to do it."
Said Starks: "I think it is very appropriate, looking at both of these teams. We're very similar in style, and it's going to be a great matchup. Both teams have always had top-five defenses every single year since I've been in the league (2004). I think it's going to be good representation for the AFC."
Just look at their games this season. The Steelers beat the Ravens, 23-20 in overtime, here on Sept. 29. Then they beat them again, 13-9, at Baltimore on Dec. 14 to clinch the AFC North championship. Both games were typical of the series between the teams: close, competitive, and, most of all, hard-hitting.
The second game ended in controversy after Santonio Holmes caught a pass from Roethlisberger on the fringe of the goal line with less than a minute left. Officials first ruled that it was not a touchdown but, after looking a video replay, determined the ball had broken the plane and awarded the Steelers what would prove to be the decisive points.
The Ravens no doubt harbor some ill feelings from that one. Some of their players, including linebacker Ray Lewis, no doubt are still upset by the fact that when the teams last met in the playoffs, during a divisional-round game after the 2001 season, the Steelers won, 27-10.
Familiarity breeds contempt, as does what some Pittsburgh players perceive as a team that is a bit too effusive in celebrating its accomplishments and in talking trash.
"It's just the history, the arrogance of them sometimes, the lack of respect they show us at times," Colon said. "Not that we aren't a nasty team, not that we don't retaliate at times. But at the same time, they feel like, for whatever reason, they're worthy of whatever (accolades) they get.
"One thing about football, it's not about what you say. It's about what you do. And come next weekend, it's all about rolling that football out."
(by the same author)
I agree with most of his surmising, disagree with some.
1. Can the Ravens have success on the ground against the Steelers' defense?
Yes. The Ravens' persistence in running the ball gives them the opportunity to have success on the ground against any opponent, including the Steelers' second-ranked run defense.
They trust their defense to keep the score close, and will continually pound the ball on the ground to soften the opposing defense for either breakaway runs or big gains on the occasions they allow rookie quarterback Joe Flacco to throw.
Le'Ron McClain and Willis McGahee combined for 105 yards when the teams met on Sept. 29 (a game decided in overtime) and again when they met on Dec. 14. McClain generated the bulk of the yards, ranking as the top rusher in both games with 63 and 87 yards. Of course, the Steelers won both games -- the first in overtime and the second to clinch the AFC North title. But the Ravens, owners of the league's fourth-best rushing attack, have to view their ability to move the ball on the ground as a plus because it helps take some of the teeth out of the Steelers' ferocious pass rush.
2. Can the Steelers rattle young Joe Flacco?
No. If Flacco has proven one thing through 16 regular-season starts and two playoff games, it is that he does not lose his poise. Ever. He does not show any sense of being overwhelmed by the challenge of guiding an NFL team in the playoffs. Nor does he seem to have any problem handling most of what opposing defenses try to do to throw him off his game.
Flacco was not at all bothered by the fact the Steelers' sacked him five times during his first encounter with Pittsburgh's top-ranked defnese in September. He did not throw an interception in that game, and had a touchdown while keeping the Ravens within three points.
Flacco also wasn't fazed when the teams met the second time, even though he was sacked twice and did throw two interceptions (the second was a desperation heave after the Steelers scored what proved to be the winning touchdown in the final minute). Steelers defenders acknowledge that he isn't a rookie anymore, and have seen him develop significantly since early in the season.
3. Will the Steelers be able to have success on the ground?
Yes. The Titans certainly had no problem running the ball against the Ravens' third-ranked run defense in their divisional-round game.
Granted, the Steelers don't have nearly as good an offensive line as Tennessee's.
However, they have shown improvement -- enough that offensive coordinator Bruce Arians trusted the group to take charge of the divisional-round game against the Chargers.
The result was that Willie Parker rushed 27 times for 146 yards and two touchdowns. Expect the Steelers to try and pound the ball against the Ravens, although recent history suggests it will be difficult.
Parker was hurt for the first game against Baltimore during the regular season. His replacement, rookie Rashard Mendenhall, was limited to a mere 30 yards. Parker was back for the second game against the Ravens and was held to only 47 yards. But the Steelers will look at the Titans' success and attempt to do the same thing.
Of course, if they don't have success early, they won't hesitate to go to the air.
4. Will Ben Roethlisberger be able to stand up to Baltimore's wide variety of blitzing?
Yes. He has done so twice before. The Ravens sacked him three times, all on blitzes, during the teams' first meeting in the regular season, but he threw a touchdown along with an interception. During the second meeting, they again sacked him three times, again all on blitzes. And, again, Roethlisberger threw for a score. Even more impressive, though, was that he drove the Steelers the length of the field to connect with Santonio Holmes for the winning touchdown.
In the divisional-round victory over San Diego, Roethlisberger didn't seem to have any lingering problems from the concussion he suffered in the regular-season finale against Cleveland. Of course, he didn't face a whole lot of pressure from the Chargers, who often sent only four rushers after him. But Big Ben and his offensive linemen are used to the many variations Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan likes to use in his scheme.
5. Who will win the battle of young coaches?
Mike Tomlin. But it's a pretty close margin. John Harbaugh has done an exceptional job of leading the Ravens this far. He has kept his players focused and done a good job of keeping Flacco on track. Harbaugh's greatest asset is trusting his talented assistants, Ryan and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
Like his predecessor, Brian Billick, Harbaugh understands that defense is the engine that drives the Ravens and he leans on it heavily, as reflected by the run-oriented offense. Unlike Billick, however, he is more demanding and makes the players more accountable.
Tomlin also relies on his assistants to handle their respective roles, especially highly talented defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. When Tomlin took over in 2007, he could have imposed a lot of his defensive philosophy, which doesn't precisely follow that of LeBeau, on the team. But he didn't, recognizing that the players were comfortable with LeBeau's scheme and that their abilities were well suited to it. Tomlin brings a high level of energy and enthusiasm that is contagious with his players. They trust him and want to win for him.
Vic makes it sound as though TWO guys gettin' 100 yrs rusing against us is bad defense--I don't see it that way. If ONE guy's gettin that much, there miiiiight be a problem
Also don't agree that we didn't rattle Flacco in that second game--two INTs when he hadn't been throwin any? To ME, that's RATTLING him. Doesn't make him a sissy, QBs are human, and not many of us wants 3, 4, 500 lbs of man lauching themselves at us! lol--especially when two of those guys are Harrison and Woodley!
Most of the rest I agree with
Gotta say that I think our defense will be in a better frame of mind for the upcoming game. No bye week to get rusty, didn't hear of any major injuries yesterday, gotta be flyin high after that huge win.
Main thing for our whole team? They do NOT want to have beaten the Ravens twice this season just to lose ONE game IN THE PLAYOFFS and be goin home!!!! Then the two wins would've been for nothin--don't foresee that happening.
Besides--there've been more 2nd seed teams win the SB than any other seed number last few years
My personal preference would be Pittsburgh East vs Pittsburgh West in the SB