Sunday will mark the third time this season the Steelers and Ravens have played this season. This year, the Steelers swept both of the previous games – barely. They won in overtime 23-20 on September 29 and then 13-9 on December 14. If the Steelers win Sunday, it would be only the 12th time in the 56 instances that teams have met three times in a season since 1970 that a three-game sweep occurred.
This game will match two teams that are almost mirror images of each other. Both teams rely heavily on their defenses and both offenses try to establish the running game and use the passing game in high percentage areas of the field. Both offenses try to take what the opposing defense gives them. The Steelers come into the game the healthiest of the two teams, with only safety Troy Polamalu and center Justin Hartwig listed as probable on the injury report. Both players did practice this week and appear to be 100% for game day. The Ravens on the other hand, limp into the AFC Championship game with numerous injuries having played 17 straight weeks. Most notable for the Ravens will be cornerback Samari Rolle, suffering from a thigh injury and linebacker Terrell Suggs, who has a serious shoulder injury. Rolle is doubtful for the game, while Suggs is listed as questionable and will likely try to play through it. The rest of the injured Ravens players will likely play.
The weather will be typical winter weather for Pittsburgh in January, with freezing temperatures and possible snow showers. Both teams are use to the cold, so it should not play a big part in the game. The home field advantage will play huge for the Steelers, especially if they can jump out to an early lead. The Ravens only chance of quiting the crowd, will be to get the Steelers down quickly on the scoreboard.
The AFC Championship game usually comes down to the turnover column, especially when you are dealing with two defenses of this caliber. The Steelers will look to rattle rookie quarterback Joe Flacco with pressure and make him beat them through the air. The Steelers will likely play the Ravens wide recievers straight up and put 8 men in the box to attack the Ravens ground game. The Ravens will likely have to defend the Steelers offense in the exact opposite. with a thin secondary, they will try to stop the running game of the Steelers with a seven man front and let the safeties help out more in the passing game.
On offense the Steelers will look to attack the Ravens run defense on the outside corners, much like the Titans Chris Johnson did in last week\’s game. The Steelers want to force the Raven defense to bring in the safeties and force run blitzes in an attempt to get wide receivers Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington free over the top of the defense for huge plays. Receiver Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller will be used underneath and mostly in the middle of the field.
This AFC Championship game will come down to turnovers, running game and penalties. The Ravens are a very tired and banged up team right now and a rookie quarterback and head coach will not help them. The Ravens are a good team and did over achieve this year. They are heading in the right direction, but Sunday will signal the end of the season for them. The Steelers are well coached, focused, healthy and have both depth and experience on their side. This game will be close for three quarters, but the Steelers should prevail when the cold air clears.
Prediction: Steelers 23 Ravens 13