The stakes, as usual, will be high when the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers renew their rivalry tonight on NBC. Both teams enter this game 5-3, percentage points behind AFC North-leading Cincinnati (4-2-1). Tonight’s victor will either keep pace with the Bengals or replace them at the top of the standings, while the loser could wind up in last place in the NFL’s most competitive division.
There’s no love lost between John Harbaugh’s and Mike Tomlin’s teams, who have played each other 15 times, including twice in the playoffs, since Harbaugh took over the Ravens in 2008. Tomlin holds an 8-7 edge, but the Ravens have won the last two meetings. Games between these two archrivals have typically been close – 11 contests have been decided by four points or fewer.
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Baltimore -1.5
Three Things to Watch
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1. Joe Cool vs. Big Ben
They may not have the history or surefire Hall of Fame resumes of Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning, but Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger have developed their own little rivalry. Since being taken 18th overall in the 2008 draft and thrust into the starting lineup, Flacco has gone 7-8 versus Pittsburgh, but he’s just 4-7 (including 0-2 in the playoffs) head-to-head against Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger has missed four games against Flacco’s Ravens – three due to injury, including both games in 2012, and one due to suspension (2010). In their nine regular-season meetings, neither quarterback has exactly filled up the stat sheet. Flacco has a better passer rating (87.6 to 78.2), more touchdown passes (12 to 9) and fewer interceptions (3 to 8), while Roethlisberger has thrown for more yards (2,193 to 1,895). Even with the edge in yardage, Roethlisberger’s total breaks down to less than 244 per game. The two are also separated by less than a percent (58.8 for Flacco, 58.0 for Roethlisberger) when it comes to accuracy. So while neither quarterback has typically put up big numbers against the other’s team, each is still critical to their team’s success and will no doubt be under Al Michaels’ and Cris Collinsworth’s microscope during NBC’s broadcast. And who knows, perhaps tonight will produce a rare breakout performance from one of these signal-callers in this heated rivalry. After all Flacco did throw a career-high five touchdown passes earlier this season while Roethlisberger set new franchise records with his 522-yard, six-touchdown performance last week against Indianapolis.
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2. Baltimore’s Beat-up Defense
The Ravens handily beat the Steelers 26-6 when these two first met back in Week 2. Even though the total yardage was close (323-301), Baltimore was much more physical, punishing Pittsburgh on both sides of the ball. The Ravens’ defense set the tone, finishing with three takeaways and two sacks, but this unit will look a little different tonight. Jimmy Smith and Asa Jackson, who were the starting cornerbacks in Week 2, won’t play due to injury. Smith, Baltimore’s top cornerback, will certainly be missed against a Steelers wide receiver corps that features All-Pro candidate Antonio Brown, as well as younger weapons Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant. Several other starters, most notably Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs, are also dealing with some injury issues of their own, although both are expected to play tonight. Ngata and Suggs are veteran leaders and linchpins of the Ravens’ defense and will be needed to not only get pressure on Ben Roethlisberger, but also to help contain Le’Veon Bell, who is third in the NFL in yards from scrimmage (1,086). One of the reasons Baltimore defeated Pittsburgh so easily in Week 2 was the Ravens limited the Steelers to just two field goals and two trips in the red zone (0-2). With the secondary already shorthanded and the front seven dealing with some injury issues of its own, Baltimore’s defense will need to dig deep to have similar success tonight against a Pittsburgh offense that put up 639 yards and 51 points last week.
3. Ball Security
In the 26-6 win over Pittsburgh in Week 2, Baltimore’s defense forced three turnovers. Since that game, the Ravens have posted a minus-one (10 giveaways, 9 takeaways) turnover margin. The Steelers meanwhile have recorded at least one takeaway in each of their past six games and are plus-five (6, 11) during that span. Two of Pittsburgh’s three turnovers in the first game against Baltimore occurred in the red zone and the Steelers’ miscues led to 10 points for the Ravens. In a rivalry where so many games (12 of 15 since 2008) have been decided by a touchdown or less, it makes sense that ball security has played a key role in the outcomes. To that end, the Steelers are 7-3 in games against the Ravens in which they have won the turnover battle (4-2) or the teams were even (3-1). Baltimore is 4-1 when it does a better job of taking care of the football. And even though the Ravens are plus-seven overall against the Steelers in their last 15 matchups, it should be pointed out that this discrepancy is primarily due to a forgettable 2011 season opener when Pittsburgh committed seven turnovers, five of those courtesy of Ben Roethlisberger (3 INTs, 2 fumbles). Not surprisingly, that 35-7 Ravens win represented the most lopsided decision in the John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco vs. Mike Tomlin/Roethlisberger rivalry. So keep two hands on the football at all times tonight fellas, if you want to win.
Both Baltimore and Pittsburgh sit at 5-3 halfway through the season, but tonight’s winner could find itself in first place at the end of this game while the loser could the only last place team in any division with a winning record. What else would you expect when these two teams get together? The Steelers are coming off of their best offensive showing (639 yards and 51 points), while the Ravens are picking up the pieces after watching the Bengals come back and beat them with a late touchdown. In a rivalry that’s know for close games, the smallest break or advantage could be the difference between victory and defeat. To that end, I think Pittsburgh not only has the most momentum entering tonight, but also is catching a depleted and banged-up Ravens defense at the right time. It won’t be a cakewalk, because it never is, but I think the Steelers continue their recent strong play by taking care of business at home.