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Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Baltimore Ravens Prediction and Preview

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Baltimore Ravens Prediction and Preview

Fierce AFC North rivals clinging to slim playoff hopes face off to finish the regular season and potentially cap Ben Roethlisberger's remarkable career

The Ravens-Steelers rivalry has been one of the NFL's best despite only being 26 years old. And with a playoff spot on the line, Sunday's loser-goes-home matchup could be one for the ages.

Both teams will need help in addition to a win to make the playoffs. The Steelers will need a Colts loss and the Raiders-Chargers game to not end in a tie, while the Ravens will need a Chargers loss, Colts loss, and Dolphins loss or tie. It's hard to believe it, but this could be the first season since 2013 that neither team makes the playoffs.

But with a rivalry like this, just bragging rights is a good enough start before scoreboard watching commences.

All eyes will be on the quarterbacks in this matchup, as it will be Ben Roethlisberger's final regular-season game — and last game ever if the Steelers don't get a few lucky breaks. Meanwhile, Lamar Jackson hasn't played in four weeks and has been held out of practice.

Which AFC North rival will keep its playoff hopes alive Sunday? Or at least send off its 2021-22 season on a high note with a winning record.

Pittsburgh (8-7-1) at Baltimore (8-8)

Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 9 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Ravens -3.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Big Ben's last hurrah?
Roethlisberger had an emotional farewell at Heinz Field on Monday night, but the unfortunate truth is that he had one of his worst games ever. In fact, it was his worst game ever, by yards per attempt. Despite attempting 46 passes, he only threw for 123 yards, giving him the lowest single-game ypa (2.67) for any QB in NFL history with at least 45 passes, as Jon Bois helpfully illustrated.

As weird as it sounds, though, Roethlisberger may have a golden opportunity to go out with a bang against the Ravens defense. He had his second-best performance of the year by QBR and passer rating against Baltimore in Week 13, going 21-of-31 for 236 yards with two scores and no picks. And the Ravens' secondary has only gotten thinner since then.

Before the season, Baltimore lost All-Pro corner Marcus Peters plus Khalil Dorsey and Iman Marshall to injuries. But then Marlon Humphrey (pectoral) landed on IR on Dec. 8, leaving Jimmy Smith and Anthony Averett (who is questionable Sunday with a fractured rib) as the starters. This unit is last in the NFL in pass defense (281.7 ypg) after ranking in the top 10 the previous six seasons.

In many ways, this game may be the embodiment of a stoppable force meeting a moveable object. Teams can throw on the Ravens, but with Roethlisberger unwilling or unable to throw more than 10 yards deep this will be a truly fascinating battle. The good news for Big Ben is that he should have wide receiver Diontae Johnson. He was activated from the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Friday afternoon. 

2. Ravens QB situation
After not practicing all week, Baltimore announced on Friday that Jackson would miss another game, meaning that second-year quarterback Tyler Huntley will make his third straight start (and fourth overall).

Against all odds, Huntley has played quite well over the last four weeks. Despite facing four strong pass defenses in the Bears (189.4 ypg, third), Browns (208.5, sixth), Packers (213.7, ninth), and Rams (237.2, 20th), Huntley has completed 69.2 percent of his passes for 225.3 yards per game.

While Huntley has just three touchdown passes with two interceptions, he's been an effective runner with 32 carries for 212 yards and two more scores. It's been a great Lamar-lite impression.

With another strong performance — Pittsburgh ranks 12th at 220.3 passing yards per game but only 21st at 7.1 yards allowed per attempt — Huntley could really improve his trade value. And since the upcoming draft class is thin on quarterbacks, would another team throw in a Day 2 pick for him? If not, Baltimore can always be happy with an overqualified backup.

3. Can anyone stop T.J. Watt?
With the NFL schedule expanding to 17 games, we're bound to see plenty of records fall. Michael Strahan's record of 22.5 sacks has always looked beatable, but Watt's pursuit of that title may not even need to come with an asterisk.

Despite missing two games this season, Watt is already at 21.5 sacks. Yes, the longer schedule has allowed him to miss time and still reach that total, and Reggie White did reach 21 sacks in 12 games in 1987. But a record is a record if Watt can collect another sack (or 1.5) on Sunday.

Last time out against the Ravens, Watt racked up 3.5 sacks on Jackson. While he's unlikely to do that again, Huntley has taken 15 sacks over his last four games. And Baltimore ranks 28th in the NFL with an 8.7 percent adjusted sack rate.

Don't expect Huntley to take a fall a la Brett Favre as Watt pursues the record, but with a beat-up offensive line — Tyre Phillips (knee) landed on IR two weeks ago and Ben Powers may return from a foot injury — Baltimore will be hard-pressed to stop the Defensive Player of the Year front-runner.

Final Analysis

Injuries and age have really sapped these traditional powers of their traditional strengths. However, if there is any game that will see teams rising to the occasion, it's this rivalry with these stakes. Despite working with a backup, Baltimore has the narrow edge at quarterback, which may be enough to win it at home.

Prediction: Ravens 23, Steelers 21