AFC North rivals rolling toward postseason once again
The NFL and NBC had to be hoping that scheduling the Steelers and Ravens on a Sunday night in December would produce a game with AFC North title implications. They haven’t quite got that this week, but this game has plenty to draw the eyes of fans.
Pittsburgh holds a three-game lead over Baltimore with four to play, so a division title for the Ravens is unlikely. But while both teams currently sit in playoff position, there is plenty still on the line. Baltimore has a slim one-game edge over a host of wild card contenders, while Pittsburgh is tied with New England for the top overall seed in the AFC. And both teams come in on a roll: The Ravens have won three in a row and four of five, while the Steelers enter with a seven-game winning streak.
Pittsburgh won the first meeting between the teams, racing out to a 19-0 halftime lead and cruising to a 26-9 win at Baltimore on Oct. 1. The Steelers have not swept the season series from the Ravens since 2008; they actually beat Baltimore three times that season, winning the AFC title game as well on their way to a Super Bowl XLIII title.
Baltimore at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 10 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Steelers -5
Three Things to Watch
1. Bell is back, but so is the Ravens' run D
Star Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell (right) got off to a slow start after holding out until just a few days before the regular season. Heading into the first meeting between these teams in Week 4, Bell was averaging less than 80 yards from scrimmage. Since that game — during which he rushed for 144 yards and caught passes for 42 more — Bell is averaging 147 yards from scrimmage and leads the NFL in that category with 1,559 on the season. Bell has also fared well of late against the Ravens at Heinz Field, rushing for 122 yards and 129 yards in his last two home games against Baltimore. The Ravens struggled to stop the run earlier in the season, but over their last five games they have not allowed more than 78 yards on the ground.
2. Baltimore must force Big Ben into mistakes
While Bell and the running game have come around for the Steelers, they have still leaned on Ben Roethlisberger and the league’s fourth-ranked passing game more than usual. As a result, turnovers have been an issue: Only six teams have thrown more interceptions than Pittsburgh. That’s not a good trend with the Ravens coming to town, because Baltimore leads the NFL with 20 interceptions, including Eric Weddle's (above, right) team-high five. In fact, the Ravens lead the NFL with 29 takeaways, and they have turned five of them into defensive touchdowns. They have forced 11 turnovers during their three-game winning streak, while the offense has turned the ball over just once.
3. Who will cover Antonio Brown?
Brown leads the NFL with 88 catches for 1,296 yards and nine touchdowns. The last player to lead the NFL in all three categories was Steve Smith in 2005 with Carolina, but he tied for the lead in two of the three. Brown has been especially hot of late, pulling in 28 passes for 414 yards and six touchdowns over the last three games. The good news for Baltimore is that it held Brown to a season-low 34 yards the last time these teams met, and he hasn’t managed a 100-yard day against the Ravens since the 2014 postseason. The bad news is that Baltimore will be without its top cornerback, Jimmy Smith, who ruptured an Achilles tendon last week and was set to be suspended for four games anyway for violating the league's performance-enhancing substances policy. Can the rest of the Ravens' secondary contain Brown? No one else has this season.
The fact that the Steelers haven’t swept the Ravens in nearly a decade gives us pause, as does the fact that Pittsburgh is coming off an emotional win over Cincinnati that saw it lose linebacker Ryan Shazier to a potentially career-ending back injury. But Jimmy Smith’s absence tips things back in the Steelers’ favor.