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Steelers-Ravens: Bloodbath III

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In what has become the premier rivalry in the NFL today, the last 17 match-ups tell the tale: The Steelers have won nine times, the Ravens have won eight times, each team has scored 302 points and the average margin of victory is a scant three points. They split two meetings this season. It all comes down to three hours on Saturday.

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) vs. Baltimore Ravens (13-4)

Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA, Saturday, 4:30 PM, CBS

Favorite: Steelers by 3


The Road Doesn't Matter to the Ravens- Baltimore has played six consecutive road playoff games under John Harbaugh; they are 4-2, including a dominating 30-7 win in Kansas City last week. They are also the only team to win a playoff game in Foxborough in the past decade.

Ben Owns Baltimore- While the last 17 matchups are almost dead-even, Ben Roethlisberger has been tremendous against the Ravens deadly defense. Thriving on chaos, Big Ben is 8-2 against Baltimore in his career.

Who Has Suggs? Terrell Suggs was borderline unblockable in the two team's last meeting, and he had two sacks last week. To make matters worse, Pittsburgh has played with a patch-work offensive line all season, including having to deal with season-ending injuries to both starting tackles. Jonathan Scott and Flozell Adams have filled in admirably, but they'll need help containing Suggs. Will the Steelers help Scott and Adams by keeping an back in to protect? Will they go two tight ends? Does Heath Miller stay home to block? Whatever they decide to do, look for the Ravens to exploit the situation.

Linebacker U- The Steelers 2010 linebacking corps is one of the best in the team's glorious history. James Harrison's illegal hits have overshadowed one of his best seasons, Lawrence Timmons has played at a superstar level, LaMarr Woodley is dynamite in the postseason, and James Farrior continues to defy mother nature to be a stalwart on the inside. And Larry Foote--a starter in Super Bowl 43--comes off the bench. They'll give the Ravens offensive line--particularly the struggling Michael Oher--major problems.

Who Said Ray-Ray's Old? Steelers fans are trying very hard to convince themselves that Ray Lewis is washed up. Granted, he's not the best linebacker in the universe anymore, but Lewis is still a dominant force. While any backer can be made to look mortal when offensive linemen are able to lay their hands on them, Ravens tackles Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata--perhaps the best defensive player in the league--keep No. 52 free to use his smarts and savvy to find the air and make plays. If the Steelers want Lewis to look bad, they'd better take care of Gregg and Nada first.

Fort Pitt Stockade- Don't look now, but this Steelers team is not three yards and a cloud of dust. Armed with one of the league's greatest playmakers under center, the Steelers list of offensive weapons is a long one. In addition to 1,000-yard rusher Rashard Mendenhall, the arsenal is stocked for an ariel attack. Hines Ward is still a great possession receiver, and Mike Wallace is the AFC's best deep-threat. But he's also becoming a complete receiver and has added slant routes and the ability to rack up the YACs. Tight end Heath Miller is the most under-rated at his position, and rookie receivers Manny Sanders and Antonio Brown are burners who have become solid contributors. And watch out for Antwaan Randle-El and his trickoration.

Rice is a Complete Meal- While the Steelers defense has held Ray Rice in check this season, the Ravens back is as good a two-way threat as there is in the NFL. He may be most dangerous coming out of the backfield. Look for Joe Flacco to take advantage of Rice's versatility to make a big play when the Ravens need it most.

Throw It Where He Ain't- We talked about all the problems Terrell Suggs is likely to present to the Steelers. But look for the Black and Gold to get all New Englandy on him. Over the past few weeks, the Steelers have begun to develop their quick-strike middle-of-the-field passing game. Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders have started catching four-or-five yard slant routes across the middle and exploiting blitzing linebackers. Expect Pittsburgh to try to slow Suggs down a bit by hitting some of these quick passes. Warning to the Steelers: Ray Lewis will catch on pretty quickly, and there's nothing Heinz Field likes less than the site of No. 52 taking one the other way.

The Equalizers- Rank them in any order you wish, but if you're not ready to acknowledge that Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed are the best safties in the NFL then don't bother watching Saturday's game. Even though--or perhaps especially because--both continue to battle major injuries, they both make clutch plays at crucial times for their teams. They are game-changers, plain and simple.

A Special Bunch- Baltimore's biggest advantage over the Steelers is in special teams. And when two teams are this evenly matched, special teams often makes the ultimate difference. The Ravens' Billy Cundiff is one of the best kick-off men in the league, and Baltimore punter Sam "You Send Me" Koch is under-rated. Though he's been better lately, punter Jeremy Kapinos has the Steelers really missing Daniel Sepulveda, and who knows if kicker Shawn Suisham can keep up his surprising season once the games really matter.

The Difference- These two teams have similar strengths, and similar weaknesses. And though Joe Flacco may someday be good enough to lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl, Ben Roethlisberger is playing the best football of his two-Super Bowl ring career. We've seen No. 7 go 88 yards in 90 seconds to win a Super Bowl. If the Steelers need one play... Ben makes it.

Let's get it on...

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