Poised with an opportunity to complete a regular-season sweep over the Pittsburgh Steelers for the second straight year and third time in team history, the Ravens return to M&T Bank Stadium trying to clinch their fifth straight trip to the playoffs with a win.
In contrast, the Steelers would be eliminated from AFC North contention and would see their playoff hopes take another major blow with a loss on Sunday. The Ravens will have their second straight division title and fourth in 10 years with a victory and a Bengals loss in San Diego on Sunday afternoon.
Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to win their fourth straight game over the Steelers for the first time in franchise history and improve to 16-18 all-time against their most bitter rival …
1. With Ben Roethlisberger sidelined again and Charlie Batch under center, the Steelers will make a stronger commitment to the running game with less success than they enjoyed two weeks ago. One of Pittsburgh’s biggest downfalls in the teams’ first meeting was allowing backup Byron Leftwich to throw 39 times while the Steelers averaged 5.0 yards per ground attempt. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley won’t make the mistake again as Jonathan Dwyer will receive a bigger workload with Isaac Redman also in the mix. However, the Steelers have a patchwork offensive line with right tackle Mike Adams out — and replaced by seventh-round rookie Kelvin Beachum — and left guard Willie Colon questionable. The latter’s absence could lead to even more shuffling with starting center Maurkice Pouncey possibly shifting to guard and backup Doug Legursky handling center duties. It all adds up to a less-effective running game and a very nervous Batch in the pocket.
2. The Ravens will match their season low for points scored at M&T Bank Stadium this season. Baltimore has averaged an incredible 36.8 points per game, but the Steelers bring the top-ranked defense in yards allow to town and held the Ravens without an offensive touchdown at Heinz Field in Week 11. Quarterback Joe Flacco will throw the ball often as he typically does at home, but a strong Pittsburgh secondary will also include a returning Troy Polamalu. The Ravens will use short and intermediate passing to counter the Pittburgh pass rush working against a shaky offensive line that will be without tight end Ed Dickson’s pass-blocking abilities, and Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce will grind away tough yards to keep the Steelers’ front seven honest. The Ravens’ low for points scored at home this season was 23 against Cleveland in Week 4, and that sounds like a respectable day against one of the best defenses in the league that will be without outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley.
3. Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown will be a factor in a limited passing attack to have 75 receiving yards in his return to action. Batch doesn’t have the arm to repeatedly test the Ravens deep, so the speedy Brown will be used underneath as the Ravens try to keep him and fellow speed receiver Mike Wallace in check. Cornerbacks Cary Williams and Corey Graham will play with cushion to respect speed on both sides of the field while safety Ed Reed won’t be able to shade to one side. Brown had 499 receiving yards in his first eight games this year before suffering a high ankle sprain last month but surprisingly doesn’t have a catch longer than 27 yards this season. He’ll eclipse that with a big gain after a short reception at some point on Sunday to put his team in position for a score.
4. Anquan Boldin will catch a touchdown pass as he continues a trend of strong games against the Steelers defense. The 32-year-old receiver is quietly on pace to finish with the best totals in receptions and yards he’s had in his three seasons with the Ravens. However, Boldin hasn’t found the end zone since catching a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals in the season-opening 44-13 win. Predicting that the Ravens will use shorter passing as the Steelers protect against deep shots to Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, I expect Flacco to find Boldin often as the possession receiver puts together another strong performance against Pittsburgh. Boldin was one of the few offensive standouts against Pittsburgh at Heinz Field two weeks ago, finishing with eight catches for 79 yards. He’ll have a similar day on Sunday but will add a long-awaited touchdown catch to his total.
5. Baltimore will win its 16th straight regular-season contest at M&T Bank Stadium with a 23-13 victory to clinch a playoff spot. These teams are going in opposite directions as the Ravens jockey for one of the top spots in the AFC while the Steelers face the prospects of their third straight loss as Roethlisberger continues to be sidelined with shoulder and rib injuries. Pittsburgh’s stout defense will keep this one from getting out of hand, but there’s just no way Batch will do enough against an improving Ravens defense to give the Steelers the type of offensive output they need to do what no one has done in Baltimore in 727 days. The Steelers were the last team to beat the Ravens in their home stadium on Dec. 5, 2010, but Baltimore will pass the two-year mark of that most recent home defeat with another win to eliminate their biggest rival from division contention and punch its own ticket to the postseason for an NFL-best fifth straight season.