Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday

December 26, 2015 | Luke Jones

“The night is darkest just before the dawn.”

Recently adding to Harvey Dent’s sentiment expressed in “The Dark Knight” movie was injured Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, who told the team’s official website that watching this season is like “being in Bane’s prison with your back broken, watching the city in turmoil.”

That dawn — or an escape — doesn’t figure to come Sunday as the 4-10 Ravens welcome their hated AFC North rivals to town. Not only do the Pittsburgh Steelers have an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot with a win and a New York Jets loss, but their fans could take over M&T Bank Stadium in a manner we haven’t seen in Baltimore in a long time. Based on the higher-than-normal volume of visiting fans in town over the last two weeks, that scenario appears likely for the final home game of the 2015 season.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said this week that he couldn’t care less about the possibility of punching a ticket to the playoffs in Baltimore, but you know there’s little Pittsburgh would like more than to further embarrass their rivals when they’re down.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Steelers meet for the 40th in their regular-season history with Pittsburgh holding a 21-18 advantage, but 13 of the 18 games — including the postseason — in the John Harbaugh era have been decided by one possession, which includes the Ravens’ 23-20 overtime win at Heinz Field in Week 4. The Ravens are 10-9 against the Steelers in Baltimore.

Here’s what to expects as the Ravens try to win just their third home game of 2015 …

(Editor’s note: A report early Sunday morning indicated that Ryan Mallett will start against the Steelers, allowing the reader to skip to the No. 2 prediction.)

1. Jimmy Clausen will start and play respectably against one of the league’s worst pass defenses. Harbaugh and Marc Trestman have left the door open for Ryan Mallett to make his first start, but it’s difficult imagining him truly being ready with less than two weeks to learn the system and it makes little sense throwing him into such a difficult setting. Meanwhile, Clausen has played well enough in his first two starts to make you think he can make some plays against Pittsburgh’s 31st-ranked pass defense. The Ravens offense lacks the pieces to score many points, but Clausen’s developing chemistry with Kamar Aiken will allow them to at least move the chains on Sunday.

2. Jimmy Smith will intercept a pass, but Antonio Brown will catch a touchdown and post over 100 receiving yards. The fifth-year cornerback being listed as probable is good news, but it’s not as though the pass defense has thrived with Smith, who has disappointed coming off last year’s Lisfranc injury. The Ravens have one interception in the last three months — Lardarius Webb picked off Blake Bortles on Nov. 15 — and Smith will intercept Ben Roethlisberger in the first half. However, he’ll be no match for Brown as he eclipses the century mark in receiving yards for the fifth time in seven games. There are just too many weapons for Pittsburgh and not enough talent in the Ravens secondary.

3. Buck Allen will redeem himself from Week 15 with 115 yards from scrimmage. I wasn’t a fan of Harbaugh’s treatment of the rookie running back after his first-quarter fumble, but the coach indicated that Allen’s bench won’t carry over. The Steelers remain stout against the run, but their linebackers are poor in pass coverage, which should open up opportunities for Allen to catch passes out of the backfield. With Pittsburgh expected to score plenty of points and the Ravens likely playing from behind, Clausen will find Allen as a nice safety valve out of the backfield to help move the chains and the 2015 fourth-round pick will put the memory of the last two weeks behind him with a strong day.

4. Ben Roethlisberger will throw for over 300 yards for the sixth time in the last seven games. It’s hard to believe there was a time when the Pittsburgh quarterback was considered much more of a game manager, but the only thing to consistently stop him in 2015 has been injuries as Roethlisberger continues to put up big numbers. The Ravens will try to exploit Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, but the pass rush just isn’t good enough and the veteran signal-caller will be more than willing to roll out to his right and wait for his receivers to get open down the field. It will be a far cry from Week 4 when the Ravens were able to bottle up Mike Vick for most of the evening.

5. The Ravens will keep it close in the first half before Pittsburgh pulls away in a 31-13 final. Baltimore was competitive early against Seattle and Kansas City, but the resiliency and talent just aren’t there to overcome a turnover, a big penalty, or a gut-wrenching play by the opposition at this point. The Steelers have won three straight and have reached the 30-point mark in their last six contests, making them arguably the biggest AFC threat to New England should they reach the postseason. It’s easy to say it’s a Ravens-Steelers game and anything could happen, but do we really even recognize this Baltimore team at this point? Considering what’s at stake for Pittsburgh, the Ravens winning on Sunday would be one of the biggest upsets in the 20-year history of the franchise.