The Ravens don’t really need to beat Pittsburgh on Sunday night.
A one-game lead for the final wild-card spot, a strong tiebreaker profile, and three remaining games — two at home — against teams that are a combined 20 games below .500 make Baltimore’s chances to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 very strong already. But a victory would bring the elusive signature win that would make the doubters — and perhaps John Harbaugh’s team itself — start to believe the Ravens are capable of being a legitimate threat in January.
Meanwhile, the Steelers hope to extend their seven-game winning streak, but a defeat would still leave them within striking distance of New England, who will visit Heinz Field next week with the upper hand for the No. 1 seed in the AFC on the line. The immediate incentive for Pittsburgh to win Sunday would be to clinch the AFC North title, but its three-game advantage with four weeks to go leaves quite a margin for error in the division race.
In other words, the renewal of this intense rivalry lacks the same stakes as last year’s Christmas Day affair that essentially served as a division championship game.
Last week’s serious back injury suffered by Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier has been on the minds of both teams as the former Pro Bowl selection’s future on and off the field remains unclear. With many Pittsburgh players planning to wear cleats paying tribute to their injured teammate, how the Steelers respond emotionally playing at home could certainly be a factor for at least the beginning of Sunday night’s game.
It’s time to go on the record as these AFC North rivals meet for the 44th time in the regular-season series with the Steelers holding a slight 23-20 advantage to go with a 3-1 edge in postseason encounters. Pittsburgh has won the last two meetings and is in search of its first regular-season sweep of the Ravens since 2008. Including the playoffs, 16 of the 22 showdowns with the Steelers in the John Harbaugh era have been decided by a single possession.
Below are five predictions for Sunday night:
1. Danny Woodhead will have his best game as a Raven with 60 receiving yards and a touchdown. The focus on Shazier’s injury has rightly been on his health and not on football, but the Steelers will miss his presence in pass coverage as he recorded an interception and four breakups against Baltimore’s underneath passing game in Week 4. With Cam Heyward and a strong Pittsburgh front dominating the line of scrimmage in that first meeting, Joe Flacco may have to rely on more short passing and less of Alex Collins and the running game. With outside linebacker Arthur Moats filling in on the inside, this is the game Woodhead and the Ravens need to exploit an advantageous matchup.
2. Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell will finish with 115 total yards of offense. It’s no secret the run defense has been superb since Brandon Williams’ return in late October, but Bell’s huge game in Week 4 was more about the inability to set the edge on outside runs and to handle the Steelers’ pulling interior linemen on counters than struggles inside as he averaged just 2.2 yards per carry between the tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. The Ravens will be hellbent to slow Bell as a runner, but linebackers C.J. Mosley and Patrick Onwuasor have been vulnerable in pass coverage and this is where Bell will find more of his success. He’ll extend a streak of 57 or more receiving yards to four straight games.
3. Mike Wallace and Martavis Bryant will catch long touchdowns for their respective teams. With Steelers cornerback Joe Haden still out and their safeties inclined to play a little closer to the line of scrimmage to help the inside linebackers in coverage, there should be some opportunities for the Ravens to take deep shots and Wallace has been playing his best football of the year since the bye. On the flip side, Baltimore will do whatever it can schematically to prevent Antonio Brown from killing a secondary without Jimmy Smith, but that will leave Marlon Humphrey or Brandon Carr occasionally on an island matched up with Bryant, who is still dangerous despite a disappointing season.
4. Joe Flacco will be efficient and play turnover-free football for the third straight week. The 10th-year quarterback is coming off his best game of the year and needs to play more like that down the stretch if the Ravens are to become a realistic threat in the AFC. Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler will do more to try to confuse Flacco and mix up coverages than Detroit did a week ago, but his fourth-ranked defense ranks a pedestrian 14th in the NFL in takeaways. Pass protection needs to hold up better than it did in the first meeting between these teams, but Flacco will effectively find Woodhead and Jeremy Maclin in the short-to-intermediate area of the field.
5. The Ravens will pull off the upset for their first signature win of the season in a 23-20 final. Perhaps I’m drinking too much purple Kool-Aid, but the Steelers are coming off a short and emotional week following a Monday night road game and have trailed in the second half of four of their last five games, illustrating how vulnerable they’ve looked at times despite a terrific 10-2 record. Baltimore has one last chance to earn a signature win and needs to build on its strong performance from a week ago to build confidence that the offense can be productive enough moving forward to have a real chance in the playoffs. The Steelers are the better team overall, but this week’s circumstances set up favorably for the Ravens to steal a road win in Pittsburgh and further improve their playoff positioning.