Ravens-Steelers: Five predictions for Sunday

December 28, 2019 | Luke Jones

A 12th win in a row would give the 2019 Ravens the first 14-2 record in franchise history, but there’s only one meaningful factor to monitor in Sunday’s regular-season finale against Pittsburgh.

That’s navigating 60 minutes of football without any injuries that could hinder a championship run.

Coaches and players have spoken all week about playing to win against their biggest rival, but John Harbaugh’s easy decision to rest MVP favorite Lamar Jackson, Marshal Yanda, Mark Ingram, Earl Thomas, and Brandon Williams tells you exactly how important this game is to Baltimore’s ultimate goal of winning the third Super Bowl in franchise history. It goes far beyond trying to eliminate an AFC North rival from playoff contention, setting additional regular-season records, or “maintaining momentum.” The threat of any top seed losing its edge or getting rusty is real, but that isn’t eliminated by simply playing Week 17 at full strength and doesn’t match any risk of losing a key player in a game lacking meaning.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens and Steelers meet for the 48th time in the regular season with Pittsburgh holding a 25-22 advantage as well as a 3-1 edge in playoff encounters. Baltimore is 13-13 against the Steelers in the Harbaugh era and seeks its first season sweep since 2015.

Below are five predictions for Sunday:

1. The Ravens will rest or limit more starters than the aforementioned names. Harbaugh hasn’t revealed additional plans for playing time beyond what he announced Monday, but you’d assume he’ll hold out other key players or at least limit their snaps. In Week 17 of the 2012 season, he deactivated Yanda, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Anquan Boldin, and Bernard Pollard and limited the likes of Ed Reed, Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Matt Birk, Torrey Smith, and Dennis Pitta to 16 or fewer snaps. Based on that as well as past preseasons, the Ravens can navigate a game with roughly 40 players.

2. Baltimore will set a new NFL record for rushing yards in a 16-game season. We saw Jackson’s impact on the run game from the moment he took the starting reins last year, so it’ll be interesting to see how productive the group is with Robert Griffin III at quarterback. The Ravens need 93 rushing yards to break the 1978 New England Patriots’ mark of 3,165, but they’re facing a Pittsburgh defense ranking third in the NFL at 3.7 yards per carry allowed. The volume of carries should still be there to set the record even if the Ravens average well below their season mark of 5.6 yards per rush.

3. JuJu Smith-Schuster will catch only his fourth touchdown of 2019. It was a quiet return for Smith-Schuster last week after a four-game absence due to a knee injury, but he provides a much-needed inside target for rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges and a sputtering Pittsburgh offense. Should the Ravens choose to limit Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey’s playing time, there isn’t an attractive backup option to play in the slot, a position Baltimore struggled to fill early in the year after Tavon Young was lost for the season in August. That’s even more reason not to play Humphrey too much in this game.

4. Justin Tucker will make his longest field goal of the season. We know a record-setting offense has marginalized the kicking game this year, but it’s mind-blowing to think the best in the NFL and three-time Pro Bowl selection hasn’t even attempted a field goal from 50 yards or more since Week 2. Tucker has just one missed field goal — and two unsuccessful extra points — this season, but Sunday will feel like a throwback performance with the Ravens relying more on field position and the kicking game. Some rain could make it tricky, but Tucker will connect on a field goal from longer than 51 yards.

5. The Ravens will be held under 20 points for the first time all season in a 17-16 loss. I haven’t picked against the Ravens since October and don’t plan to again in January, but this game simply doesn’t matter and can only harm their Super Bowl aspirations in the event of a notable injury or two. Baltimore winning with backups against an ordinary Steelers team wouldn’t surprise me by any means, but expecting the same intensity and brand of Ravens football — even if it’s against Pittsburgh — with Jackson and other top players in street clothes on the sideline is a lot to ask in a game in which the opponent has everything to play for. It will be a competitive game with points at a premium, but we’ll come away reminded why Jackson is the easy choice as the league MVP this season.