Ravens-Steelers playoff preview: Who will win and why
USA TODAY examines the matchups for the Baltimore Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers AFC divisional-round playoff contest on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET (televised by CBS):
NFL PLAYOFFS: Results, schedules on Road to Super Bowl
WHO HAS THE EDGE?
When the Ravens run the ball: Ray Rice and Willis McGahee combined to rush for 1,600 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. But the Steelers run defense this season is among the best of all time, though it won't have DE Aaron Smith (torn triceps) for this game.
When the Ravens pass the ball: Baltimore might have to eschew the run and take advantage of Rice's hands — he has 141 catches since the start of the 2009 season — to get the offense moving. Throwing can bring Steelers SS Troy Polamalu more into play along with Pittsburgh's pass rush, which racked up an NFL-high 48 sacks. Still, the Ravens do boast a deep and talented receiving corps along with resurgent TE Todd Heap.
When the Steelers run the ball: Rashard Mendenhall ran for 1,273 yards in 2010 but was held to 124 in two games vs. Baltimore and averaged 2.8 yards a carry against the Ravens. Pittsburgh's O-line has weathered several injuries.
When the Steelers pass the ball: QB Ben Roethlisberger threw five interceptions, easily a career low, though he was suspended for the first four games. He's tough to bring down, which will let a nice cadre of complementary receivers work against a suspect pass defense allowing nearly 225 yards a game. Keep an eye on speed-burning WR Mike Wallace.
Special teams: Ravens K Billy Cundiff shuts down return games. Pittsburgh had to bring in a new kicker and a punter midseason.
Coaching: John Harbaugh is looking to improve his playoff record to 5-2 since he took over in Baltimore in 2008. But Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin, the youngest to ever oversee a Super Bowl titlist, might have turned in his best performance for a team that had to endure Roethlisberger's absence. And Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau outclasses nearly all of his peers.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The Bodog.net line: Steelers by 3
Analysis: The Steelers allowed 62.8 rushing yards a game during the regular season, the third lowest in NFL history since the 16-game schedule was implemented in 1978. They'll keep Baltimore's offense on its heels and pressure QB Joe Flacco into multiple turnovers to swing a game of field position.
Our pick: Steelers 17-12
TV announcers:Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf
Keys to the game: There aren't many secrets between these bitter rivals, who each won on the other's home field in the regular season. Look for a physical, defensive battle determined by third-down conversions, turnovers and red-zone production — a typical Ravens-Steelers brawl. In a Week 13 victory in Baltimore, Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger received little help from his ground game — 54 yards — but did spread the ball around to nine receivers, including five hookups with deep threat Mike Wallace. The game could hinge on how well Roethlisberger evades pressure and whether he's able to loosen the underneath coverage with a deep completion or two to Wallace to stretch the secondary. It was after that game, when Ravens RBs Ray Rice and Willis McGahee combined for 39 yards on 16 carries, that Baltimore committed to returning to a more physical style of play. Baltimore's running backs had 32 carries during the win at the Kansas City Chiefs last weekend. The Ravens have to get positive yardage on first and second down to give QB Joe Flacco reasonable passing situations to work out of.
Matchup to watch— Ravens TE Todd Heap vs. Steelers pass defense: Heap suffered a hamstring injury on the first play from scrimmage against Pittsburgh on Dec. 5, and his absence had a negative effect on the entire offensive game plan. Healthy again, he was targeted 13 times against Kansas City and was a mismatch for the combination of cornerbacks, linebackers and safeties the Chiefs tried to put on him downfield. Off coverage didn't work, and press coverage wasn't much more effective. The Ravens have to be able to work the middle of the field to use the Steelers' aggressiveness against them.
Player spotlight— Steelers WR Emmanuel Sanders: The rookie from SMU has emerged as a valuable playmaker in the third receiver role, making 12 combined catches over his last three games.
Fast facts: Heinz Field received a new grass surface — its third this season — after the NHL's Winter Classic, which was played Jan. 1. … Roethlisberger has won his last six starts against Baltimore, though he's missed one game against the Ravens in each of the last two years.