The exciting season is over and the playoffs will follow up another memorable New Year’s celebration. The favorite team you root for is preparing moves for the draft and free agency, or playing for the Super Bowl. When the “Big Game” approaches, most of America chooses a side, while another portion wants to see the best game possible. The Wildcard Round is here, so let’s get to one of the previews.
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
These AFC North rivals will clash for the third time this season. They split the first pair of meetings and each blew the road team out of the building. Featuring two Super Bowl winning quarterbacks, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco, the emergence of their running games has created successful formulas. Known for stout defenses with ground and pound offenses, both D’s are susceptible to big plays and the O’s are as balanced as ever.
The Pittsburgh Steelers found themselves an elite trio of Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown. Brown has dazzled us again as arguably the top target in the league, racking up his third 1,000-yard campaign. Bell has instantly become a top running back, but he has a questionable status. Bell hyperextended his knee in the big week 17 victory, beating the traveling Bengals to capture the AFC North crown. The mix of youth, receivers Martavus Bryant and Markus Wheaton, blends well in Big Ben’s supporting cast with veteran tight end, Heath Miller. Miller has done it all for years, often helping a so-so offensive line.
Both teams have shown inconsistency, but that especially goes for the less-dependable QB. Flacco keeps getting the Baltimore Ravens into the playoffs. Despite losing tight end Dennis Pitta and running back Ray Rice, this is the best supporting cast he has had. Steve Smith and Torrey Smith are a solid tandem, being threats that can break loose for a big play. Justin Forsett and Owen Daniels have been huge, both gradually earned bigger roles and are playing well in Gary Kubiak’s scheme. Kubiak is the Ravens’ offensive coordinator, but before that head coached Daniels and Forsett on the Houston Texans. The dangerous return man that Jacoby Jones has been, is a game changer in the third aspect of the game, which also helps both sides of the ball in field position.
I like the Ravens’ front-7 better, especially with the return of stud nose tackle, Haloti Ngata. Ngata is conveniently returning from a suspension for using Adderall, just in time for the playoffs. The secondary lost their position coach to the Detroit Lions, Terryl Austin, who took a promotion for defensive coordinator. On the field, Ladarius Webb has played, but doesn’t look healthy enough. Off the field, they lost a pair of corners to injury, Jimmy Smith and Aaron Ross.
I’m not in love with the Steelers’ secondary, but they do have some heady safeties in Troy Polomalu and Mike Mitchell. The rookie inside linebacker for each team played at a high level, Pittsburgh’s Ryan Shazier and Baltimore’s C.J. Mosley, Both are first round picks by the way, 15 and 17th, respectively. The emergence of both backfields will tell the tale, Bell is a first round pick in his second season, and Forsett is a 7-year veteran that relished his first featured role. Questionable to play last week, Forsett insisted that his ankle was fine after struggling against the Cleveland Browns in week 17, with 10 carries for 19 yards in the playoff-clinching win. Just maybe, this game really depends on the guys under center to carry the load in a game between these teams, go figure. John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin have won Super Bowls, so expect them to go for it on 4th and short in the first half or dialing up a trick play.
If you actually care how I think the game is going to go down, I’d say that they exchange scores early and the defenses find some success in the middle of the game. I think that someone will be driving down the field as the third quarter closes, with multiple scores by each team until the final minutes. I see the “Terrible Towels” waving in Pittsburgh when the Steelers cover their point spread, edging the Ravens by a field goal, 23-20.