In this game-day staple, blogger Matt Vensel makes four sometimes-courageous predictions for the game. All he asks is that you don’t hold it against him whenever those predictions end up being embarrassingly wrong.
The Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers meet again Sunday night for the latest installment of the NFL's hardest-hitting rivalry. Quite a few key players are missing, including Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger and former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, who loved being viewed as public enemy No. 1 in Baltimore. Their identities have been altered, too, as the NFL continues to go all pass-happy.
But their desire to smash helmets with their opponents remains, as does the dislike from participating in these street fights at least twice a year for the past decade. And, as usually seems to be the case, there is a lot on the line Sunday night at Heinz Field. The winner will have the inside trade to the AFC North title.
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I think the absence of Roethlisberger swings this one into the favor of the Ravens, though they still have yet to play full four quarters on the road. Heck, I think they would settle for three of them. And if there is any team that can get the Ravens to focus enough to execute for 60 minutes, it's the rival Steelers.
So am I expecting an easy win? Nah, not so fast. It will be close as usual. I feel pretty secure making that not-so-bold prediction. Maybe one of these four predictions sure to go wrong will be prophetic, too.
1. TORREY SMITH SCORES ANOTHER TOUCHDOWN
Torrey Smith, then a rookie, arguably made the Ravens' biggest play of 2011 season at Heinz Field, catching the game-winning touchdown with eight seconds left, stunning the Steelers and essentially giving the Ravens their first AFC North title since 2006. That play will give Smith, quarterback Joe Flacco and the rest of the team's many young players on offense confidence that they can go into Heinz Field and play well again. I expect Smith, in particular, to deliver on Sunday night. With his two touchdowns in the blowout win over the Oakland Raiders, he now has seven touchdowns in his past seven games. Why not make it eight in eight?
2. JOE FLACCO WILL OUTPLAY BYRON LEFTWICH
But just barely, and that's because I think Leftwich will play a lot better than many people think, including a whole slew of naysayers here in Pittsburgh. But I think he is capable of getting it done. Given the injuries in the Ravens secondary and their lack of a pass rush, Leftwich can be effective. But I think Flacco will outplay him, as he should. Flacco has yet to throw more than one touchdown pass in a road game this season, but I see him throwing two against the Steelers, even though they have the NFL's top-ranked pass defense. They have been vulnerable through the air near their end zone, allowing 11 passing touchdowns in nine games.
3. THE BALTIMORE OFFENSIVE LINE WILL KEEP LAMARR WOODLEY AND JAMES HARRISON IN CHECK
Woodley and Harrison have terrorized the Ravens' offensive tackles and, subsequently, Flacco, as well. Last season, Woodley, who sat out the second of the two rivalry games, had one sack in his one game. Harrison was shut out in Week 1, but had three in their second meeting. But this year, those two have been mostly ineffective, mostly due to injury. They have both missed time and are trying to get back to where they want to be. They have combined for just four sacks this season -- one from Harrison and three from Woodley. Overall, the Steelers have 16 sacks, which is tied with the Ravens and two other teams for 22nd in the NFL.
4. THERE WILL BE TWO LEAD CHANGES IN THE FINAL 20 MINUTES OF SUNDAY NIGHT'S GAME
These rivalry games, whether they are offensive shootouts or low-scoring, always have late lead changes, and that speaks to why these games are always anticipated nationally, too. The Ravens and Steelers have played 10 times, including playoffs, since John Harbaugh became Baltimore's head coach in 2008, and six of those games were decided by three points. The only time I've ever been surprised by something in this rivalry was when the Ravens blew out the Steelers in last year's season opener. I expect an excruciatingly-tight game Sunday night, with at least two lead changes down the stretch. Who will win? I can't wait to find out.