The Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers renew the NFL’s hardest-hitting rivalry Sunday at Heinz Field. Prominent players like Ray Lewis and Hines Ward are gone and neither team has a winning record, but you can count on a close game when these teams crash into each other. Eight of the past 10 regular-season games have been decided by a field goal, so it wasn’t bold of me to predict a three-point Steelers win. These predictions are a little bolder, though.
1. NEITHER TEAM WILL ECLIPSE 50 RUSHING YARDS:
Both the Ravens and Steelers, two teams that used to run the rock with the best of them, are still trying to establish their running games. Each team is near the bottom of the league in rushing yards and yards per carry, but each team also expressed optimism that this will be the week their running backs break out. Chalk that up as wishful thinking. There has always been little running room in this rivalry, and these teams have built their offenses around their strong-armed quarterbacks. Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger will drop back to pass often Sunday, and not just out of necessity.
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2. TORREY SMITH AND ANTONIO BROWN WILL GO OFF:
Someone has to be on the receiving end of all those passes. Smith and Brown are already among the league leaders in receiving yards per game, and they will pad their stats with monster games Sunday. The Steelers shut down Smith last season, holding him to four catches for 40 yards in two games. But he will blaze behind their aging secondary at least once Sunday. Brown, whom the Steelers use on everything from bubble screens to deep balls, will record double-digit catches. Both will top 100 receiving yards and score a touchdown, making fantasy football players very happy.
3. JOE FLACCO WILL BE SACKED MORE THAN BIG BEN:
Both offensive lines have been scrutinized in recent weeks for their inability to protect their quarterbacks well enough. Flacco has been sacked 19 times in six games. Only three NFL quarterbacks have been sacked more often. Roethlisberger is not one of them, but he probably would be if not for Pittsburgh’s early by week. He has been sacked 18 times in five games. Expect both quarterbacks to get knocked around a little bit. You know Terrell Suggs will crash into his buddy, Roethlisberger, at some point. But with this game at Heinz Field, look for Flacco to get sacked more often.
4. A DEFENSIVE TOUCHDOWN WILL DECIDE THE GAME:
This rivalry has always been defined by defense. NFL rules have changed it a little, opening up the passing game and cutting down on helmet-to-helmet hits, but these semiannual grudge matches are typically tight, low-scoring games, often decided by big defensive plays. That will be the case again Sunday, with one defense flipping the game on its ear by scoring a touchdown. Will it be a forced fumble or an interception taken back to the house? My crystal ball is a little cloudy on that, but I do see a player with long, bushy black hair hanging out down his back being prominently involved.