The dress rehearsals are over. Sunday's season opener is the real deal. The Ravens and Steelers danced three times a year ago, and when they partner up again at M&T Bank Stadium, an early lead in the AFC North and plenty of bumps and bruises will be at stake. What a way to start the season for football fans.
And to think, two months ago it looked as if this game might not happen. The NFL lockout is long forgotten.
The Ravens and Steelers have met many times over the past three years -- well, eight if you’re actually counting -- so we know the storylines by now. Here are the ones I’ll be following Sunday afternoon at M&T.
1. Will the reinforced offensive line hold up? The deciding factor in the rivalry’s recent years, along with quarterback play, has been how the Ravens have fared against Steelers linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. That dynamic duo has been a matchup nightmare for the Ravens, exposing Joe Flacco to some big hits. It could continue in Week 1. Baltimore’s starting offensive line didn’t play a snap together in the preseason. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who reportedly weighed 400 pounds this summer, signed with the team a couple of weeks ago. Center Matt Birk and right guard Marshal Yanda had injuries in the preseason, and left guard Ben Grubbs sat out Friday’s practice. If the line can’t hold up Sunday, the running game will stall and Flacco won’t have a chance to out-duel Ben Roethlisberger.
2. Troy Polamalu is rested and ready. The only thing that can slow down the Pro Bowl safety is injury, as was the case in the second half of 2010 and in the playoffs. But Polamalu was healthy enough to force that game-changing fumble against the Ravens in Week 13, which propelled the Steelers to the AFC North title. Now that Polamalu is feeling frisky again, the Ravens can’t let him out of their sight.
3. Show us what you got, Chuck Pagano. The Ravens’ new defensive coordinator figures to spice things up this season, which sounds delicious to fans who thought Greg Mattison was as exciting as lukewarm leftovers. He will need former second-round picks Paul Kruger and Sergio Kindle to help Terrell Suggs out, but count on Pagano bringing the tenacious D. It would be helpful if it started on Sunday.
4. Who will start in the secondary? Honestly, it won’t really matter. Pretty much everyone in the secondary will play a role. The Steelers have a versatile offense that can spread teams out or smash them in their faces, and when the Steelers go three- or four-wide, Cary Williams, Jimmy Smith, Chris Carr and Domonique Foxworth will all need to have a starter’s mentality to shut down Pittsburgh’s wide receivers.
5. The battle of recently-married quarterbacks: You’ve heard all week -- heck, you’ve probably heard all summer -- that Flacco hasn’t been able to beat the Steelers when Roethlisberger was in the lineup. It’s a team game, but Flacco must match Roethlisberger throw-for-throw in the fourth quarter to silence his critics -- at least for a week or two. Of course, Flacco doesn’t care about all that. His concern is the win.