Steelers might pound Ravens, but Patriots are AFC's best

The Steelers might embarrass the Ravens Sunday, but they aren't the AFC"s best team.

Rivalries are supposed to create another level of excitement, allowing an inferior team to be on the same level as a superior one on gameday.

That won't happen Sunday when the Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5) play the Ravens (4-10) at M&T Bank Stadium. This game was supposed to help determine the winner of the AFC North, but instead it could end in major embarrassment for the Ravens.

The Steelers are on a roll and so hot that some NFL analysts have declared them the team to beat in the conference playoffs. High-scoring offenses like the Steelers' have been known to make logical people lose their minds.

But New England (12-2) is still the team to beat because the Patriots are the most proven and balanced.

The Ravens have almost no chance of upsetting Pittsburgh Sunday unless quarterback Ben Roethlisberger gets hurt or entertainer Steve Harvey is allowed to announce the final score.

The matchups pitting Steelers receivers against Ravens defensive backs are scary. Antonio Brown (115 receptions, 1,586 yards, 9 touchdowns) will be matched against cornerback Jimmy Smith if Smith is recovered from a thigh injury suffered Sunday.

Martavis Bryant (48, 759, 6) will go against Shareece Wright and Markus Wheaton (38, 651, 4) has to face Lardarius Webb. This could get ugly and the Steelers might hang 50 points on the Ravens.

But if the Ravens offensive line can give their quarterback some time, the Ravens can at least be competitive for a little while, even with Kamar Aiken and a cast of no-name receivers. Just like in past years, Pittsburgh can't cover on the back end of its defense and has allowed 279.1 passing yards a game, second worst in the NFL.

The Steelers can stop the run, but they can't stop the pass, which is why they can't beat New England.

Analyst such as former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy might be ready to crown the Steelers, but the best offensive teams don't always win the championship. Teams with the most balance usually do.

Cincinnati (11-3) has the most balance, statistically, of the top contending AFC teams, but it's unclear if quarterback Andy Dalton will return in the postseason from a thumb injury on his throwing hand. Plus, the Bengals and Dalton have to prove they can win a playoff game, having lost in the first round each of the past four seasons.

The Patriots have no such baggage. We already know about their history, and they have enough defensive talent to slow Pittsburgh. Malcolm Butler has emerged as the Patriots' shutdown cornerback and Logan Ryan has been solid on the other side.

Opposing teams have hit Roethlisberger consistently throughout the season and New England has three good pass rushers in outside linebackers Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and defensive end Chandler Jones.

Pittsburgh is tied for fourth in the league in points (27) and is second in yards (402.9) per game, but Patriots coach Bill Belichick is known for taking out the other team's top weapon, like Brown.

With their short passing game, the Patriots can control time of possession and slow down Pittsburgh's offense. And the Steelers simply can't cover New England receivers Rob Gronkowski (66, 1072, 11), Julian Edelman (61, 692, 7) and Danny Amendola (63, 631, 3).

New England is third in the NFL in points (31.1), fourth in total yards (393.6) and first in passing yards (302.9) per game. The Patriots are tied for sixth in fewest points allowed per game (19.2), and are sixth in fewest total yards (326.1) and eighth in fewest passing yards (230.3) allowed. That's balance.

And then there is Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. He is just as hot as the Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton and Roethlisberger. But when it comes to crunch time, who are you going to take? The Denver Broncos' Brock Osweiler or Peyton Manning? Roethlisberger? Dalton?

Of course, it's Brady.

It's going to be interesting in these final weeks of this season and the postseason, especially with the Ravens out of the picture. Ravens fans hate Pittsburgh because the Steelers are a division rival, and they have almost equal disdain for New England because the Patriots are successful and they cheat.

But in the end, it's probably going to be Brady who deflates the attitude of this town for at least another year.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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