PITTSBURGH — PITTSBURGH - It was one month ago when the Pittsburgh Steelers walked off the field of M&T; Bank Stadium with a 13-9 win and a voice rose from the crowd of players:
"We're still the No. 1 defense! We showed you boys how to play defense!"
Today, in the AFC championship game, those appear to be fighting words.
The Steelers, who rank No. 1 in defense, are the NFL's best at stopping teams from moving the ball. The Ravens, who rank second, are the best at taking it away.
If the two heated rivals agree on anything - and the list is short - it's that the best defense will advance to the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla.
"They certainly deserve their rankings and all that," Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "But right now, it comes down to one game. So if we're the best defense, we'll win."
This marks only the second time since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger that the league's top two defenses will meet in a conference title game. The other was the 1978 NFC championship game (Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Rams).
The defenses of the Ravens and the Steelers are close to being mirror images of each other, from statistics to schemes. They both play unpredictable 3-4 fronts (three linemen and four linebackers). Their foundation is crushing the other team's running attack and quarterback.
By the end of the regular season, just 23.9 yards per game separated Pittsburgh's top-rated defense (237.2) and the Ravens' second-rated unit (261.1).
"I respect their defense," Pittsburgh linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. "We are similar. If you watch them play and you watch the Pittsburgh Steelers play, I feel that's how teams ... should play defense."
Ravens defensive lineman Trevor Pryce said the players make his team's defense special.
"We have one of everything," Pryce said. "We have the best middle linebacker in the game. We've got a great outside rusher and a great inside rusher. We have a safety that's crazy. We have [a] tough guy. We have a run stopper. We have a lockdown corner and a hitting corner. Everybody has an identity, and when you put those pieces together, you have a good defense."
Asked what makes the Steelers' defense unique, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin pointed to the entire unit instead of individual players.
"I'd probably say the level of consistency," Tomlin said. "It's not necessarily your ceiling that defines you as a player, as a unit, as a football team. It's your floor. What I mean by that is we're very consistent week in and week out with how we play, very little ups and downs. To me, that's as important as what you're capable of doing."
Two of the biggest lows for the Ravens' defense this season have come against the Steelers.
In their first meeting, third-string running back Mewelde Moore caught a 24-yard pass against the Ravens to set up a 46-yard field goal in overtime.
In the second one, Santonio Holmes' controversial 4-yard touchdown reception with 43 seconds left capped a game-winning, 92-yard drive.
The Ravens' defense knows that if it can't hold up at the end this time, its season could be over.
"When you look at it, the Steelers got the No. 1-rated defense, and I think we are pretty close to them," Ryan said. "So, we're expecting to hold up our end. Whatever that takes, that's what we are going to give up - one point less than we get."
A comparison of the Ravens' and Steelers' defenses position by position:
Left defensive end
Ravens' Justin Bannan vs. Steelers' Aaron Smith. Bannan has been a capable fill-in for the injured Kelly Gregg and has become the Ravens' unsung hero of the defensive line. Smith is more versatile because he is stout against the run and gets a push inside as a pass rusher. ADVANTAGE: STEELERS
Ravens' Haloti Ngata vs. Steelers' Casey Hampton. At 325 pounds, Hampton is one of the NFL's top nose tackles, a space eater who doesn't budge against double teams. But few tackles have Ngata's size and agility. He has become the Ravens' most dominating inside lineman since Sam Adams. Other than the Tennessee Titans' Albert Haynesworth, no tackle has been as dominant as Ngata. ADVANTAGE: RAVENS
Right defensive end
Ravens' Trevor Pryce vs. Steelers' Brett Keisel. Pryce has quietly put together an impressive season. He is tremendous at penetrating inside on passing downs. Keisel is dependable and plays with a high motor. ADVANTAGE: RAVENS
Left outside linebacker
Ravens' Jarret Johnson vs. Steelers' LaMarr Woodley. In his second season, Woodley has emerged as a force, producing 11 1/2 sacks. Johnson is a blue-collar player who continually outworks his opponents. ADVANTAGE: STEELERS
Left inside linebacker
Ravens' Ray Lewis vs. Steelers' James Farrior. Some NFL insiders might say this is even. But Lewis has returned to form, taking running backs out of games (remember Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall?) and keeping this team focused with his leadership. Farrior is also a team leader but not on the same level as Lewis. ADVANTAGE: RAVENS
Right inside linebacker
Ravens' Bart Scott vs. Steelers' Larry Foote. Scott doesn't have the sack total from a couple of seasons ago, but he is key to the Ravens' run defense. His performance has picked up in the postseason. Foote is solid but not spectacular. He has been losing playing time to second-year player Lawrence Timmons. ADVANTAGE: RAVENS
Right outside linebacker
Ravens' Terrell Suggs vs. Steelers' James Harrison. Suggs is the Ravens' best pass rusher and has developed into an all-around linebacker. But he won't be at full strength with a shoulder injury. Harrison, a former Raven, is the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year and has a habit of playing his best against the Ravens. ADVANTAGE: STEELERS
Ravens' Fabian Washington vs. Steelers' Ike Taylor. Washington has replaced the injured Chris McAlister and taken over as the team's top cover cornerback. Taylor has met the challenge of drawing the other team's top receiver. ADVANTAGE: EVEN
Ravens' Ed Reed vs. Steelers' Ryan Clark. Reed is the NFL's top ballhawk and has been on a tear recently, making 10 interceptions in his past eight games. Every time he touches the ball, it could result in a touchdown. Clark is a smart player who has limitations as far as speed and strength. ADVANTAGE: RAVENS
Ravens' Jim Leonhard vs. Steelers' Troy Polamalu. In a different style than Reed, Polamalu is just as disruptive. It's hard to figure out where Polamalu will line up because he can play close to the line to stop the run or drop deep to pick off a pass. Leonhard is a playmaker in his own right, but he isn't in the same class as Polamalu. ADVANTAGE: STEELERS
Ravens' Samari Rolle vs. Steelers' Bryant McFadden. Rolle might be out with a groin injury and would be replaced by Frank Walker, a change that would be a major drop-off for the Ravens. McFadden has steadily improved throughout the season. If Rolle were healthy, the Ravens would have the edge here. ADVANTAGE: STEELERS
RAVENS (13-5) @ STEELERS (13-4)
AFC title game
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM
Line: Steelers by 6