Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec breaks down the Ravens' playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers Saturday at Heinz Field.
RAVENS: The Ravens are hoping Joe Flacco's strong finish to last week's victory over the Cleveland Browns and his past playoff success carry over into this postseason. In the Ravens' past eight playoff games, Flacco has passed for 18 touchdowns, two interceptions and 2,012 yards. In his past nine games against Pittsburgh, Flacco has 12 touchdown passes and two interceptions. Ten of Torrey Smith's past 38 catches have been touchdowns. The Ravens have to do a better job picking up blitzes.
STEELERS: Ben Roethlisberger had the best statistical season of his career, setting team records in passing yards, completions and matching his own team mark with 32 touchdown passes. Antonio Brown led the league with 129 catches and 1,698 receiving yards and set a single-season franchise record with 13 touchdown catches. He had 18 catches for 234 yards and was targeted 28 times in two games against the Ravens. The Steelers' offensive line allowed just three sacks over the past five games.
RAVENS: Though the Ravens were eighth in the league in rushing yards per game after finishing 30th in that category last season, they struggled late in 2014 to gain traction on the ground. The Ravens averaged just over three yards per carry over the final three games and didn't score a rushing touchdown. The loss of rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro has been felt in short-yardage situations. Justin Forsett, who finished fifth in the NFL in rushing, totaled 94 yards in two games against Pittsburgh.
STEELERS: The big story leading up to the game has been the health of All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell, who hurt his right knee last week and has been ruled out. He had 2,215 all-purpose yards and 11 touchdowns this year, so his loss is a big blow for the league's second-ranked offense. Rookies Dri Archer and Josh Harris will likely split carries in Bell's absence. They combined for 19 carries during the regular season. Pittsburgh also signed veteran running back Ben Tate this week.
RAVENS: Stopping the run was a constant for the Ravens, even though they gave up more than 100 yards rushing in back-to-back games to close the regular season. That happened only three previous times during the year. In two games against Pittsburgh, the Ravens allowed 154 yards on the ground. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata's return after a four-game suspension should further strengthen this group. Inside linebackers C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith finished seventh and 10th in the NFL in tackles.
STEELERS: Though not as formidable as the Ravens' rush defense, the Steelers have had a lot of success stopping the run. They allowed just 100.3 rushing yards per game, the sixth lowest total in the NFL. Nose tackle Steve McLendon gave Ravens center Jeremy Zuttah all sorts of problems during the team's last meeting in Pittsburgh. Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, the team's leading tackler, had 23 tackles and a sack in two games against the Ravens this season. He's often used to blitz, too.
RAVENS: Despite playing better of late, the Ravens haven't been tested against an upper-echelon quarterback since the San Diego Chargers' Philip Rivers took them apart on Nov. 30. Their last meeting against the Steelers was an embarrassment, as Ben Roethlisberger threw for 340 yards and six touchdowns. Lardarius Webb has gotten healthier and Rashaan Melvin has been solid. The Ravens badly need Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil to win their matchups and harass Roethlisberger.
STEELERS: Pittsburgh has had big problems in coverage. They allowed 253.1 passing yards per game, which ranked 27th in the NFL, and gave up 30 touchdowns through the air. Only three teams allowed more. Cornerbacks Brice McCain and Antwon Blake have played well as fill-ins. Dick LeBeau's defense had just 33 sacks this season, but it took down Flacco four times in the last meeting and confused the Ravens with a steady supply of blitzes. James Harrison always plays well against the Ravens.
RAVENS: Jacoby Jones has become a nemesis of the Steelers. In three seasons as a Raven, he has two return touchdowns against the Steelers — both at Heinz Field — and he may have had a third had Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin not stepped onto the field and altered his path in a game last season. Jones finished second in the league in kickoff return average (30.6). Sam Koch set career-highs in gross and net punting average this year. The Ravens are very wary of punt returner Antonio Brown.
STEELERS: Brown's 71-yard punt return touchdown last week was the fourth return score of his career. He averaged 10.6 yards per punt return, which ranked eighth. Kicker Shaun Suisham went 29-for-32 on field-goal attempts this season. Two of his three misses were from beyond 50 yards. Punter Brad Wing had an uneven rookie season. Baltimore native Terence Garvin (Loyola Blakefield) is tied for the team lead with 15 special teams tackles.
RAVENS: John Harbaugh's team didn't play well down the stretch, but the Ravens are banking on their postseason pedigree and their ability to play through adversity. The Ravens have made the playoffs six times in Harbaugh's seven seasons and they've won at least one playoff game in their previous five postseason trips. They are also 6-4 on the road in the postseason under Harbaugh. Twenty six of the Ravens' 53 players have playoff experience.
STEELERS: The Steelers closed the regular season as one of the hottest teams in football. They won their final four games — three of them against winning teams — to capture the AFC North. They went 5-1 against the rest of the postseason field with the one loss coming in Week Two against the Ravens. Tomlin is 5-3 in his career in playoff games, and all three of those losses have been decided by six points or less. Pittsburgh is undefeated in three playoff matchups against the Ravens.
PREDICTION: As much as the Ravens talked about turning the page from the regular season and starting with a clean slate, the reality is that they limped to the finish line while the Steelers are playing as well as anyone in the AFC. Flacco has been very good against Pittsburgh of late, but the team's recent struggles in getting off to a good start, converting on third down and running the football don't bode well for postseason success. The Ravens will be well-prepared and they certainly won't be intimidated by a hostile environment. But the Steelers appear to be the hotter, healthier and more balanced team at this point of the season, so they should advance. Steelers, 27-17.