Some sports name three stars of the game after the game. I'll do that one better: I'm going to name them before the Ravens even play. These will be the three stars of the game when the Ravens travel to Heinz Field in Pittsburgh to face the AFC North champion Steelers in the AFC wild card round.
1. Quarterback Joe Flacco
Given Pittsburgh's questions with star running back Le'Veon Bell out with a knee injury, it's safe to say they'll chuck the ball all over the field against the Ravens to try and replicate their success from Week 9. The Ravens will need to keep pace, and I think playoff specialist Joe Flacco can help them do just that.
In the first game this season against Pittsburgh, the Ravens gashed the Steelers on the ground and Flacco kept it simple with a 72.4 completion percentage and a pair of touchdowns. In the loss at Pittsburgh, Flacco threw two more touchdowns, completed 66.7 percent of his passes and topped 300 yards. It's worth noting that the 30th-ranked Steelers pass defense was ranked worse than the Ravens, who finished 24th.
Flacco, as much as his detractors will hate to admit, has accomplished a ton in his career. His recent playoff record is sterling and he was MVP of Super Bowl XLVII, but one of the few things looming is to beat the Steelers in a playoff game. A combination of a high completion percentage (over 70), around 280 yards, and three touchdowns will accomplish just that.
2. Wide receiver Antonio Brown
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Brown was neutralized for all but the final five minutes of the Ravens' early-season win over the Steelers, and has still managed to catch 18 balls on 28 targets for 234 yards and a touchdown in the teams' two games. He's a consensus All-Pro and one of the game's best receivers for a reason, and he'll get to show why regardless of the weather conditions at Heinz Field Saturday.
Brown's numbers against the Ravens are staggering, but he's basically been doing that all year. He hasn't been targeted fewer than nine times in a game since Week 1, with four games with double-digit catches, eight games over 100 yards, and 14 catches of over 25 yards. His 129 catches and 1,698 yards led the NFL, while his 13 touchdowns on the season were tied for second-most behind Dallas Cowboy Dez Bryant's 16.
There's a healthy admiration between Brown and Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb, and the latter has some atoning to do after being party to Ben Roethlisberger's six-touchdown game this season. I think Webb will hold Brown under his Week 9 totals, but even a good game by Webb could mean Brown gets over 100 yards and scores his first career playoff touchdown.
3. Wide receiver Steve Smith
Smith joked that he expects plenty of professional dislike Saturday, and he wants to be a part of it. He will. This game checks a ton of boxes for the veteran wide receiver — a high-stakes rivalry game with tons of bad blood and big stage for it to play out on.
Smith has 11 catches for 107 yards in two games against the Steelers, and he enters the playoffs on a bit of a high note. Smith hasn't gone over 100 yards since Week 6 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but caught a season-high eight passes in Week 17 against the Cleveland Browns, and his 90 yards in that game were the most since the Tampa Bay visit.
There isn't an obvious defensive back set to limit him on the Steelers roster, and they might give more attention to Torrey Smith, anyway. Let's go out on a limb and say that Smith's theory that primetime games are a chance for ex-girlfriends to see you and feel bad they dumped you extends to primetime playoff games as well. Smith will find the end zone for the first time since Week 14 and top last week's production in the process.