Here are five things that could hold the key to winning Saturday's Ravens- Steelers game:
BALL SECURITY: In the Ravens' three road playoff losses — two against the Steelers — they lost the turnover battle decisively, by three giveaways each time. In the championship game loss after the 2008 season, Joe Flacco threw three interceptions, was sacked three times and had a passer rating of 18.2. Flacco has come a long way since then, but if he is rushed, if he is hit and if he is sacked, the turnovers will come. In a game between two very even teams, turnovers are probably the single biggest factor. Ray Rice hasn't fumbled the ball all year, so the Ravens are good in the run game. This season, the Ravens' had a franchise-low 20 turnovers. Now is when it counts, though.
FIND BOLDIN EARLY: The Ravens traded for wide-out Anquan Boldin for a reason, even if it didn't seem that way at times during this season when he disappeared from the offense. He is made for the playoffs, made for the Steelers' rivalry, made for the red zone. Big, strong, sure-handed and devastating in the middle of the field, Boldin gives the Ravens an advantage they haven't had in the postseason. No matter how reluctant Cam Cameron is to call pass plays over the middle, no matter how comfortable Flacco feels with Derrick Mason, the Ravens have to get the ball to Boldin early. It will open up the offense more than anything else.
MEET IN THE MIDDLE: Because Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is more dangerous outside the pocket than in it, the Ravens have to be careful how they attack him in the pass rush. Haloti Ngata should win the battle with first-year center Maurkice Pouncey all night. Terrell Suggs should win the battle against left tackle Jonathan Scott most of the time. So that means the Ravens have to bring pressure from the left side to cut off Roethlisberger's escape routes. Whether that's corner blitzes or with linebacker Jarret Johnson coming free, it needs to be persistent. The Ravens have learned this lesson far too many times.
DETERMINING FIELD POSITION: The Ravens gave up nine touchdown drives of 90 or more yards this season. Imagine how many more touchdowns the opposition would have scored if the Ravens' kicking game didn't provide such excellent field position all year? The Ravens can't afford to give Pittsburgh a short field — or the ball at their own 9-yard line like they did on Dec. 5. Billy Cundiff has been superb with his 40 touchbacks and Sam Koch terrific with his 39 punts inside the 20. The weather will be raw and ugly in Pittsburgh and the kicking will be harder. But it is no less important this week.
MAKE THE RIGHT CALL: Coach John Harbaugh had the worst of his three NFL seasons challenging on-field calls this year. In nine challenges, he got only one call reversed. That was brutal. The process must be refined in the postseason, where he had three reversals in five challenges in his first two seasons. Clock management hasn't always been a strength under Harbaugh, but it needs to be now. Bad clock management — or poor use of challenges — can end the season.