Two AFC North foes that probably have the NFL's fiercest current rivalry clash for the second time in the 2011 season this Sunday night at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field when the Baltimore Ravens and the Steelers resume their annual battle. Pittsburgh is a -3 1/2 point favorite according to the early football betting lines. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:20 PM.
These two bitter rivals met on opening day in Baltimore, and the result was not a typical Steelers-Ravens one, with Baltimore totally dominating in a 35-7 victory. The 28-point margin was the Ravens biggest in the history of the rivalry, which began in 1996. QB Joe Flacco's 3 TD passes and a suffocating defensive effort by the Ravens forced 7 turnovers, including 3 interceptions.
Baltimore comes in after two very un-Raven like performances, leading to the possibility that they were looking ahead to this Sunday night's rematch instead of focusing on the immediate task at hand. On Monday night, Oct. 24, Baltimore ran into an undermanned but incredibly determined Jacksonville Jaguar defense that almost completely bottled up the Ravens offense, not allowing a Baltimore first down until 5:26 remained in the 3rd quarter. The Ravens ineptitude on offense was a big factor, but there was no denying that the Jaguars had their number in the 12-7 upset. This past Sunday, the Ravens survived an even bigger potential upset, rallying from a 24-6 halftime deficit to the 1-5 Arizona Cardinals with a furious second-half comeback, climaxed by K Billy Cundiff's 25-yard game-winning field goal as time expired to salvage the win, 30-27.
Baltimore's offense has been a concern all season, and it continues to be an issue. Flacco, in his 3rd season as starter, has been inconsistent, and other than RB Ray Rice, the rest of the offense has been shaky, at best. Allpro WR Anquan Boldin had a huge second-half against his former team, grabbing 7 passes for 145 yards, and rookie WR Torrey Smith made a clutch catch to set up Cundiff's game-winner. The coaching staff knows that they can't continue to "hope" for the big play, and consistent, chain-moving progress is the goal.
Defensively, as long as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are on the field, the Ravens will be in contention. With rankings of 3rd, league-wide, in both passing and rushing yards allowed, opponents know better than to expect anything less than a long afternoon when they have the ball.
Pittsburgh comes in with momentum, having won 4 straight, and their dismantling of Tom Brady and the Patriots, 25-17, this past Sunday, gives the rest of the AFC fair warning. QB Ben Roethlisberger outperformed Brady, hitting on 36 of 50 passes for a season-high 365 yards and 2 TDs, as Pittsburgh's offense was spot-on effective, nearly doubling the Patriots in time of possession, 39:22 to 20:28. RB Rashard Mendenhall, TE Heath Miller and WRs Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown all had outstanding games, looking more like the Patriots than their normal, grind-it-out selves.
When you think either Pittsburgh or Baltimore, defense is the first thing that occurs to most observers. The Steelers performance against New England wasn't any different, as defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's unit held the Pats to less than half of Pittsburgh's offensive total yards, 427 to 213, and that isn't a typo. An added plus for the Steelers is the expected return of LB James Harrison, who's been sidelined for the last 4 games with an orbital fracture.
Anything less than an old-fashioned slug-it-out, take-no-prisoners game is expected Sunday night, as the AFC North top spot is up for grabs. The Steelers (6-2) currently enjoy a half-game advantage over both the Ravens and the surprising Cincinnati Bengals, who are both at 5-2. If past history is any barometer, this game could either be a low-scoring defensive battle, but again, both teams are capable of offensive explosions. Realistically, you can throw out all the predictions and just enjoy one of the NFL's best rivalries.
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|NFL DEFENSIVE RANKINGS||TOTAL||Passing||Rushing|