Steelers Head To Baltimore Looking To Capture Season Sweep And #3 Seed
Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial
|Sunday, December 30, 2007
By Eddie Griffin
Steelers Fever Columnist
With not only a spot in the playoffs wrapped up, but also the AFC North title, Sunday's regular-season finale at Baltimore could be a chance for several key players to rest up ahead of Pittsburgh's wild-card game the following weekend.
But, that may not be the case, with the Steelers looking to keep their hopes alive for the AFC's #3 seed and the chance to avoid a first-round matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Pittsburgh, who snapped a two-game losing skid with a 41-24 win at St. Louis in Week 16, and San Diego have both locked up their division titles and are 10-5 on the season. However, if both finish at 11-5, the Chargers will take the #3 seed and get to host either the Titans or the Browns in the wild-card round based on a better record against conference opponents.
The situation is very simple for the Steelers -- a win over the Ravens and a San Diego loss at Oakland, and Pittsburgh gets that #3 seed, and not only avoids the Jaguars, but also avoids the Patriots in the divisional round, if they make it that far.
While the Steelers are trying to wrestle for playoff position, the Ravens will be looking to finish an extremely disappointing season on a high note.
Baltimore was expected by many to win the AFC North this season, after doing so rather easily last season, but after a 4-2 start, the Ravens have lost nine games in a row, and sit at the bottom of the division with a 4-11 mark.
One of the losses in that losing streak was a 38-7 rout at the hands of the Steelers in Week 9, in which Ben Roethlisberger threw five first-half touchdown passes and the Steelers defense forced four turnovers.
The Ravens have had numerous chances to break their skid, as they've lost in overtime to Cleveland and Miami (ouch!) and had New England beat, but let the win slip right through their fingertips.
It certainly hasn't been the season that the Ravens have hoped for, but they could play spoiler against one of their biggest rivals, much like the Steelers did to the Bengals in last year's season finale.
Can the Ravens end their season on a high note? Or will Pittsburgh roll yet again, and potentially wrap up the #3 seed?
Looking at the Ravens
If you look at the Ravens, a great deal of their problems start on offense, where they've struggled with production and mistakes all season long.
Baltimore is averaging a shade under 300 yards per game, but the most telling statistic is their 39 giveaways, which has them last in the league in turnover margin (-19).
Part of that can be attributed to not having continuity at the QB position, where they're now on starter #3, rookie and 2006 Heisman Trophy winner, Troy Smith, who probably didn't expect to see the field this season, but has been pressed into duty late in the season due to injuries to starter Steve McNair and backup Kyle Boller.
Willis McGahee has had a solid season in his first year in Baltimore, rushing for 1,207 yards and seven touchdowns, but without a quality passing game, numbers are just numbers.
Derrick Mason has been the Ravens' go-to guy, and like McGahee, has put up good numbers (97 catches, 1,015 yards, 5 TD), but the team's second-leading receiver, Mark Clayton, has only 46 catches, and only two other players have more than 30 catches on the season.
It doesn't help that the defense isn't as sound as it is noted for being. They are one of the top teams in the league in overall yards allowed, but have been shredded by the pass (25 passing TD allowed) and haven't gotten much help from the aforementioned mistake-prone offense.
They also haven't helped themselves in certain situations -- a key pass interference call late in the New England game, getting burned for a long touchdown in OT against Miami, and allowing Cleveland to come back in the final minute for a game-tying field goal at the end of regulation, and then giving up the game-winning field goal in overtime.
So, to say the least, it's been a tough year for the Ravens, but it has had its bright spots -- not enough for their sake, unfortunately.
Keys to Success
This one may not be as easy as the first one, but you never know when it comes to a team that's had as many deflating losses as the Ravens. Either they'll come to play, or they'll just trudge through the 60 minutes waiting for it to be all over.
Assuming that it's the former, Baltimore's pass defense is going to have to be exploited once again, because the run game, even if Willie Parker wasn't injured, would have to contend with a tough run defense which allowed Parker only 42 yards on 23 carries in the first meeting.
Seeing as how Baltimore will be starting their #3 QB (Smith) and #3 RB (Musa Smith -- McGahee suffered cracked ribs last week against Seattle and won't play), the Pittsburgh defense should have a good day. So, no getting beaten by third-stringers.
Keep Mason covered. Given how big of a part of Baltimore's offense he is, especially with the injury list getting longer and longer by the week (Mark Clayton may or may not play due to a head-related injury), Smith is going to try to get the ball to him as much as possible.
What We'll See
It would be nice for the Steelers to get another big early lead so that the starters can get some much-needed rest, but Baltimore shouldn't go quietly this time around, since they'd like to give themselves and the fans something to feel good about after all of the disappointments up to this point. It already appears that Big Ben won't play on Sunday, so that'll be at least one starter who'll be mending up for the wild-card game.
It's unclear how many starters will play, and how much they'll play, with Mike Tomlin certain to be cautious with a few key players already on the 'out' list. But, even with some starters seeing little or no time, with Baltimore's own depleted roster on offense and a defense that the Steelers know can be exploited, Pittsburgh should have an excellent chance to wrap up an 11-5 season and their first season sweep of the Ravens since 2002.
At the start of the season, this matchup was expected to be pivotal in the race for the AFC North title, and while it is still pivotal for both teams, the only playoff fortunes it could influence are Pittsburgh's, while for Baltimore, it will help determine how high they draft.
Win or lose, the Steelers have at least one more game to look forward to, and maybe more than that, but you know what they say -- one game at a time. So before they can look ahead to the playoffs, this week is all about the Ravens, and then it'll be time to look ahead to replicating regular-season success in the playoffs.