By Christina Rivers
With the AFC North one of the most hotly-contested divisions in the NFL this season, it came as little surprise that the Pittsburgh Steelers, who finished the 2014 NFL regular season off right with a 27-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals and the division championship, would face the Baltimore Ravens during wild card week of the playoffs. The Ravens finished their regular season with a 20-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns, solidifying their sixth seed position in the AFC post-season. With the history these two teams have, the game is worthy of the hype it is receiving.
Baltimore was in a must-win situation against Cleveland if they wanted to see the post-season and it took a little help from Kansas City. At one point in their match, the Ravens were down 10-3 to the ailing Browns, who started rookie quarterback Connor Shaw, and couldn't help, but noticed that the game between the Chiefs and Chargers needed to go their way as well. Kansas City ended up handing San Diego a 19-7 loss and Baltimore took care of their end of the deal by putting together a 17-point fourth quarter. Joe Flacco gave the Ravens the lead with a 16-yard pass to Torrey Smith and then a 2-yard toss to Kamar Aiken with 3:44 left in the game to clinch their spot at further competition.
Flacco, who finished with 22 completions for 312 yards and two touchdown passes, said of Sunday's battle, “Today it was struggle, struggle, struggle.” Indeed, the Ravens were not on par offensively, being forced off the field only to punt the ball away to the dismay of verbal fans. Justin Forsett rushed for 119 yards in the game and receiver Steve Smith, Sr. led the team with eight receptions for 90 yards.
The one certain thing is that the Steelers are not the Browns, and a poor performance to finish out the regular season to sneak into the playoffs makes it an uphill battle for the Ravens entering their wild card game in hostile territory at Heinz Field. The last time these two teams met was during week nine (Nov. 2, 2014) in Pittsburgh. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw six touchdown passes to lead the Steelers to a 43-23 win, setting a two-game passing touchdown record in the NFL (with 12). In front of nearly 64,000 fans, the Steelers defense forced two Ravens turnovers in the second quarter and young receivers Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton gave Pittsburgh a 22-10 halftime lead. It took a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from Jacoby Jones to get the Ravens back into contention. In the end, Roethlisberger threw a 33-yard strike to tight end Matt Spaeth to seal the win.
Statistically, the two teams were fairly even. Pittsburgh excelled at converting crucial third downs and won the battle of time of possession. Both Flacco and Roethlisberger were victims of sacks, but the Ravens were penalized 10 times for a loss of 108 yards. In week nine, the Steelers had yet to turn running back Le'Veon Bell into the workhorse he became over the remainder of the regular season and Forsett was held to nine carries for 38 yards. Owen Daniels led the Ravens with six receptions for 53 yards while Antonio Brown led the Steelers with 11 receptions for 144 yards.
The wild card game has both teams fired up and ready to prepare for a battle. Both teams have injured players that will be evaluated this week in practice; notably Bell for the Steelers, who hyper-extended his knee against the Bengals, and left tackle Eugene Monroe (ankle) and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (foot) of the Ravens.
“I remember sitting at home last year, a week from now,” said Flacco on Sunday, “and it didn't feel very good...It's a great locker room right now, and we've just got to do all we can to go get ready, have fun this week and get ready for another challenge.” Ravens coach John Harbaugh doesn't expect the game against Pittsburgh to be anything other than challenging, saying, “I think [we] can be very dangerous. We all know the history [between the two teams]. It's a 0-0 tournament right now. We've been on the road plenty of times in the playoffs as a group. We're as dangerous as anybody else, at least. So, I'm excited to be coaching the Ravens in the playoffs, I can tell you that.”
The Steelers are just as excited to see their biggest rival in the last decade show up on Saturday. Rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt talked about the difference between the defense Pittsburgh put on the field against Baltimore versus the defense today, saying, “I think everybody can see, we grew. We looked deep into ourselves. We had a goal to finish the season strong...and we did it.”
Tuitt called the defense a “brotherhood,” pointing out that at this point, the Steelers have outstanding chemistry. That cohesive team state has carried over onto offense as well. “Having Baltimore come into Pittsburgh, we know what type of game it's going to be,” said offensive guard Kelvin Beachum. “We know it's going to be a slugfest. We know they hate us and we hate them. That is the nature of this rivalry...this is AFC North football and it's in the playoffs. It's either win or go home and I think both teams understand that.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 8:15 p.m. (Eastern, US) on January 3 at Heinz Field.
For more Steelers news and updates, visit Steelers Central.
Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a reporter and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied exercise physiology and sports psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. Her work can be found on
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