For the third time this year, the Ravens and Steelers will square off in what the majority of those around the NFL can agree is the league's most physical rivalry.
The loser of each of the first two meetings went home disappointed. This time, the loser will go home...and schedule tee times for next week.
A Ravens-Steelers matchup is intense enough when it takes place in September, much less when it takes place in January in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. The winner of this battle will head on to the AFC Championship, while the loser will have the next eight months to stew on the fact that their arch rivals knocked them out of the dance.
The stakes are elevated, and you can be sure that the gameday emotions and trash talk will be as well.
Here's how the Ravens and Steelers match up statistically going into Showdown No. 3 (numbers are from regular season):
Ravens: 322.9 (22nd)
Steelers: 345.3 (14th)
Ravens: 114.4 (14th)
Steelers: 120.3 (11th)
Ravens: 208.4 (20th)
Steelers: 225.1 (14th)
Ravens: 318.9 (10th)
Steelers: 276.8 (2nd)
Ravens: 93.9 (5th)
Steelers: 62.8 (1st)
Ravens: 224.9 (21st)
Steelers: 214.1 (12th)
Ravens: +7 (9th)
Steelers: +17 (2nd)
Looking at the statistics, it's clear why Ravens-Steelers matchups are always so entertaining - the two teams are so damn similar.
Both excel at stopping the run, and are somewhat vulnerable in pass coverage this year. They both put pressure on opposing offenses with exotic blitzes and rely on their ridiculously talented safeties to turn in big plays.
Both teams would like to establish the ground game on offense, although neither squad has been as effective in that area this season as they would have liked. Both can spread you out wide and throw the ball all over the field, and can also go with jumbo packages and run the ball down your throat.
The Steelers present a challenge for a struggling Ravens offensive line because of their
dangerous outside linebacker duo of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley and the playmaking ability of Troy Polamalu. They'll bring the heat at the Ravens' boys up front all game long, and will force offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to go with max protection schemes and minimize his passing options down the field in an effort to keep quarterback Joe Flacco upright.
Cameron would love to go with four and five receiver sets against Pittsburgh and take advantage of matchups with any of his offensive weapons on the Steelers' mediocre nickel and dime backs, but doing so would leave Flacco vulnerable.
It'll be on tackles Michael Oher and Marshal Yanda and the guys on the interior of the line to
make sure Flacco doesn't get his head taken off when the Ravens do spread the field, as the Patriots did with great success against the Steelers earlier in the year.
On the other side of things, the Baltimore defense will go into tomorrow's matchup completely focused on wrapping up Ben Roethlisberger and forcing him to the ground when they get their shots at him. That's priority No. 1 for defensive coordinator Greg Mattison's unit.
They'll also need to keep speedy wide receiver Mike Wallace from blowing by them deep down the field (more on that later), and watch out for running back Rashard Mendenhall, who used his deceptive mix of speed and strength to post a 1,273-yard, 13 TD season.
A lot of the intangibles are working in the Steelers' favor in this one; they're playing at home, are rested and healthy coming off a bye week, and their starting quarterback has seemingly forgotten how to lose to the Ravens.
Despite all that...pause for dramatic effect...I still think the Ravens will come out victorious on Saturday.
My main reasoning here is that I simply think the Ravens are more dangerous on the offensive side of the ball than their rivals from the Steel City. I don't think the Steelers can match up with Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Todd Heap, and I see the Ravens' O-line holding up just enough to give Flacco a chance to make things happen to those guys down the field.
Put me down for a 20-17 Ravens win and a trip to New England for the AFC Championship game.
How do you see this one turning out? Are you optimistic that the Ravens can earn their second win at Heinz Field this season and revenge the playoff loss to Pittsburgh two years ago? Or do you think the Steelers will be too much to handle at home in front of 65,000 screaming fans wearing the black and gold?
For a spot in the AFC title game - who you got?