Sunday's finally here, but we've still got a handful of hours until tonight's highly-anticipated Ravens-Steelers game kicks off.
To pass the time until then, take a look at three (hey, let's make it four) keys to tonight's crucial AFC North contest:
1. Which run defense will show up?
The Ravens have been somewhat hit or miss with their run defense this year, shutting down Miami's Ronnie Brown and Atlanta's Michael Turner, but allowing over 100 yards on the ground to two previously-unknown backs - the Browns' Peyton Hillis and the Panthers' Mike Goodson. Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall comes into tonight's game against the Ravens with some momentum, having rushed for a season-high 151 yards and a touchdown last week against the Bills, and his physical running style could cause problems for the Ravens. Mendenhall rushed for 79 yards and two touchdowns against Baltimore back in Week 4, and it will be interesting to see whether the Ravens are able to keep him in check tonight.
2. Keep Joe upright
Pittsburgh's dangerous outside linebacker duo of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley can wreck havoc off the edges, and they've given Joe Flacco fits in the past. The Ravens might want to spread the field and try and attack through the air tonight, but to be effective doing so, they'll have to contain the Steelers' pass rush and give Flacco time to work through his progressions. Baltimore kept Harrison and Woodley without a sack back in Week 4 (in fact, Flacco was only sacked once overall in that game), but they've got a banged up offensive line entering this contest, with left tackle Michael Oher and right guard Chris Chester coming off injuries. If Oher and right tackle Marshal Yanda can keep the Steelers' outside 'backers in check, the Ravens could do some damage against an average Pittsburgh secondary.
3. Don't let Roethlisberger pull another trick out of his hat
Games between these two teams always seem to come down to the wire, and when Ben Roethlisberger has been on the field for a Ravens-Steelers contest, he's had a tendency to make a big play when his team has needed it the most. Big Ben excels at staying on his feet and extending the play, and he's always been effective improvising and making something happen on the move, which can be especially important in late-game situations. The Steelers' quarterback has burned the Ravens with a few fourth quarter plays in the past, and for Baltimore to earn a win this time around, they'll need to get good pressure, wrap Roethlisberger up, and play sound defense late in the game.
BONUS KEY: 4. Win the special teams battle
With this being Ravens-Steelers, I had to sneak in an extra key to tonight's game, and it deals with the special teams aspect. Special teams often get overlooked, but in a game where every point is so important and field position will be crucial, the pressure will be on the kickers, punters and return/coverage units tonight. In what will be cold, windy conditions, every field goal will be huge, and a big return could change the game.