The American Football Conference (AFC) Championship Game is scheduled for Sunday, January 18 at 6:30 p.m. E.S.T. on CBS. The AFC bracket pits the Baltimore Ravens versus the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field to determine this conference’s ultimate Super Bowl XLIII representative.
The third meeting between these two franchises of the 2008-2009 NFL season looms large as yet another physical, smash mouth gridiron battle featuring these bitter AFC North rivals. Sunday’s matchup will prove to be the most important of this series as Baltimore and Pittsburgh wage war for AFC supremacy.
The Pittsburgh Steelers won both games by a combined total of merely 7 points. The two meetings served as exhibitions of mental toughness, stout defense, clutch field goal kicking, and top-notch coaching. The Week 4 meeting was decided by a game-winning overtime field goal, while the Week 15 game at Baltimore was won by Pittsburgh on the strength of a questionable Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes touchdown connection. Certainly, the two contests could have easily swung either way, altering the 2008-2009 AFC and NFL Playoff picture, as we know it.
The Steelers rode these two victories to a 12-4 record and the AFC North crown. The battle-tested roster was ready for combat nearly every week – evidenced by the fact that Pittsburgh’s slate of games represented the toughest schedule in the NFL according to the 2007 records of the opposition.
The Tennessee Titans dismissed the AFC’s second seed at Nashville in Week 16 for the coveted home field advantage prize. These very same Steelers were uncharacteristically dominated by the Tennessee Titans in the 31-14 loss. The Terrible Towel had been stomped upon, literally.
The Steelers returned to form with a 31-0 throttling of the Cleveland Browns in the final week of the regular season. In spite of the first-round bye, the momentum carried over into the Sunday, January 11 AFC Divisional Playoff versus the surging San Diego Chargers. Traditional Steeler football was on full display behind Willie Parker’s 146 rushing yards, the swarming 3-4 defensive lineups, and the cool quarterbacking of Ben Roethlisberger.
Of course, the Baltimore Ravens await, oozing with gamesmanship and their raucous ever-present anytime, anywhere, anyplace attitude is essential for NFL Playoff football trench warfare.
The 11-5 Ravens steamrolled the Miami Dolphins 27-9 in the NFL Wild Card Round at South Florida and outlasted the aforementioned top-seed Tennessee Titans 13-10 on the road. Baltimore has accepted the baton from the dispatched Indianapolis Colts and San Diego Chargers as the dangerous “team that nobody wants to play.”
Both rosters are set to arrive at Pittsburgh’s confluence of the Three Rivers surging with confidence and fully prepared to brawl. Let’s proceed to preview the critical match ups that will foreshadow the outcome of the AFC’s final blood bath prior to Super Bowl XLIII at Tampa.
3: Pittsburgh Steeler Offensive Line versus Baltimore Front Seven
Pittsburgh’s beleaguered offensive line has demonstrated marked improvement as the 2008-2009 NFL season progressed. The Steeler big-uglies were decimated by the offseason loss of perennial Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca to the New York Jets via free agency. The lack of continuity proved horrific during the 6-15 Week 3 loss at Philadelphia. Jim Johnson’s blitz-happy defense mauled Big Ben and put him out of the game with nine sacks and a barrage of devastating hits.
2008-2009 Steeler line play was also adversely affected by injuries that ravaged the Steeler backfield. Starting running back Willie Parker and his rookie understudy Rashard Mendenhall missed significant playing time this year due to injury. Mewelde Moore accepted the Pittsburgh feature back role at midseason and performed valiantly at this position. Still, Moore’s talents are ideally suited as a change-of-pace, situational third-down back, rather than workhorse.
The return of a healthy Willie Parker has galvanized Pittsburgh’s offensive line unit. Game-changing tailbacks always discover the means to make interior blocking look good.
Patrolling the other side of the line of scrimmage is Ray Lewis and Baltimore’s complicated defense. This group ranks second in the NFL per yards allowed defensively to these very same Steelers. The Baltimore front is characterized by a scheming 4-3 base look that confounds opposing offenses with various wrinkles, blitz packages, and quirky formations.
Still, the main premise of the Baltimore 4-3 revolves around man-eating defensive linemen to engage and occupy blockers – allowing the fearsome linebacking core to roam freely and wreak havoc upon the rival offensive attack. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis’ overall awareness and anticipation are remarkable – trumping any decline in athleticism of the thirteen-year veteran.
The Steeler offensive line must effectively reach the second level of Baltimore’s defense with well-executed pulls and trap blocks that will create holes for the running game. A strong ground attack will also neutralize ball-hawking safety Ed Reed. Defensive backs are privy to cheat towards the line of scrimmage by design to engage blockers and make tackles to stymie effective line play.
Of course, dominating Baltimore at the line of scrimmage is easier said than done.
Pittsburgh Offensive Line versus Baltimore Front Seven
Advantage: Baltimore Ravens
2: Steeler RB Willie Parker versus Baltimore Defense
The third-ranked Baltimore Raven rushing defense allows a minuscule 81.4 yards per game and prides itself upon intimidation and inflicting pain upon opposing ball carriers. No running back has eclipsed the 100 yards rushing barometer versus this physical group.
Although the ferocious Baltimore defense hangs its collective hat upon shutting down and limiting rival halfbacks to less than 100 rushing yards, the unit has been gashed in spots, particularly by shiftier runners.
For example, New York’s Earth, Wind, and Fire backfield shredded the Ravens for 210 yards on 31 carries. The diminutive 5’9 Ahmad Bradshaw inflicted most of the damage with 96 yards upon only 9 carries in this 10-30 Baltimore embarrassment at the Meadowlands.
Titan speedster tailback Chris Johnson torched the Baltimore Ravens for 72 yards and a 28-yard swing pass reception prior to being reduced to a spectator in the second half due to a high ankle sprain injury.
Enter Pittsburgh’s “Fast” Willie Parker.
Willie Parker has been clocked at a 4.23 40 yard dash time at the 2004 University of North Carolina Pro Day – .01 second faster than the aforementioned Chris Johnson. Parker has been named to the Pro Bowl twice during his five-year career, tallying three 1,000-yard seasons from 2005-2007. His 2008-2009 campaign has been marred by injury, with the feature back battling knee and shoulder injuries throughout the season.
Fast Willie appeared at full strength for the first time this season last week versus the San Diego Chargers at the AFC Divisional Playoffs. Parker electrified Steeler Nation with his natural burst – gliding past San Diego defenders for 146 yards.
The caveat: Willie Parker must remain healthy and on the field versus the Baltimore Ravens.
Steeler RB Willie Parker versus Baltimore Raven Defense
Advantage: Willie Parker and the Pittsburgh Steelers
1: Ben Roethlisberger versus Joe Flacco
In today’s 24-7 news cycle of hyperbole, commentators have arrived at the audacious conclusion that Joe Flacco is the most accomplished rookie quarterback to ever play this sport. Naturally, Joe Flacco has been compared to Ben Roethlisberger as a mid-first round pick with a small school resume and a big arm. Pundits remain convinced that Flacco’s status as the only quarterback to win two consecutive NFL Playoff games trumps the accomplishments of Big Ben.
Ben Roethlisberger is poised to school this rookie in regards to the true meaning of clutch quarterbacking.
First, the Roethlisberger / Flacco rookie year comparisons still favor Big Ben. The Steeler signal caller compiled sterling 2005 13-0 record as Pittsburgh’s starter and a first-round bye. Roethlisberger led the ball club to a 2005 NFL Divisional Playoff round victory versus the New York Jets before being felled by the New England Patriot dynasty in the AFC Championship game. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 2,621 yards 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions for a 98 passer rating his rookie year.
Big Ben has emerged as a top NFL quarterback, complete with a Super Bowl XL Trophy in his second year, one Pro Bowl appearance, and a career passer rating of 89.4. Roethlisberger is the youngest quarterback to win the Super Bowl and record his first 50 wins in the history of the National Football League.
Joe Flacco has thrown 12 interceptions versus a pedestrian 14 touchdowns for an 80.3 rating at Baltimore this 2008-2009 season. Flacco has been a non-factor during these NFL Playoffs – registering a bleak 9-23 135-yard effort in the Wild Card Round versus the Miami Dolphins.
Joe Flacco is no Ben Roethlisberger.
Advantage: Big Ben and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Pittsburgh 20, Baltimore 13