Five subplots for Ravens-Steelers
Joe Flacco has had more success as a rookie than Big Ben
From big-play safeties to hard-hitting LBs, rosters are very similar
Ravens defense will be itching to put Roethlisberger on the ground more
The Steelers host the Ravens on Sunday at Heinz Field in a clash of oversized quarterbacks, stout defenses and division rivals who would prefer never to see each other again. Here are five subplots for the AFC championship game.
1. Flacco is the new Roethlisberger. Actually, Joe Flacco has already won more playoff games as a rookie than Ben Roethlisberger did, 2-1. Roethlisberger was a sensation in his first season, 2004, when he led the Steelers to a 15-1 record. But he threw five interceptions in the playoffs and the Steelers were pounded at home by the Patriots in the AFC championship, 41-27. Roethlisberger, who remembers every slight, no matter how far back it dates, said he will use that game as motivation for this one.
Flacco, obviously, does not have Roethlisberger's résumé, but so far he has made fewer mistakes in his first postseason. Like Roethlisberger, Flacco does not have to carry the load by himself. He can rely on a vaunted defense and a tough running attack. In a game that figures to be low scoring, one or two big plays could make the difference, and Flacco has shown a knack for going deep.
2. Three times is the harm. Anybody looking for a drinking game this week should count how often they hear: "There's nothing harder than beating a team three times." The Steelers have edged the Ravens twice this season, once in overtime and once on a last-minute touchdown. In other sports, this would lead pundits to speculate that the Steelers have the Ravens number, and the Ravens have little chance. But for some reason, in the NFL, beating a team twice is no reason to expect it can be done a third time.
"It's the familiarity issue," said former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis. "San Diego thought they knew what was coming [in the rematch with Pittsburgh in the divisional round], but they really weren't sure. Baltimore knows exactly what's coming."
The Ravens have also been preparing for Pittsburgh, the class of the AFC North, since training camp. "Teams in this division are built to beat other teams in this division," Bettis said. "Their personnel fit our personnel."
3. Similarity breeds contempt. It had not been more than 20 minutes since the Steelers completed their divisional playoff victory against the Chargers and tackle Willie Colon was already talking about the "arrogance" and "disrespect" shown by the Ravens. For two teams that clearly despise each other, the Steelers and the Ravens sure are a lot alike.
Besides the big game-managers behind center (Roethlisberger and Flacco), there are the play-making safeties (Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed), ferocious linebackers (James Harrison/James Farrior/LaMarr Woodley and Ray Lewis/Bart Scott/Terrell Suggs) and not-to-be-forgotten running backs (Willie Parker and Willis McGahee). Together, these teams have given new meaning to attack on defense. They blitz until they drop -- or until a quarterback drops. In the NFL, imitation is always the most sincere form of flattery, which means the Steelers and the Ravens have to appreciate each other more than they let on. "I give them respect," Colon said. "As hard as that is to do."
4. Holmes-field advantage. Trailing 9-6 with less than a minute left at M&T Bank Stadium on Dec. 14, Roethlisberger called a play the Steelers had never run before. He rolled left, rolled back to the right, and against all of his better instincts to throw the ball away, let fire to Santonio Holmes, his fourth option. Holmes caught the ball at the goal line, making it a tricky spot for the officials. They first ruled that Holmes was down at the 1. Then, after a challenge, they ruled that he crossed the plane for a touchdown. If they had kept their original call, there is a very good chance Sunday's game would be played back at M&T Bank Stadium. But Holmes' touchdown gave the Steelers the AFC North title, a first-round bye, and the right to host this game. Of course, if other playoff results are any indication, that might not be such an edge. The Steelers, playing on their soupy surface at Heinz Field, were the only home team to win last weekend.
5. Time to clear his head. Of all the glowing statistics that emerged from the Steelers divisional playoff victory, the most important number was 1. That's how many hits Roethlisberger took against the Chargers. Given that Roethlisberger has sustained three concussions in the past three years -- two on the field, one in his motorcycle accident -- his head will always be a subject of examination. But as startling as it was to see Roethlisberger in the lineup Sunday, only two weeks after he had been on a stretcher with no feeling in his arms, specialists were not so surprised. "Concussions are still not that well understood, but the impact and potential problems from them are understood well enough that most teams seem to be appropriately careful," said Dr. James Gladstone, co-chief of sports medicine in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "You first make sure that at rest everything is normal and then you challenge them physically. You have people run and do exercises that will increase blood flow. If they do fine, then, in theory, they ought to be able to play."
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