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The Baltimore- Pittsburgh game is important for both teams, but it's crucial for the Ravens. At 10-2 the Steelers are one of the NFL's elite clubs. If the playoffs started tomorrow, they would be the AFC's No. 1 seed. Even if they lose to 8-4 Baltimore, they will be a game up on the Ravens with Detroit (at home), Cincinnati and Cleveland (at home) as the final trio on their schedule.
Let's face it: It's not exactly nail-biting time for Pittsburgh. Sure, the Steelers want to beat Baltimore to keep the home court advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, but that's not the huge motivator many people assume it to be.
A loss would drop the Ravens to 8-5, with a tough game coming up against the Buccaneers in Tampa. They could find themselves in the company of the Jets and the Patriots in the murky nether regions of the playoffs—among the low-seeded wild card teams. Not really a disaster ( Baltimore was a road warrior in two out of three AFC playoff games last season and still won it all), but kind of undignified: a champion in an undercard bout.
You realize, of course, that all this is merely sportswriter talk, and what's foremost in the Steelers' minds is the way they shoved the Ravens around in their first meeting, only to lose the game on four missed field goals. Pittsburgh knows it can move the ball on Baltimore. Lots of teams have this year. The Steelers are just a bit nervous about what happens when they get into the red zone. In that choked-off area, their offense, which has achieved a nice run-pass balance, fails to operate. Then fingers are crossed all around for the three-pointer.
Pittsburgh held the Ravens, minus Elvis Grbac, to 183 total yards last time, Baltimore's lowest output of the season. The Steelers' blitz package wreaked its usual havoc, but recently it has been kept in check, failing to get a sack in the last two games—against the Vikings, with a sore-kneed Daunte Culpepper and an untested Todd Bouman at quarterback, and against the Jets, with 38-year-old Vinny Testaverde. Still, I get the feeling that Pittsburgh was saving the exotica for the big one this Sunday and that the Ravens will face a lot of stuff they haven't seen on tape. The game's in Baltimore, but the pick here is Pittsburgh, which is out for revenge.
Arizona, which had generated a flicker of excitement before Washington extinguished it on Sunday, visits the Giants, who really did play in the Super Bowl last season, honest. A Cardinals upset wouldn't surprise me here, but I have a hunch that the Giants have one decent effort left, so I'm going with them.
Denver, which still has playoff hopes, visits Kansas City, which is playoff hopeless. Don't ask me why I like the Chiefs in this one. Maybe because the Broncos still haven't straightened out their offense, and Arrowhead isn't usually a friendly place for them. Philadelphia has already been humbled by the Redskins, but I don't think that will happen again. Besides, these teams have split their series for each of the last five years. Here's one shaky vote for the Eagles.
The Rams, whose first loss of the year was to New Orleans, visit the Superdome on Monday night and even the score. Chicago beat Tampa Bay in November by unveiling a secret weapon, the deep pass. Now the secret's out, so I like the Buccaneers in an upset. I'll take Seattle at home to bounce back and hang one on the Cowboys. I always seem to pick against the Packers when they play an AFC team on the road, and I know that if I change now, I'm going to blow it, so Tennessee's my choice. Finally, the 49ers, whose offense was thoroughly humiliated by St. Louis last week, take out their frustrations on Miami.