Going into the Wildcard weekend, the ideal outcome, based on match-ups, for the Steelers was the Colts taking down the Jets and the Ravens beating the Kansas City Chiefs.
Once Peyton Manning performed his perennial playoff disappearance act, aided by a mystifying timeout that I’m still trying to figure out, the best outcome for the Steelers in the second game changed from the Ravens winning to the Chiefs winning.
It is one thing to want the Ravens to win to potentially take down, or at least batter, the Patriots and quite another to look forward to playing them.
Alas, it was not in the cards.
Forget the "to be the best you need to beat the best" canard. If given the choice, a team is always better off with a more favorable matchup on the road to the Super Bowl; even Bill Bilichick sabotaged the Patriots last regular season game in 2005 to slide in the standings and avoid the red hot Steelers in the first round that year.
The young Chiefs are likely still a couple years removed from being a legitimate playoff threat and the Ravens handled them easily.
So, instead of hosting a less than stellar Colts team, the Steelers get Smackdown, part three. And any hope of having the path to the Super Bowl cleared of a trip to New England by a team (Ravens) that matches up well against them was also dashed.
While they probably won’t beat them by 42, the Patriots will beat the Jets. A Jets win over the Patriots would make the Seahawks upset of the Saints look like child’s play.
This is not to say that the Steelers cannot win the Super Bowl. It is just to point out that the road has gotten a whole lot harder and would likely feature match-ups with their two biggest rivals.
While they match up just fine against the Ravens, this is not the primer they had in mind prior to meeting the Patriots, a team that does not need any additional help.
I love to watch Steelers-Ravens games, the NFL’s most compelling rivalry, but this is one time that I would have preferred a different opponent for the Steelers and a Ravens-Patriots divisional pairing.
The Steelers-Ravens game would have been better served up in the AFC Championship game as a reprise of 2008.
My biggest concern against the Ravens is the Steelers inability to block their pass rushers. In the last match-up, Terrell Suggs basically pitched a tent in the Steelers’ backfield, giving Ben Roethlisberger approximately a nanosecond, give or take, to find an open receiver or run for his life on any given play. He deserved hazardous duty pay.
While the Steelers pass blockers have looked much better the last couple games, the Ravens are not the Browns or the Panthers.
Perhaps the most important play of the Steelers’ season was Roethlisberger fending Suggs off long enough to escape the pocket and throw the ball away in their last matchup, enabling the go ahead touchdown that ultimately handed the Steelers a first round bye and their choice of venue for their next grudge match.
The Steelers also have a hard time moving Haloti Ngata off the line of scrimmage, which will not do wonders for their running game.
If they cannot do a little better job on Suggs, they will not win this game which makes the game’s key match-up Flozell Adams, with help, versus Suggs.
The good news, thanks to having a quarterback who escapes pressure and takes a beating better than any other in the league, is that the Steelers don’t need to win this individual battle (they won’t).
They just need to lose it respectably, thus giving the offense time to score enough points to win, which is defined as scoring 20 points in this one since I think the Ravens will put up 17 points.
While Troy Polamalu has been the Steelers’ defender who has given the Ravens, particularly Joe Flacco, fits in the past, it will be James Harrison in this one.
I’m partially playing the percentages on that one. There will come a game where Polamalu will not make an earth shattering game changing play against the Ravens. It is a near mathematical certainly, especially when the teams are in the habit of playing each other three times a year.
Considering the Ravens will likely game plan away from him, which is admittedly easier said than done, why not this one? And with Michael Oher somewhat beat up, it will be an angry Harrison who picks up the slack.
Almost all of the Steelers damage will be done through the air because they are not going to run the ball effectively in this one. Rashard Mendenhall will not run on the Ravens, although I fear Bruce Arians will feel the need to try to run him into the heart of the Ravens’ defense about forty times before he comes to that realization.
Should the Steelers beat the Ravens and move on, the cost is likely to be high. When you throw the two hardest hitting teams together on the football field, the only sure result is a long injury list.
Unfortunately, barring a miracle, this means the Steelers would then face the Patriots minus a couple more players, names to be added later.
Not exactly the best case scenario, although perhaps this could be partially offset with the return of Aaron Smith.
If they do meet in the AFC Championship Game, the Steelers will be picked to lose badly to the Patriots. But they were also picked to lose badly to the Colts, who had that same juggernaut feel to them, in the 2005 playoffs.
And I have a feeling that they are due to come up big against the Patriots. I have faith that Master LeBeau will figure something out to thwart Darth Belichick.
The good news is that if the Steelers survive this gauntlet, they will meet a very beatable NFC team in the Super Bowl.
I’m guessing that even as a No. 6 seed, the Packers, drawing motivation from the 2005 Steelers run, will be that team.
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