To be published in The Voice, Bloomsburg University’s student-run newspaper.
There are four weeks left in the NFL regular season. The playoff picture is becoming clearer by the week, but some divisions are going to take longer to sort out. One of those divisions is the AFC North. The Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers, both with records of 7-5, look to finish ahead of the other and host a home playoff game.
It is no secret that these two teams are bitter enemies. There have been countless battles between the teams over the years. Baltimore Ravens legends like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed have dueled with legends of the Steelers, including Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward. While many of the players involved in this rivalry have either switched teams or retired, there are still some old faces as well as some fresh young talent to keep this envious battle alive.
In one corner, you have the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens got off to a hot start this season, starting 3-0 before going on their first four-game losing streak in the John Harbaugh era. Since that four-game skid, the Ravens have made up some ground, winning four of their last five games. One of those wins was a 21-14 win over the Steelers in week nine.
Last Sunday, the Ravens defeated the Miami Dolphins 38-6. It was just the second double-digit victory for the Ravens this season. Quarterback Joe Flacco played his best game in recent memory, throwing for 381 yards and four touchdowns. Baltimore’s offense has struggled all season, but the unit finally put together 60 minutes of pure dominance.
As solid as the Ravens’ offensive showing on Sunday was, their defense has held their team together all season long. The Ravens’ defense ranks first in the NFL against the run and seventh against the pass. It is almost impossible to run the football on this defense with Timmy Jernigan and Brandon Williams blocking all the holes. Linebackers CJ Mosley and Zachary Orr are playing out of their minds. Terrell Suggs, playing on one arm, and Elvis Dumervil, recently returning from a foot injury, provide a formidable pass rush. The secondary is the weakest part of this unit, but with a veteran like Eric Weddle at the helm and corner-back Jimmy Smith shutting down receivers, the Ravens have been kept in games even when it seemed impossible that they could overcome their offensive struggles.
Oh, and let’s not forget kicker Justin Tucker, who many are already naming team MVP for the Ravens. Tucker is a perfect 28-for-28 this season in field goal attempts, including eight successful kicks from 50 or more yards. With several NFL kickers struggling to make extra points (under the new rule), Tucker’s brilliance has certainly eased the stress of Baltimore fans concerned about an offense that has struggled, particularly in the red zone.
If the Ravens are to win this division, they are going to need to become road warriors. Three of Baltimore’s final four games will be played on the road – at New England, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The Ravens are 2-3 on the road so far this season, so if they plan on hosting a home playoff game, they are going to have to perform well in enemy territory.
In the other corner stands the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers have been a streaky team as of late, going on a four-game losing streak before winning their last three games. This past weekend, the Steelers convincingly defeated the New York Giants 24-14 and held the Giants scoreless in the first half. Ben Roethlisberger threw two touchdowns, and Le’Veon Bell ran for 118 yards on 29 carries. Free agent acquisition Ladarius Green also had a stellar day, recording 110 receiving yards and a touchdown.
From the outside looking in, everyone wants to focus on Pittsburgh’s offense. In fact, many experts were picking the Steelers to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl solely based on how strong their offense is. While the Steelers may still reach the Super Bowl, it is no secret that the offense has not performed as well as most people had predicted. In a three-game stretch earlier this season, the Steelers’ offense was held to under 20 points. However, the Steelers are capable of putting up big offensive numbers on any given Sunday. After that three-game stretch, the Steelers have put up at least 24 points in every game.
The Steelers have pro-bowl caliber players at several positions on offense. Roethlisberger continues to be one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL, doing so with a bad knee. Roethlisberger has now played five games since injuring his meniscus against the Dolphins, throwing nine touchdowns during that stretch. Big Ben has several weapons at his disposal, including Bell, Green and receivers Antonio Brown and Sammie Coates. The defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers features a great front seven that ranks sixth against the run, but their secondary is suspect, having been a weakness for a few years now.
The Steelers have an easier four-game stretch to finish out the season, playing the Bills and the Bengals on the road before returning home to face the Ravens and the winless Browns. That game against the Ravens will be played on Christmas Day, and could possibly determine the winner of the AFC North. As of this writing, the Ravens possess a half-game lead over the Steelers because of their victory over them in week nine. The Ravens have also won four-straight games against the Steelers, including the playoffs.
As the NFL playoff picture transpires, the AFC North race is one of the top storylines to watch for the rest of the season. With that being said, this Christmas Day game might be the single most-important game remaining on the NFL schedule. You might have to wait to finish up opening your presents, because this game will be must-watch television.