There was a time when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens were the class of the AFC North, and often even the entirety of the conference. Five Super Bowl appearances and four championship wins will put you that category in a 13-year span will place you firmly in that upper echelon.
The reason why these two franchises dislike each other is clear: Like two ultra-competitive brothers, it is because they are the same, and the hatred on the outside masks a feeling of respect on the inside.
The teams once featured-five combined Defensive Player of the Year Award winners that anchored the most violent defenses in football. Each team featured a big-time, big-armed quarterback with big-play receivers that complemented a dominant running game.
Even though this game is no longer to determine the leader of the AFC North race, both the Ravens and the Steelers remain the same in identity and philosophy. Only Troy Polamalu and Terrell Suggs remain from that list of defensive MVPs, on defenses that, while still stout, are trying to regain that swagger of dominance.
The quarterbacks are still there as well, with Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger trying to adjust to new core players on the fly, and recapture that Super Bowl magic and eliminate the turnovers that have plagued each lately.
The Steelers and Ravens, once a lock to finish in the top ten in rushing, possess two of the worst ground games in the NFL. The Steelers are trying to get rolling with rookie Le’Veon Bell, who coaches hope can lift them from the embarrassment of having a 31st-ranked rushing offense. The Ravens have not faired much better, as Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce lead a unit that ranks just 27th.
The problem for both rushing attacks has the NFL. Ravens and Steelers fans were once arguing over who had the league’s best defense. Now the argument has shifted to which has the league’s worst offensive line, a claim both sadly have equal share in. Hell, even both teams pulled off the rare midseason trade to try and fix their troublesome left tackle positions.
In Pittsburgh, Mike Adams has the dreaded “bust” label planted firmly on his forehead, until he can prove otherwise. The Steelers traded for Levi Brown, whose season is now over before he ever took a snap for the team. Out went Brown’s triceps, and in came third-string utility guy Kelvin Beachum. What Beachum lacks in physical stature, the team hopes he has in the intangibles that Adams never possessed, such as heart and intelligence.
The Ravens meanwhile acquired Eugene Monroe to replace Bryant McKinnie, who traded in his Party Boat for a Party Bus. The results have been about the same, as it was Monroe who let Nick Perry around the edge for the pre-halftime strip sack of Flacco to help seal the Ravens’ loss to the Green Bay Packers.
The tackles allowed Flacco and Roethlisberger to serve as heavy bags for opposing defensive ends and linebackers, the inadequacies on each respective line don’t stop there. Both units have tried, and failed to effectively replace pro bowl centers, so the interior has not been much better.
The only drama left in this game is whether or not the Steelers can drag the Ravens down the standing with them, or whether or not Baltimore can pull the plug on Pittsburgh’s season.
Yes, conference dominance has been replaced by division flatulence, but one thing is almost guaranteed: This will still be a hell of a game. Look for Big Ben to dust off a little of the old late-game magic to steal this one for Pittsburgh
Pick: Steelers, 27-23