The Pittsburgh Steelers are a perfect 3-0 all-time against the AFC North rival Baltimore Ravens in the postseason, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers will have to keep that record intact without All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell.
The Steelers (11-5) clinched the highly-contested division and Saturday’s home Wild Card matchup against the Ravens in last week’s 27-17 victory over Cincinnati, but Bell suffered a hyperextended knee.
Bell missed practice all week, and though he hasn’t been ruled out for the rest of the postseason, Pittsburgh will turn to rookie running backs Josh Harris and Dri Archer, along with veteran Ben Tate to somehow make up for his absence.
In his second-year out of Michigan State, Bell set opponents afire with 1,361 rushing yards and eight touchdowns and totaled 83 receptions for 854 yards and three scores. Bell rushed for a combined 79 yards off 21 attempts in two games against the Ravens No. 4-ranked rushing defense this season, but was far more effective with 10 receptions for 86 yards and a touchdown.
The two sides last met in the postseason in 2010’s divisional round, when Pittsburgh claimed a 31-24 victory en route to a Super Bowl appearance and eventual loss to Green Bay.
Roethlisberger threw for 226 yards and two touchdowns in that victory, and he’s been even better throughout the 2014 season. The 32-year-old was tied for the league-lead with 4,952 passing yards, a career-best, and equaled his career-high with 32 touchdown passes to nine interceptions.
And the Steelers still own the NFL’s leading receiver in Antonio Brown, who notched new career-highs with 129 receptions for 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns. Brown also burned Baltimore’s No. 23 pass defense for 18 receptions for 234 yards and one touchdown this season.
But despite their troubles against the pass, during the regular season the Ravens were eighth in the NFL in total defense, and tied for second with 49 sacks. Baltimore’s also won three of their last four games by allowing 15 points and 267.3 total yards.
Like Pittsburgh, the Ravens are also enjoying a career-year from their quarterback, Joe Flacco. Two-years removed from his Super Bowl-winning run, Flacco posted 3,986 yards passing and 27 touchdowns while completing 62.1 percent of his attempts, his best mark in four years.
This is also a Ravens team that trudged through severe offseason turmoil surrounding former running back Ray Rice and their handling of his suspension by the NFL. However Baltimore handed the ball over to veteran running back Justin Forsett, and he racked up career-highs with 1,266 yards and eight touchdowns and 44 receptions.
Flacco can also turn to veteran and first-year raven Steve Smith Sr. He hasn’t scored in the Ravens last three games, but Smith was a reliable deep threat for much of the season for Flacco, totaling 1,065 yards and six touchdowns off 79 receptions. Smith is also no stranger to the postseason. In nine career playoff games, he’s recorded 51 receptions for 856 yards and eight touchdowns.
Getting the ball to Smith could prove difficult for Flacco with starting left tackle Eugene Monroe ruled out with an ankle injury. The Ravens will install back-up James Hurst in Monroe’s place, but Flacco must also deal with a Steelers defense welcoming back some star contributors.
Pittsburgh will welcome back veteran cornerback Ike Taylor, who missed the last three games with shoulder and forearm injuries, and versatile strong safety Troy Polamalu also returns after sitting out the last two games with a knee injury. Together, Taylor and Polamalu have appeared in 28 playoff games and pulled down six interceptions.
Start Time: 8:15 P.M. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Live Online Stream: A live stream is available at NBC Live Extra here
Betting Odds: Pittsburgh -3
Over/Under: 45 points
Prediction: Pittsburgh over Baltimore, 34-30