AFC Champ Preview
Pittsburgh, PA - The Pittsburgh Steelers had the best defense in the NFL this season en route to the AFC North title and the No. 2 seed in the conference.
If there's any team that can keep up with the Steelers, though, it's the division rival Baltimore Ravens, architects of some of the best defenses in the NFL over the last decade, including another elite unit in 2008.
Points will likely be at a premium when the NFL's top two defenses square off in Sunday night's AFC championship game in Pittsburgh.
Oddsmakers from Online Sportsbook Sportsbook.com have made the Steelers –6 point spread favorites for Sunday’s game against the Ravens. Current NFL Public Betting Information shows that 64% of more than 17,836 bets for this game have been placed on the Ravens +6.
The Steelers (13-4) gave up an NFL-low 237.2 yards per game, the fewest allowed by any team since the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles held opponents to 221.8. Pittsburgh also led the league in scoring defense, allowing 13.9 points per contest.
As impressive as the Steelers have been, the Ravens (13-5) are one team not likely to be in awe of that success. Baltimore has been putting up similar defensive numbers over the last decade, finishing in the league's top six in opponents' yardage nine times in the last 10 seasons, including five top-two finishes in that stretch.
Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan's unit didn't disappoint in 2008, ranking second by holding opponents to 261.1 yards per game and third at 15.3 points allowed per contest. Baltimore also led the league with 34 takeaways, and has an 8-1 turnover advantage in its two playoff wins.
This is only the second meeting between the NFL's top defenses in a conference championship game since the merger in 1970. The first was when Dallas beat the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC title game during the 1978 playoffs before losing to the Steelers in Super Bowl XIII.
"It's two football teams that play a certain brand of football. It's physical football, it's fundamental, it's a very disciplined style of football," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It's going to be a physical match. ... That's the beauty of the NFL."
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has equally high expectations for the teams' third meeting of the season.
"It's going to be a battle," he said. "I have a feeling it's going to be one for the ages."
Roethlisberger and the Steelers got the better of the Ravens in each of the teams' regular-season matchups. Jeff Reed kicked a 46-yard field goal to give the Steelers a 23-20 overtime victory at home Sept. 29, and Roethlisberger connected with Santonio Holmes on a four-yard touchdown pass with 43 seconds remaining as Pittsburgh clinched the division title by stealing a 13-9 victory in Baltimore on Dec. 14.
Those games were both among the most physical in the league this season, thanks to a bitter hatred between the rivals that have combined to win six of seven AFC North titles since realignment.
Baltimore defensive end Terrell Suggs bragged that the team put a bounty on Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall before Ray Lewis' hard hit ended the rookie running back's season in the first matchup. Suggs later said there wasn't a bounty, and the NFL investigated the comments.
Tempers flared again in the rematch, and there appears to be a good chance that the contentious history between the clubs could add to the drama Sunday.
"If you want to go to the Super Bowl, who else would you rather it be but the Pittsburgh Steelers?" Ravens linebacker Bart Scott said. "It's an opportunity for one organization to build up the level of hatred for the other organization. Somebody is going to be happy, somebody is going to be hurt. What other team would you rather do it to?"
Since the start of Steelers' championship 2005 season, Pittsburgh and Baltimore have split eight games. Five of those ? including the last three - have been decided by six points or fewer.
If that's any indication, Pittsburgh may have to survive another battle in order to become the fourth team since 1966 to beat an opponent three times in the same season.
"It would be a big game if it was a scrimmage," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "This is for the AFC championship."
Tomlin has home-field advantage on his side. The Steelers have won seven of their last eight games against the Ravens in Pittsburgh, a stretch that started with a 27-10 victory in a divisional playoff game Jan. 20, 2002 ? these teams' only previous postseason meeting.
Since 1970, home teams are 50-26 in conference championship games.
This is the Steelers' fourth trip to the AFC title game in eight years and their first under Tomlin, who already has the team poised for a Super Bowl appearance in his second season at the helm.
Harbaugh's been just as impressive in an even shorter tenure with the Ravens. The rookie coach has the team on the brink of the Super Bowl after it went 5-11 in 2007.
The Ravens have made that tremendous turnaround not only with a first-year coach, but also a first-year quarterback. With last Saturday's 13-10 win over No. 1 seed Tennessee, Joe Flacco became the first rookie quarterback to win two playoff games ? both on the road.
"We've been confident in ourselves all year," said the first-round draft pick out of Delaware, who's 7-3 overall away from home. "It seems like we've been on the road for the longest time. It doesn't matter to us. We're going to go out there and battle the crowd, battle the other team, and give it our best."
The Ravens, who took the wild-card route to winning the NFL championship in 2000, are the second No. 6 seed since 1990 to advance to a conference title game. The last team to do so was Pittsburgh when it won the Super Bowl in 2005.
Flacco completed 27 of 59 passes for 307 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in two games against Pittsburgh in the regular season.
The Steelers defense, though, could have a hole Sunday with All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu nursing a calf injury. He'll be limited in practice this week.
"We're at the point of the season where it's about getting ready to play and being at the very best you can be on game day," Tomlin said Tuesday. "If that means sacrificing a little physical preparation for him, we're willing to do that."
While Polamalu's health is in question, the Steelers are thrilled to have Roethlisberger and running back Willie Parker back at full strength.
Roethlisberger returned from a concussion and improved to 6-2 in his postseason career with last Sunday's 35-24 win over San Diego, and Parker ran 27 times for 146 yards and two touchdowns ? one of his best performances in a season marred by knee and shoulder injuries.
Parker has been held to 43.7 rushing yards per game with no touchdowns on the ground in six contests against the Ravens.
AFC Championship Top Betting Trends:
All games in this series since 1992
PITTSBURGH is 14-12 against the spread versus BALTIMORE since 1992
PITTSBURGH is 17-10 straight up against BALTIMORE since 1992
16 of 27 games in this series have gone OVER THE TOTAL since 1992
Games over the last 3 seasons
BALTIMORE is 4-2 against the spread versus PITTSBURGH over the last 3 seasons
PITTSBURGH is 3-3 straight up against BALTIMORE over the last 3 seasons
4 of 6 games in this series have gone OVER THE TOTAL over the last 3 seasons
All games played at PITTSBURGH since 1992
PITTSBURGH is 7-7 against the spread versus BALTIMORE since 1992
PITTSBURGH is 10-4 straight up against BALTIMORE since 1992
9 of 14 games in this series have gone OVER THE TOTAL since 1992
Games played at PITTSBURGH over the last 3 seasons.
BALTIMORE is 2-1 against the spread versus PITTSBURGH over the last 3 seasons
PITTSBURGH is 2-1 straight up against BALTIMORE over the last 3 seasons
3 of 3 games in this series have gone OVER THE TOTAL over the last 3 seasons
AFC Championship Game Key Player Injuries
[CB] Chris McAlister IR - Knee - 11/07/08
[CB] Derrick Martin IR - Shoulder - 10/31/08
[DB] Samari Rolle injured last game "?" - Groin - 01/10/09
[DT] Dwan Edwards IR - Back - 08/26/08
[DT] Kelly Gregg IR - Knee - 10/07/08
[DT] Lamar Divens IR - Shoulder - 12/10/08
[LB] Antwan Barnes missed last game "?" - Chest - 01/11/09
[LB] Prescott Burgess IR - Wrist - 08/12/08
[LB] Terrell Suggs injured last game "?" - Shoulder - 01/10/09
[NT] Kelly Talavou IR. - Shoulder - 08/26/08
[OG] Marshal Yanda IR - Knee - 10/14/08
[QB] Kyle Boller IR - Shoulder - 09/03/08
[RB] P.J. Daniels IR - Shoulder - 08/12/08
[SS] Dawan Landry IR - Neck - 09/22/08
[TE] Quinn Sypniewski IR - Knee - 07/25/08
[WR] Demetrius Williams IR - Achilles - 10/29/08
[WR] Marcus Maxwell IR - Hip - 12/31/08
[OG] Kendall Simmons IR - Achilles - 09/30/08
[OL] Greg Warren IR - Leg - 10/28/08
[OT] Marvel Smith IR - Back - 12/23/08
[P] Daniel Sepulveda IR - Knee - 07/30/08
[QB] Charlie Batch IR - Collarbone - 08/30/08
[RB] Rashard Mendenhall IR - Shoulder - 09/30/08
Posted: 1/15/08 12:59AM ET