The Baltimore Ravens locked up the sixth seed in the competitive AFC with a 10-6 record to close out the 2014 NFL regular season. They will face their AFC North rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, in the Wild Card game on Jan. 3.
Now is the Baltimore Ravens' chance to reclaim the glory of their Super Bowl XLVII season.
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The Ravens, the Super Bowl XLVII champions, missed the 2013 postseason with a mediocre 8-8 record. A year later, they had to deal with the Ray Rice assault controversy but managed to develop a budding running back in Justin Forsett. Baltimore concluded the 2014 reguar season with a 10-6 mark to secure a Wild Card showdown with their AFC North divison rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Baltimore and Pittsburgh split their regular-season series at one game apiece. Both were 20-point routes at each other's home field, with the Steelers prevailing, 43-23, in Week 9 and the Ravens winning, 26-6, in Week 2, per BaltimoreRavens.com's Garrett Downing.
As intense as the teams' rivalry has been, it will only be their first playoff game since the 2010 NFL season. That year, the Steelers beat the Ravens, 31-24, in the AFC Championship Game. Pittsburgh lost to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV, a showdown of two of the league's most popular teams.
Fast forward to 2014: It was a season to remember on the offensive end for the Ravens as they put a franchise record 409 points on the board while quarterback and Super Bowl XLVII MVP Joe Flacco threw for a career-best 27 touchdowns.
Baltimore outside linebacker Terrell Suggs told Downing on Dec. 28 he likes his team's chances on the road in the playoffs. He said,"Everything starts 0-0 now. All you've got to do is is win all your games now. So, if you ask me, I think we're a [heck] of a team on the road. Sometimes, that's the way you've got to go."
The Ravens have every reason to feel optimistic: Downing's colleague, Ryan Mink, says the road team has won 11 of the past 24 postseason games pitting third- and sixth-seeded teams. That's almost a 50 percent chance Baltimore with come away with a win at Heinz Field on Saturday.
The team's biggest X-factor? It's none other than Flacco.
ESPN Baltimore Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley describes Flacco as "elite" in the postseason:
"Since he entered the NFL in 2008, Flacco has nine wins in the postseason, four more than any other quarterback over that span. Over the last four postseasons, he has more touchdown passes (18) than any other quarterback. In his last two playoff seasons, Flacco carried the Ravens to a Super Bowl in 2012 and came within one failed catch of leading the Ravens to another Super Bowl in 2011.
"..Flacco has outplayed Tom Brady (twice), Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck and Colin Kaepernick in the postseason. He has won six games on the road, including at New England and Denver."
There's no question Flacco will utilize all his weapons: wide receivers Torrey Smith and Steve Smith, Sr., tight end Owen Daniels and running back Justin Forsett. The Ravens quarterback, as he has done in the postseason in years past, should thrive once again.
On the other hand, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger also has plenty of options at his disposal: wide receivers Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant as well as tight end Heath Miller. The only question mark is running back Le'Veon Bell, who suffered a hyperextended right knee during the Week 17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, per Downing. Bell's status is currently uncertain.
Roethlisberger threw for six touchdowns during the Steelers' Week 9 blowout of the Ravens. Mink notes Roethlisberger threw those to five different receivers. This means the Pittsburgh secondary has its work cut out for it.
Baltimore cornerback Ladarius Webb told Mink on Dec. 31 that Roethlisberger's performance still lingers in the Ravens' minds:
"We think about that because he set records on us. It should have an impact on all the guys that were on that field to not want it to happen again. I think guys will be more focused and study a little harder."
In a separate update, Mink stresses the Ravens, who have gone scoreless in the first quarter of their four recent games, cannot afford to get off to a slow start against the Steelers. He also says third-down conversion has been an issue for Baltimore: The Ravens have gone 12-for-40 over their last three regular-season games.
That being the case, Baltimore has been recently relying mainly on field goals to score points. They cannot allow kicker Justin Kicker to be their leading scorer. Not against a high-octane offense such as Pittsburgh's.
The formula is simple: a Baltimore offense designed around Flacco has to step out of the gate and be efficient from the opening whistle. The Ravens cannot afford to play catch up against Roetlisberger's Steelers. If the Ravens manage to be efficient on third downs and let their defense stymie Roethlisberger, they should advance to the AFC Divisional Round next week.
If not, the Steelers and their fans can rejoice at ending the Ravens' 2014 campaign.
Prediction: Steelers 35, Ravens 28
The Ravens vs. Steelers Wild Card game will be played at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field on Jan. 3 at 8:15 p.m. ET.
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