The Pittsburgh Steelers won the AFC North division with an 11-5 record. Their first hurdle toward another Super Bowl crown is the Baltimore Ravens in their AFC Wild Card Matchup at Heinz Field on Jan. 3.
Could the Pittsburgh Steelers win their third Super Bowl title in the last decade?
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That's certainly what the Steelers -- winners of Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII -- aim to do during the 2014 postseason. Pittsburgh won the AFC North division with an 11-5 record, a marked improvement from the 8-8 finish during the last two seasons. It is the team's first winning season and first playoff berth since the 2011 NFL season.
The Steelers clinched their division by virtue of a 27-17 win over their AFC North foes, the Cincinnati Bengals, in Week 17. This marks the sixth time in eight games that Pittsburgh has held its opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards.
The Steelers get the third seed in the AFC and will face the sixth-seeded Baltimore Ravens in the Wild Card Game on Jan. 3 at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field. Pittsburgh offensive lineman Kelvin Beachum told Teresa Varley of the Steelers' official website on Dec. 29 there's no love lost between the two teams:
"Having Baltimore come in to Pittsburgh, we know what type of game it's going to be. We know it's going to be a slugfest. We know they hate us and we hate them. That is the nature of this rivalry and there are a lot of marbles on the line. This is AFC North football and it's in the playoffs. It's either win or go home and I think both teams understand that."
One thing that's going against the Steelers is the uncertainty of running back Le'Veon Bell's status for the AFC Wild Card Game. Bell hyperextened his right knee during the Week 17 win over the Bengals after Cincinnati safety Reggie Nelson hit him in the third quarter, per ESPN 's Adam Schefter and Scott Brown.
Bell told Brown in a separate ESPN update he has no issues with Nelson's hit. Bell said, "It was a legal hit. It's football. It's a dangerous sport. He got me down the way he could."
With Bell probably out for the game against the Ravens, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette reported on Dec. 30 that the Steelers signed veteran running back Ben Tate. The team needed depth at the position, as it only has two inexperienced rookies in Josh Harris and Dri Archer to beck up Bell prior to signing Tate.
Bouchette foresees Harris as the starter with Tate as the No. 2 halfback should Bell fail to suit up against the Ravens. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Dec. 30 an MRI revealed no significant damage to Bell's knee, but the team is not going to take a huge risk on its best player.
CBS Sports' John Breech stresses the Steelers can still win without Bell. He cites Pittsburgh's 43-23 win over Baltimore during the regular season. In that game, Bell ran for only 20 yards. He adds Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown and the Ravens' below average secondary as other reasons why Pittsburgh came away with a huge win. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for six touchdowns in that game, five to different receivers.
Breech says the biggest X-factor for the Ravens is quarterback and Super Bowl XLVII MVP Joe Flacco. In his last six postseason games, Flacco has thrown for 15 touchdowns and just one interception. During that span, he's amassed a 5-1 win-loss record. Among the weapons he can go to are wide receivers Torrey Smith and Steve Smith, Sr., running back Justin Forsett and tight end Owen Daniels.
However, Breech also points out the one team that Flacco has routinely struggled against is the Pittsburgh Steelers. And that spells bad news for the Ravens and their fans.
Roethlisberger also says the fact the Steelers have been playing better football bodes well for them, per Varley's colleague, Mike Prisuta:
"I think we're playing better football. I think we're continuing to improve every week, guys are stepping up and making plays. Those guys (the Ravens) are still playing at a high level like they were the last time. We're getting more contributions from a little bit of everybody."
Roethlisberger, who was on the Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII Steelers teams, also has an array of options: wide receivers Brown, Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant as well as tight end Heath Miller. The Ravens' secondary has its work cut out for it, to say the least.
Home field advantage should also be a factor in the Steelers' favor. If their smothering run defense manages to stymie Forsett and Co., it will be a long day for Baltimore.
Prediction: Steelers 28, Ravens 21
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