PREGAME STRETCH: Ravens at Steelers

With playoffs at stake, special teams and game management loom large (uh oh....)

Baltimore Ravens (8-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5) at Heinz Field, capacity 65,050; Sunday at 4:25 p.m., NFL Network/WPXI

Watch watch: As of this writing, no other affiliates outside of Pittsburgh’s WPXI had worked out deals to carry the game. That means Steelers fans in tens of thousands of households without NFL Network in a wide swath from roughly Johnstown to Harrisburg (obviously, this varies on a household-by-household basis, based on whether you have satellite or cable TV and what viewing package you’ve selected, but in general, the farther east, the less chance WPXI is an option) will be unable to watch the game. We’re guessing many of them will be unaware of that fact until some time Christmas afternoon. We’re also guessing when they start trying to call someone, it will be the local CBS affiliate, where they are used to seeing Steelers games. We’re pretty sure they won’t be able to get hold of Roger Goodell on Christmas Day.

Uniforms: The Steelers will be wearing their brand-new, all-black Color Rush uniforms for the first time. In small doses, they appear to be among the better looking of the Color Rush combos, which have been hideous on a lot of teams (cough, Seahawks, cough), but you never really know until you see them on the full team on the playing surface.

Announcers: Mike Tirico and…. Doug Flutie? Annoyance factor: Unknown. With the complicated and convoluted arrangement between the NFL and the networks, not only does this game end up on a cable channel most of America doesn’t get, but it will be described by a broadcasting team that rarely works together. Tirico, obviously, is as good as it gets on play by play. We’ll just have to wait and see on Flutie. These guys did the Dolphins-Jets game last Saturday, but who watched that? Information courtesy www.the506.com.

Weather – or not?: Cloudy, low 40s. With the exception of the game in Buffalo, weather continues to be a nothing story this season for Steelers games. High winds last weekend in Cincinnati died down just before kickoff and it now appears this game will be played in relative calm.. Information courtesy www.weather.com.

How they rank: Baltimore offense: 11th passing, 28th rushing, 19th ppg; Pittsburgh defense: 14th passing, 5th rushing, 9th ppg; Pittsburgh offense: 5th passing, 12th rushing, 11th ppg; Baltimore defense: 10th passing, 2nd rushing, 7th ppg; Sacks: Baltimore 17th (30); Pittsburgh 12th (32); Sacks allowed: Baltimore 11th (28), Pittsburgh 2nd (17). Comment: Who would have bet after the last times these two teams played that the Steelers would have more sacks the next time they played?

Referee: John Parry. Competence factor: Alleged. Parry and crew are reputed to be among the league’s best with Parry having worked two Super Bowls, one as a white hat, but they’ve been involved in several debacles involving the Steelers, most notably last year’s playoff game in Cincinnati (you remember, the one where they let Vontaze Burfict run into the locker room with the ball and didn’t flag him). This season, they’re averaging 15 flags and 125 penalty yards per game. Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com and www.profootballreference.com.

The last time: The Ravens physically dominated the Steelers on both sides of the ball from whistle to whistle and Ben Roethlisberger was terrible in his first game back from a knee injury in a 21-14 Baltimore win that was not nearly as close as that score indicates. Mike Wallace’s 95-yard TD catch was the play of the game as Artie Burns and Mike Mitchell missed tackles on the least physical receiver in the league.

The line: Steelers -5. Smarts say: It’s crazy to us that a team that was so thoroughly dominated by another team last month is now favored by 5 points over the opponent that just soundly whacked them. But that’s what the Steelers’ large (and not necessarily smart) betting public does to lines. This one opened at -4 and was quickly pushed up by immediate money on Pittsburgh. The over/under of 44 (same as last week’s, which was right on the button, btw) means something like Steelers 25-20. Information courtesy www.dannysheridan.com and www.pregame.com.

The last 12 times: Since the beginning of the 2011 season, the Ravens have dominated this series with a capital D, winning nine of 12, including six of the last seven. There has been one common thread in all those games and that is that Baltimore clearly has had the better coached and better prepared team and used better game management strategy.

Key matchup: Steelers offensive line vs. Ravens front seven. This is a little broader than we usually go in this section, but Baltimore has been so (surprisingly) good on the defensive front that it will take a village to keeps the Pittsburgh offense moving on Christmas. The line has been remarkably good at protecting Ben Roethlisberger this year, but considerably more spotty in run blocking. They’ll need to excel at both if the Steelers are to claim the division crown. With Terrell Suggs playing without full use of his left arm, stopping Elvis Dumervil becomes key. And while it’s easier said than done, Pittsburgh has to be able to get some push on Timmy Jernigan and Brandon Williams to create those small creases Le’Veon Bell is so good at exploiting. Ironically, one of the best ways to achieve both those things might be throwing the ball to Bell even more frequently than usual.

Player on the spot: Eric Weddle grades out as the best safety in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus; boasts a gaudy stat line; and is a sure-fire Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection, but his first year in Baltimore won’t be considered a success if the Ravens lose Sunday. That’s because when Ozzie Newsome signed Weddle to a $26 million contract this offseason, it was specifically to win THIS GAME (and/or another one that might follow in January, more on that later). And that’s a lot of pressure on a guy who didn’t play many big games in a Chargers uniform. Weddle is equally adept at coverage and run support and a great instinctive player, but his aggressiveness can be used against him, as we saw a few Mondays ago when Weddle bit on Tom Brady play action, allowing Chris Hogan a near free-run on a 79-yard TD that sealed the Patriots win over Baltimore. The AFC North might come down to a similar matchup and whether Weddle outsmarts Ben Roethlisberger for a late pick or Roethlisberger gets Weddle to bite on one of his patented pump fakes to set up a big completion.

Playoff picture:

+ Obviously, you know already that the Steelers clinch the AFC North with a win. Beyond that here are some best- and worst-case scenarios.

+ The best-case outcome for Pittsburgh is a #2 seed and a bye. That requires two Steelers wins, two Raiders losses (IND, @DEN) and one loss by the Chiefs (DEN, @SD).

+ The worst-case scenario for the Steelers is missing the playoffs and it’s pretty scary just how simple that could be: Miami beats Buffalo on Saturday, Steelers lose to Ravens Sunday, Chiefs beat Broncos Sunday night, Ravens beat Bengals in Week 17. That’s it, four outcomes, three of them involving a favored team winning, and Pittsburgh is gone.

+ If either of those scenarios come to fruition, Steelers fans could find themselves rooting for Andy Dalton or Philip Rivers next week. Gotta love playoff time.

+ There are also scenarios where these two teams could meet again in the first round of the AFC Playoffs, but either of those requires two Dolphins losses so we’ll know Saturday whether this is even possible.

Quick hits:

+ It does not appear that Ladarius Green or Stephon Tuitt will play in this game and Sammie Coates and Ricardo Matthews are also dinged meaning Pittsburgh is frighteningly thin at receiver and on the defensive line. Green and Coates are really the Steelers only field stretching options at this point. Tuitt has done yeoman’s work since Cam Heyward’s injury and Matthews did the same last week after Tuitt went down in Cincinnati. Without all three of them, Pittsburgh would be looking at L.T. Walton, Javon Hargrave and Daniel McCullers on the defensive line with likely support from practice squad standout Johnny Maxey. The receiver injuries mean larger roles for Jesse James and Cobi Hamilton and maybe even an appearance by Demarcus Ayers. A silver lining on the injury front is that Pittsburgh played the last Ravens game without Maurkice Pouncey and with an obviously still hobbled Ben Roethlisberger.

+ As you know, we don’t write about Pro Bowl selections here since they are largely a popularity and longevity contest that have very little to do with a player’s actual level of play in a given season. We WILL say that the Steelers selections this year largely reflect that dynamic.

+ Pro Football Focus ranked all the league’s quarterbacks this week for their play so far in 2016 and Ben Roethlisberger landed at 8th, which is much lower than you’d have probably placed him before the season starts but feels about right, based on how he’s played. PFF noted that Roethlisberger has been money on what it terms “big-time” throws but inconsistent otherwise. It doesn’t take a football genius to see he’s been wild high regularly and also had probably a dozen potential interceptions dropped. That Pittsburgh is where it is with their franchise QB playing that way if fairly surprising. But it’s a safe bet they can’t go where they want to be if it continues.

+ The Ravens are on their second offensive coordinator of the season (and fifth in five years!) and it’s becoming apparent Marty Mornhinwheg isn’t the answer, either, as howls are arising from Baltimore fans and media over the former Lions head coach’s pass-happy propensities and his tendency to leave Joe Flacco at risk in minimal-protection formations. (Note: These are the same general shortfalls that got Bruce Arians fired in Pittsburgh and that have cropped up again with Arians in Arizona, but we digress.) Keep an eye out in this one for a) the Ravens’ pass-run ratior, and b) how the Steelers attack Baltimore when Flacco is in an empty backfield.

The pick:…History shows this will be a tight, low-scoring game where kicking, special teams and game management are key. And that doesn’t bode well for Pittsburgh. For as good as Chris Boswell and Jordan Berry have been, Justin Tucker and Sam Koch have been better. And in the battle of wits between John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin, one side had made it perfectly clear they are unarmed. The whole dynamic could be thrown out the window with a high-level performance from Ben Roethlisberger, but there’s really nothing in the way he’s played this year to believe that’s likely. Absent it,… Ravens 20-17.

Last week: We had the Bengals winning and covering last week, which they were well on their way to doing until they remembered they were the Bengals. The double loss is our first of the year and leaves us at 9-5 straight up and 7-7 against the spread.

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