PREGAME STRETCH: Baltimore at Pittsburgh

Steelers new ILB will get tested right away vs. resurgent Ravens running game

THE GAME: BALTIMORE RAVENS (7-5) VS. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (10-2)

NBC, SUNDAY, 8:30 P.M., HEINZ FIELD, 68,400.

Announcers: Al Michaels (maybe, Mike Tirico has been replacing Michaels on a few dates and this is NOT supposed to be one of them but Tirico was on Falcons-Saints Thursday and that was not supposed to be one of them either) and Cris Collinsworth. Well, well, well, the tables might have turned a bit here. After that indefensible load of bull that ESPN rolled out Monday night in the form of Sean McDonough and Jon Gruden, perhaps yinzers will appreciate these two pros a little bit more. We can guarantee you one thing, they’ll get more names correct that Gruden did. Also, it will be very interesting to us to see how NBC, in general, and Collinsworth, in particular, couches the past week’s NFL discipline idiocy. Will they follow the bizarre path laid down by Gruden or take a somewhat opposing view? Information courtesy www.the506.com

Weather – or not: Mostly cloudy and cold, high 20’s. Winter arrives in Week 14 for the Steelers and a chilly night game seems like a good precursor for the first playoff game Pittsburgh will be involved in, likely at home on a Saturday night or late Sunday afternoon. Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: Walt Coleman. Here we go with the parade of Walts again. It seems like every time Pittsburgh gets one Walt, the other is sure to follow within a week or two. This Walt is Walt Coleman, the Arkansas dairy farmer of “tuck rule” infamy. Coleman is also the guy who a couple weeks ago caught a “free” football that the Patriots Dion Lewis steered his way in the end zone and blew dead a play that still should have been live. Coleman’s crew is averaging 14 flags and 112 penalty yards per game, both just below NFL averages. Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com, www.profootballreference.com and www.nflpenalties.com (it takes three, count ’em, three web sites to provide you with the best each week in officiating background information).

The last time: As the Steelers-Bengals series has gotten uglier and more amateurish with each passing game, a funny thing has happened with the Steelers-Ravens games. They’ve gotten, dare we say it, downright respectful and civil. Weird. After losing four in a row, Pittsburgh has now won the last two games, including a way-too-easy 26-9 victory earlier this year in Baltimore that saw Pittsburgh’s defense shine with four sacks of Joe Flacco. The Steelers still lead the all-time series between these two, 26-21.

The line: Pittsburgh -4.5/43.5

Smarts say: This opened at -6 before the Smith-Schuster suspension but trended down fairly quickly and was almost drawing 50-50 betting action by Thursday afternoon. The low over/under (which was the same number and right on the button last week) means something like 24-20 Steelers. Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 4th passing, 20th rushing, 12th scoring (23.4 ppg), 4th sacks allowed (16)

BAL defense, 3rd passing, 17th rushing, 3rd scoring (17.2 ppg), 7th sacks (33)

When the Ravens have the ball:

BAL offense, 31st passing, 12th rushing, 13th scoring (23.3 ppg), 9th sacks allowed (23)

PIT defense, 2nd passing, 8th rushing, 5th scoring (17.8 ppg), 2nd sacks (40)

Giveaway/Takeaway: BAL +14; PIT -1

So…: Two teams whose styles very much reflect each other with Pittsburgh’s big advantage coming via passing offense and Baltimore’s coming via the turnover. We’re expecting to see Ben Roethlisberger hyper-focused on taking care of the football, much more interesting in zero turnovers than 400 yards passing. Information courtesy www.nfl.com and www.espn.com.

Key matchups: Ravens interior line vs. Steelers inside linebackers

Why: A funny thing happened to Baltimore after they lost all-world guard Marshall Yanda for the season and saw three of their running backs go down with injuries early in the year, their run game got better… and better… and better. What had been a huge weakness in recent years has become a strength with a bunch of no-name offensive linemen and a running back, Alex Collins, who started the year on the practice squad, leading the way. With Ryan Shazier and Tyler Matakevich out of the lineup, the Ravens are likely to try and press their advantage here to the fullest. This would also serve a secondary purpose of de-emphasizing the importance of Joe Flacco in this game. Flacco, as you know, has struggled mightily against the Steelers in recent years, often in the biggest spots in games.

Player on the spot: Martavis Bryant

Why: There were a few flashes in Cincinnati of the kind of player we know Bryant can be and he’ll need to stat being that guy down the stretch for Pittsburgh to win big games. We think there’s the potential here for Bryant to have a huge game against the Ravens. With Jimmy Smith gone, doubling Antonio Brown will be a must, meaning Bryant will see a lot of single coverage looks. Success for Bryant starts with catching the first pass (or better yet turning in a good return of the opening kickoff), something to build his own confidence and start to re-build Ben Roethlisberger’s.

Playoff picture:

+ It’s that time of the year!

+ The Steelers clinch a playoff spot this week with a victory or a Buffalo loss.

+ Pittsburgh can clinch the AFC North with a win.

+ It’s not too early to start thinking about clinching a first-round bye where the competition is likely to be Tennessee and Jacksonville, who 8-4 now. The Steelers are obviously much better positioned in a tiebreaker with the Titans, who they beat head to head, than they are with the Jags, who owns a win over Pittsburgh.

Quick hits:

+ Not too much to add to the JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension fiasco beyond the points we’ve made on Twitter this week. To summarize: 1. The league overreaction started with the irresponsible and misguided commentary Monday night by Jon Gruden. 2. We don’t think there’s any doubt, based on recent reporting from ESPN the Magazine, that while the NFL doesn’t bear grudges against particular teams, it does often make decisions based on the character of the owners involved and how many problems those owners might cause the league commissioner. 3. There’s a basic problem trying to legislate violence out of a violent sport. 4. The league’s disciplinary standards are a joke of inconsistency and the people overseeing the discipline are not qualified to do it correctly and consistently, as evidenced by their conflicting and inconsistent public statements over the past week. Other than that….

+ We have not and will not speculate on Ryan Shazier’s injury as we have done (and will continue to do) with other more “routine” injuries, but we will say that once the Steelers starting providing updates on where Shazier was and not how he was it should have been clear to everyone that this situation is not “just like Tommy Maddox” in 2002. Maddox, of course, returned to play in two weeks time. As the update Thursday afternoon made clear, this is not that.

+ We don’t mean to be flip about it, but “playing for a fallen teammate” is one of the prime historical motivators in sports, as is “us against the world.” The Steelers got a huge dose of both of those last week.

The pick: If you’d have asked us last week, we’d have bet a bundle that Pittsburgh would go 1-1 in the Bengals/Ravens portion of its December schedule. But we think the regular “rules” of trying to guess how the Steelers are going to play are out the window with the developments of the past week. Almost everything (except the Sunday night start time) about those old rules (back to back division games, usually split with Baltimore, injuries leave Steelers weak where Ravens are strong) points to a Baltimore victory Sunday night. But we’re expecting big plays from Cam Heyward, Ben Roethlisberger and maybe even some guy wearing #92 … Steelers 23-21.

Last week: Our pick of a Bengals blowout looked pretty solid at the half, but you know how that ends. We did get Cincy on the cover, though, leaving us at 7-5 straight up and 8-4 against the spread for the season.

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