Baltimore Ravens (3-3) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-4)
Sunday, 4:25 p.m. EST, CBS
Announcers: Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts
Annoyance factor: Hallelujah! Thankfully and mercifully, Steelers fans get a Nantz/Simms-free game, which is good, in favor of CBS’ real No. 1 broadcast team, who are very good. Listening to guys like Dick Stockton butcher the MLB playoffs the past few weeks really creates an appreciation for the ulta-professional work Eagle does. Fouts can be hit-and-miss as an analyst (when he’s on, he’s great), but even his worst day provides a better understanding of the game than what Simms have been offering the past two years.
Information from www.the506.com
Weather – or not?: Partly cloudy, 20 percent chance of showers, low 50s. With no frost yet in this mild fall there might actually be some semblance of grass left on Heinz Field. Keep an eye on the weather conditions for Pitt and Old Dominion’s Saturday night game, which could have a trickle-down affect here if they get rain.
Information from www.weather.com
Referee: Bill Leavy
Competence factor: Leavy did last year’s AFC Championship game, but he and his crew have had a rough 2013 so far, making high-profile administration errors (where the call was correct, but assessment of the penalty involved was done incorrectly) in two games, including a series of errors in the Packers-49ers season opener. Overall, though, the crew is averaging a very restrained 96 yards per game in penalties.
Information from www.football-refs.com and www.foxsports.com
The line: Pittsburgh -1.5
Smarts say: This line is really a continuation of last week’s line where a bunch of people bet on the Steelers with no sound logical reason to do so and then won, meaning they’re betting on them again this week (with the line climbing as high as PIT -2.5 during the week). All that means Vegas has to move the line in a direction that will convince people to bet on the Ravens. A legit spread in this game would probably be something like Ravens -1.5. The over/under of 40.5 means something like Steelers 21-20.
Information from www.dannysheridan.com
Key matchup: Ray Rice/Juan Castillo vs. Le’Veon Bell/Todd Haley
Because: How can a game featuring two of the worst running teams in the NFL (Ravens 27th, Steelers 31st) be decided by the running game? Simple, it’s all about how the running game impacts the elite quarterbacks in this game. Joe Flacco’s three best passing yardage performances this season? Three losses. Ben Roethlisberger hovering around the 400-yard passing mark in Weeks 3 and 4? Two blowout defeats. Whichever team runs the ball effectively enough in this game to keep their quarterback in the 30-attempt/275-yard range is going to win. Absent a ton of turnovers, if someone throws 50 passes here, it’ll be in a losing effort. It's just an interesting sidelight that Raven's Run Game Coordinator Castillo is about as popular in Baltimore right now as Haley is in Pittsburgh (although, presumably, Castillo gets sued less).
Footnote: Every time the Steelers and Ravens play, someone will tell you the key matchup is the Steelers left tackle (in this case, Kelvin Beachum) against Terrell Suggs. And in every game, Suggs beats said left tackle for a couple of sacks and … sometimes the Ravens win and sometimes the Steelers win. It’s not the key matchup, it’s business as usual.
+ Last week’s surprising win (and the surprising way the offensive line played in the second half of that game) has stirred up some hope in Steelers County and, to be honest, we’ve caught just a hint of it ourselves, but let’s keep this in perspective. The Steelers need to beat the defending Super Bowl champions this Sunday just to get to 2-4. Once there, we can tell you that 2-4 teams make the playoffs 9 percent of the time. In other words, we’re still talking about extremely long odds. All of which raises the spectre of a finish where Pittsburgh plays much better, gets to 8-8, misses the playoffs by a game and picks 15th, where they’re very unlikely to find a left tackle.
+ We’ve got only a big-picture-outside-looking-in perspective on the Ravens this season. So when we saw Ray Rice had only 12, 4 and 14 carries in Baltimore’s three losses, we thought that even though Cam Cameron is gone, this was a case of the “same old Ravens” in failing to get Rice the ball. But a closer look shows a larger problem. Rice has done virtually nothing this year (averaging 2.8 yards per carry, the worst start of his career) even when he’s gotten touches (74 yards on 27 carries against the Dolphins, for example). There’s plenty of concern in Charm City about the Ravens offensive line, but also some rumblings that Rice’s level of play has slipped a notch. It’ll be interesting to see if he looks like the same guy against Pittsburgh on Sunday.
+ In case you haven’t noticed, two former Steelers offensive “weapons” aren’t exactly setting the world on fire in their new gigs. Mike Wallace is 42nd among wide receivers with 56.2 yards per game (Antonio Brown is fourth at 99.6 ypg) and has just one touchdown while Rashard Mendenhall is 34th among running backs at 40.1 yards per game with three TDs (in limited action Le’Veon Bell is averaging 45.5 yards per game and has scored twice).
The pick: There’s a lot of hand wringing and teeth gnashing in Ravensland about the generally mediocre level of play so far this year, and rightfully so. And yes, if Ray Rice averages 2.8 yards per carry and Haloti Ngata is a non-factor and Joe Flacco makes a big mistake the Steelers just might win this game. If Ben Roethlisberger plays at the same level he did last week for four quarters the Steelers just might win this game. But in a rivalry game, who would you rather have in the critical spots in your lineup? Rice, Ngata, Flacco, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil or Le’Veon Bell, Cam Heyward, Ben Roethlisberger, LaMarr Woodley and Jarvis Jones? ….. Ravens 23-20.
Last week: We have our first double-doink of the season last week as we laid out the plan for a Steelers upset but then picked against it. That leaves us at 2-3 straight up (which where we thought the Steelers would be through five) and 3-2 against the spread.