(8-3, 6-5 ATS)
(8-3, 5-5-1 ATS)
First place in the AFC North will be on the line on Sunday Night Football this weekend, as the Pittsburgh Steelers face off with the Baltimore Ravens. The winner will be a game up and should have the tiebreaker over the other for the final quarter of the regular season as well. Needless to say, the stakes are very, very high in this one, as there is a huge difference between having to go on the road for three playoff games and getting a first round bye and getting to play at least one, if not two home games en route to the Super Bowl.
The Steelers are particularly up against it due to the fact that they lost the first game of this season series to the Ravens and would certainly not be able to make up the ground to win this division without a lot of help if they were to lose. The difference in this one is that QB Ben Roethlisberger will be in the lineup, as that battle in Week 4 was played in the final week of Big Ben’s suspension at the outset of the year. In actuality, the Steelers really haven’t been a special team all season long, but they have always found ways to win and stay competitive. As always, it’s the defense that makes the big time difference, not the offense. The ‘D’ has gotten four picks from SS Troy Polamalu and ten sacks from LB James Harrison. However, on the ground, teams are only averaging 64.0 yards per game against the Steelers, and that is easily the best mark in the league. On offense, the man that is really breaking out this year is WR Mike Wallace. Wallace might only have 36 catches, but he is averaging 22.0 yards per reception, and he leads the squad with eight receiving TDs. RB Rashard Mendenhall is going to make himself a 1,000 yard rusher this week in all likelihood, as he has 962 yards and nine scores.
The Ravens won’t let the Steelers hop them in the standings, though, and they hope that that remains the case this weekend at home, where they are 5-0 SU and 4-1 ATS this season. The defense for Baltimore has been every bit as nasty as the ‘D’ for Pittsburgh, though the yardage statistics aren’t necessarily there to show it. Teams are averaging 307.4 yards per game, including over 100 per game on the ground. However, the Ravens are only allowing 17.1 points per game and have really only had two bad games on the season. Eight times have teams been held to 17 points or fewer, and if that keeps up again on Sunday, the offense should be able to get the job done. This is the biggest test of the season for QB Joe Flacco, but the man they call “Joe Cool” in Baltimore has really played well all season long. He has thrown for 2,722 yards and has 18 scores against eight INTs. RB Ray Rice isn’t going to be asked to do all of the work on the ground, but he needs to find a way to get his yards one way or the other. He has 815 yards as a runner and 392 as a receiver and could be in for a good night.
After winning at the gun in the Steel City, the Ravens just have to win this one to put away Pittsburgh once and for all. This one will be one of the most brutal games of the year, and it will clearly show on the scoreboard and on the field. Still, when the dust settles, the Ravens will end up on top.
NFL Free Pick: Baltimore Ravens -3