Blogger Debate: Ravens vs. Steelers

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker and John Clayton

Unlike NFC East counterpart Matt Mosley, we don't talk to ourselves here in the AFC North.

Instead, we invited Hall of Fame writer and ESPN senior analyst John Clayton to spend time with us to discuss this week's AFC Championship Game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens.

These teams are evenly matched and mirror images of one another. The Steelers won the two regular-season meetings by a combined total of seven points.

Pittsburgh and Baltimore are the NFL's most physical teams, but only one can be the biggest bully on the block and advance to Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa.

Let's debate the possibilities.

Does a third game have an advantage for either team?

James Walker: The funny thing about this story line is it's going to be something that Pittsburgh wants to avoid and Baltimore wants to bring up at every chance. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said immediately after the win over the San Diego Chargers that regular-season success with the Ravens has no bearing on how they play Sunday, and he's correct. Defeating Baltimore twice helps with confidence, because the Steelers feel as if they're the better team. But it can't help in terms of motivation. That edge goes to the Ravens because of the pride factor. For instance, the Steelers lost twice to the Jacksonville Jaguars last year, so they made it a priority to go to Jacksonville and beat the Jags earlier this season. The Ravens will be using the same logic, while Pittsburgh will try some reverse psychology and gamesmanship.

John Clayton: I don't think so, James. As we've seen in the NFC East for the past two years, home-field advantage doesn't mean much in these divisional meetings, but I think the third game favors Pittsburgh in this one. Sure, it's tough to win three games in a season against a team. As well as the Ravens were playing in Week 15, I didn't think that the Steelers would go down to Baltimore and win, but they did. To me, this has the feel of when the Houston Oilers were battling the Steelers. Showing you that I'm old, I remember those days vividly. The Oilers had Bum Phillips as head coach, and the team was loaded with star players. In the late 1970s, though, the Steelers would ruin their season by winning the big games. I actually believe in this one that the third game is a benefit to the Steelers because of the fact they are playing the Ravens. A divisional rivalry makes them more focused. The Steelers can't let the Ravens win on their turf.

Is Pittsburgh's running game back?

JC: If the Steelers were playing any team other than the Ravens or maybe the Minnesota Vikings, I'd say that the running game is back. Willie Parker looked like a Pro Bowler against the Chargers. He's finally healthy. What I liked about his performance against the Chargers is how simple the running plays were. They looked like straight zone running plays. We were both at the news conference when Parker said he tried to get offensive coordinator Bruce Arians to go with attacking, straight-ahead running plays. The game plan worked and the Steelers emphasized the run Sunday against the Chargers. The problem with the Ravens is how difficult they are to run against. Parker has his worst games against the Ravens, averaging only 2.8 yards a carry against them. I figure him for maybe a 50- or 60-yard day. They may have to go with some counters and toss plays because the Ravens can stop the Steelers' straight-ahead running style. The only team that dominated them on the ground is the Giants because of Brandon Jacobs. The Steelers haven't had that type of big back since Jerome Bettis retired.

JW: I agree wholeheartedly, John. Pittsburgh's plan to run at -- and through -- the heart of the Chargers' defense last week will not work against Baltimore. But keep in mind Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans did give the Ravens some problems last week before injuring his ankle. It's a guarantee that Pittsburgh will watch that tape very closely and see if it can mimic that success. Parker, when healthy, is a similar type of slashing tailback. Parker's career high against Baltimore is 63 yards, so anything above that would be considered a good game. But we can both agree that Pittsburgh probably will have to win this one through the air.

Which QB will play a bigger role?

JC: This one is pretty easy. The focus of the game is "Big" Ben Roethlisberger. It's hard to believe, but he's now in his third AFC Championship Game. He's seasoned. He didn't show any signs of having a concussion last week. He's on top of his game. Joe Flacco looks like a young Roethlisberger, but that's the problem. Roethlisberger has that presence in the big games. If the Steelers need a touchdown drive in the final two minutes of a half or at the end of regulation, Roethlisberger is going to do it. Flacco is just learning that. It appeared to me in the second half of the Week 15 game against the Ravens, the Steelers' defense was able to take Flacco out of his game. I love this matchup, though. Flacco seems to learn from any mistake he makes. Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said it well Sunday night: "Flacco ain't no rookie." This game could put Roethlisberger close to the Peyton Manning-Tom Brady level if he can get into the Super Bowl and win.

JW: Conference championships and Super Bowls are "legacy games" for quarterbacks. Roethlisberger can cement his reputation as one of the all-time great winners at the position, and Flacco could begin building a strong foundation of what's to come. But I have to disagree with you, John, that Roethlisberger will play a bigger role in this game. Most people know what to expect from the steady Roethlisberger. He is a known commodity. Flacco is a wild card who will have a tremendous impact on this game. Of course, it can be a tremendously positive impact for the Ravens if he out-duels Roethlisberger, or a tremendously negative impact if he looks like a rookie. But Flacco's play in his first AFC Championship Game will have a bigger impact on the outcome of Sunday's game -- for better or for worse.

Which Raven will be the biggest concern for the Steelers' offense?

JC: This may sound surprising, but I think Ed Reed is more of a worry than Ray Lewis. Lewis is a leader and he's playing so well behind Haloti Ngata, but Reed is the player on the Ravens' defense who could frustrate the Steelers' offense with an interception or two. Roethlisberger has to be wary of turnovers. Scoring will be tough, so he can't give the Ravens the chance for easy scores. Reed might be able to confuse him with some coverages and steal an interception or two. Lewis no doubt will be the main guy in trying to stop the Steelers' running game. But turnovers could determine this game, and Reed has been a turnover machine in the past eight weeks. Roethlisberger has to keep the ball away from Reed.

JW: You never cease to amaze me, John, because I was thinking the same thing. Reed's private nature doesn't get him the superstar treatment and the media attention that he deserves. But opponents know he's the first player they must be aware of. Here is a stat to support that argument: Baltimore is 4-0 this year when Reed scores a defensive touchdown. He is the biggest defensive game-changer in the NFL. Lewis and the front seven are going to be tough to run on. So at some point, Roethlisberger will have to test Reed's prowess through the air.

Will this game be better than the Super Bowl?

JW: If the first two meetings are any indication, absolutely. I remember leaving Heinz Field on Sept. 29 thinking I probably wouldn't see a better football game the rest of the season. Then the Steelers and Ravens topped that with their next meeting in December that ended with a controversial call and even more questions. If the third installment equals or surpasses those two -- and I believe it will -- there is very little chance a Super Bowl matchup with the Arizona Cardinals or Philadelphia Eagles will top it. It's great that a national audience will get to see the Ravens against the Steelers with so much on the line, because this has been the most underrated rivalry in the NFL for quite some time. That statement could be a little biased, because I've covered these two teams closely all season. So I'm interested to hear your thoughts, John.

JC: If you love defensive football, then this game will be better than the Super Bowl. Super Bowls tend to be higher scoring. Plus, the Super Bowls don't have the weather conditions that we'll see in Pittsburgh this week. Snow means ratings for the television networks. Both teams are good enough that this game should be close. Steelers fans will be a show in themselves. This could be one of their loudest games because they can sense the Super Bowl is at hand. I think this should be great theater. One of the problems with Super Bowls is the two weeks of prep. Teams tend to get too cute. They put in a few trick plays that don't work. This game will be pound-it-out, slugging-type football. It could be a classic. Hey, the Ravens-Titans game was pretty good too.