Ravens-Steelers AFC wild-card preview

Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports

Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers face a familiar foe Saturday.The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers will meet for the third time this season, after the teams split their first two meetings.

The Ravens and Steelers have split 32 regular-season meetings going back to the 1999 season. They have combined for four of the last five AFC North titles. Each team won on their home field this season by the same 20-point margin.

If it’s close late, both quarterbacks have shown the ability to thrive under the pressure of key moments this season. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco ranked second in the NFL in fourth-quarter total QBR (86.2). Ben Roethlisberger ranked third (83.3).

The Steelers do have one historical advantage. They are 3-0 in the playoffs against the Ravens.

Keys for a Ravens win

On offense the Ravens will want to establish Justin Forsett, who led all running backs with an average of 5.4 yards per attempt this season. He’ll probably look to go between the tackles, where he averaged 5.2 yards per rush, second best in the NFL. The Steelers' defense is reasonably equipped to handle that. It allowed 4.0 yards per carry between the tackles, 10th best in the NFL.

Most Postseason wins by QB
since 2008

Flacco will look to frequently target the Smiths -- Steve and Torrey. Flacco completed a career-best 61 percent of passes that targeted wide receivers this season.

Flacco excelled with the deep ball during the Ravens' Super Bowl run two seasons ago, completing 48 percent of his passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield with four touchdown passes. But in the last two seasons, he’s completing only 26 percent of such throws.

Perhaps this is a day in which he can recapture some of his past magic. The Steelers allowed opponents to complete 54 percent of passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield, the highest percentage by any team in the last five seasons.

But how far the Ravens go will likely be determined by their defense. The Ravens allowed 88.3 yards rushing per game this season (fourth fewest in NFL) and haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in their last 26 games, the longest active streak in the NFL.

The Ravens also had 49 sacks this season, tied for the second most in franchise history.

Red zone defense is typically Baltimore’s forte. The Ravens allowed opponents to convert only 43 percent of their red zone drives this season, the second-best percentage in the NFL, but allowed the Steelers to score touchdowns on each of their three red zone opportunities in their Week 9 loss.

One X factor for Baltimore would be punter Sam Koch, who could have a significant impact on Pittsburgh's scoring chances. Koch led the NFL in net yards above average (a stat that compares a punter's performance to the league average punt from each spot on the field). He ranked third in the NFL in yards and net yards per punt.

Keys for a Steelers win

The Steelers have their most potent offensive team. The Elias Sports Bureau notes that the Steelers are the first team since the 1999 Colts (and only the second team since the 1970 merger) to have the conference leader in passing yards (Roethlisberger), rushing yards (Le’Veon Bell) and receiving yards (Antonio Brown).

Bell’s health is a big question mark, due to a knee injury suffered in Week 17. He accounted for 78 percent of his team’s rushing yardage this season, the second-highest percentage in the NFL.

Antonio Brown receiving vs. Ravens
career including playoffs

If Bell can’t play, the Steelers will rely on the newly signed Ben Tate, as well as Dri Archer and Josh Harris to carry the ball. Archer and Harris have combined for 56 rushing yards on 19 rushes this season, and Tate averaged a career-low 3.1 yards per rush.

Bell’s absence would be important for another reason. His presence helps in keeping the Steelers' defense off the field. Pittsburgh’s 32:25 average time of possession was highest in the NFL this season.

Brown had two nice games against the Ravens this season, netting 18 receptions on 28 targets for 234 yards. Roethlisberger will look for Brown on short and intermediate passes (Brown led the NFL in receptions on passes thrown less than 20 yards downfield) and will rely on him on third down (Brown caught an NFL-high 36 passes on 54 third-down targets) frequently.

Did you know?

The Steelers are 33-21 in their postseason history, tied with the Cowboys for the most playoff wins all time.