Ok, we're getting close to the AFC North showdown between the first place Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3) and the surging Baltimore Ravens (9-4). Scroll through the main page posts or the numerous fanposts on the sidebar for pertinent information and opinions on the huge game earlier in the week. My keys to the game:
1) James Harrison must leave his impact on this game. In two of the three losses for Pittsburgh this year (@ Philadelphia, vs. New York Giants), Harrison has been held without a sack. In the Indinapolis game, he had just one sack. In addition to those two contests, Harrison has only two other contest without a sack - Cincinnati and Cleveland. In the first Baltimore game, Harrison had 2.5 sacks and forced a fumble. It wasn't just any old forced fumble either. It was scooped up by LaMarr Woodley and returned for a TD.
2) 3rd Down Efficiency - In the first meeting, Pittsburgh converted just 5-15 (33%) on 3rd down compared to Baltimore's 7-17 (41%). For the year, Pittsburgh is converting on 39% of it's 3rd downs, whereas Baltimore is currently converting 42.3%. The 33% would be good for 5th worst in the NFL over the course of the season, so Pittsburgh will have to improve in this department if they're going to score enough points to get past Baltimore on the road this time. The defense has been spectacular and may even contribute points again like it did in the first meeting, but it shouldn't be counted on. The offense must offer more this time around if we're going to retain sole possession of 1st place in the AFC North.
3) Special Teams - It's been a common theme around BTSC this year, but we again must continue to play well in this facet of the game. The Steelers continue to get very little out of the kick return game, but against Dallas, Santonio Holmes finally made an impact play in the punt return game. I'm not sure we win the game without that 35 yard return. If we do fail to convert in the red zone, which wouldn't at all be surprising given how we've fared down there for most of the year, Jeff Reed must not have a shaky game like he did against Dallas, where he missed a FG attempt and booted a kickoff out of bounds.
4) Protect the ball Big Ben! - In 7 career games against the Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger is 4-3. In the four victories, he has thrown 10 TDs to only 3 INTs, with no game featuring more than 1 INT. In the 3 career losses, Roethlisberger has thrown 2 picks per game, with only one contest (his first in the NFL) featuring 2 TDs. We don't need a 5 TD, perfect QB rating performance, which Ben of course turned in during the 75th Anniversary Night at Heinz Field last year against the Ravens, but we can't have him turning the ball over, and certainly not multiple times.
5) Score First - Even if it's just 3 points, it'd be huge if we got on the scoreboard first. There's a lot of reasons for this other than it just obviously being preferrable to get an early lead, but get a load of this stat: Since 2001, the winning team in this rivalry has scored first every time.
I'm not quite ready to make my prediction in this one, so I'll open it up to both Steelers and Ravens fans to hear what your keys are and what you think the final outcome will be when the final second ticks off the clock tomorrow evening in Baltimore.