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Steelers vs. Ravens: Setting the stage, and picking the winner of this Sunday night matchup

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Ben Roethlisberger has been incredible against Baltimore; does he have another 500-yard performance in him, or can Pittsburgh’s defense carry its own weight?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Last December, the Steelers and Ravens delivered one of the most eminently watchable installments in their semiannual rivalry. The game, which ended 39-38 in favor of the Steelers, featured plenty of offense and saw both teams string together manifold impressive and improbable runs. The Steelers scored touchdowns on each of their first two drives, rumbling out to an early 14-0 lead, but Baltimore quickly settled in and scored points on its each of its five ensuing drives, ultimately overtaking the Steelers 10 minutes into the third quarter and pushing their lead to 31-20 with two minutes remaining in the frame. The Steelers eventually cut Baltimore’s lead to two, but Javorious Allen scored a nine-yard touchdown with six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter to give the Ravens a two-possession cushion. It was at this point that, according to ESPN’s Win Probability Formula, the Ravens had a 91.5% chance of winning.

But the Steelers did not go quietly, responding to Allen’s touchdown with one of their own before stopping the Ravens on the game’s penultimate drive and kicking a game-winning field goal. Neither team played much defense—Ben Roethlisberger threw for 506 yards, becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 500 or more yards in two separate games, and Alex Collins, then an unheralded no-name player, rushed for 120 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries—which proved that the Steelers-Ravens rivalry didn’t need to be a florid, war of attrition 9-6 kind of contest to be interesting and compelling.

I don’t know if Ben Roethlisberger will throw for 500 yards against the Ravens on Sunday, but he may need to. Baltimore’s notably proficient offense, led by a rejuvenated and legitimately talented Joe Flacco, is going to cause some issues for Pittsburgh’s defense. We’ll start with the receiving corps, which is composed entirely of players who played elsewhere a season ago. Erstwhile Arizona Cardinal John Brown, a 28-year-old speedster who two seasons ago had a 1,000-yard season is leading the team in receiving at the moment, but former Oakland Raider Michael Crabtree and former New Orleans Saint Wille Snead aren’t far behind. This is a highly effective triumvirate that can spread your defense out and keep the chains a-moving, and they’ve allowed the Ravens to routinely get in scoring position. The backfield, meanwhile, is deep and multitalented. Collins is the de facto lead back, but he’s ceded plenty of third-down and goal-line work to Allen, whose 13 receptions rank second on the team. John Harbaugh and his coaching collaborators have creatively deployed rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson as somewhat of a dual-threat offensive utility knife this season, too. It isn’t a veritable two-quarterback system by any stretch of the imagination, but even the mere threat of Lamar Jackson entering the game as a runner should be enough to alter Pittsburgh’s defensive gameplan.

Prediction: Steelers 31, Ravens 28

There’s a few outliers on the docket (the first meeting of 2017; the first meeting of 2014; the first meeting of 2011), but the Steelers and Ravens generally deliver an instant classic whenever they meet, and this is usually irrespective of the level of talent possessed by either side. I don’t think it’s necessarily a stretch to claim that, on paper, the Steelers are probably superior to Baltimore in terms of depth and star power, but the Ravens are well coached and their defense is good, just like it always is. The offense—and more accurately, Joe Flacco—looks much, much better than they did a season ago, and it’s clear that this unit is capable of going out and winning games on its own. Sunday night’s game I think will come down to Ben Roethlisberger (duh), but also the ability of Pittsburgh’s defense to force three-and-outs in order to keep the Ravens offense (and all-world kicker Justin Tucker) out of scoring range.