As Ray Lewis said this week, there are “no secrets” when two division rivals get together. They play each other all the time, so they know the game plan. It’s all execution and pain. This week, the AFC provides two fantastic examples of this dynamic. Let’s take a look.
BALTIMORE RAVENS (12-4) at PITTSBURGH STEELERS (12-4)
As a lifelong Browns fan, the now seemingly annual rubber match between the Ravens and Steelers can be a frustrating endeavor. You want to ruthlessly hate both teams, but there’s just one little problem: They’re both awesome. No two teams more embody football as I want it to be played. Overtly physical and supernaturally tough at all times, these are programs built on zero tolerance for excuses or failure (as Coach Tomlin says, “Don’t complain, don’t explain”). The power run game is featured. Big, strong, playmaking quarterbacks extend plays and make incredible throws. Defenses that range from “awfully good” to “utterly dominant.” Coaches who know exactly what they are doing and who they are. And, of course: wins. Lots and lots of wins.
Fortunately, though it remains difficult for me not to embrace them, the Steelers and Ravens have long since gotten to the point of mutual hatred, and that makes for some of the best football around every time they get together. This is THE premiere rivalry in The League today, don’t let the Pats-Jets-heavy ESPN coverage and trash talking fool you. It’s also the first game this weekend, which (and this much I guarantee you) will set a high bar for the games that follow.
When they play at their peak, the Baltimore Ravens are as good as anybody in football. There may be no more balanced offense in the NFL. They can give you the steady diet of Ray Rice, or spread you out with Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason, TJ Houshmandzadeh and Todd Heap, and let Joe Flacco go to work. They’re always solid in the trenches, and have two of the best defensive players of this or any generation, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. They can unleash the T-Sizzle on your quarterback when it’s time to get nasty. There’s really not much missing here, and Baltimore showed it last week, putting the wood to the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead, 30-7.
My only criticisms of the Steelers are that (1) they have a dangerous tendency to play to the level of their competition and (2) on offense, they still get caught up trying to prove how good Joe Flacco is rather than just loading up on Ray Rice and physically dominating teams. But this is, as Ray Lewis says, “a sixty-minute ballclub,” and they usually find a way to win.
Not unlike the Pittsburgh Steelers, who you can be certain will be nowhere near as gracious as the Chiefs in hosting the Ravens this afternoon. They will be hitting, yapping, and testing the willingness of referees to throw flags (actually, that probably applies to both teams).
Despite the Sausage King of Pittsburgh’s season-opening 4-game suspension, injuries to key guys like Aaron Smith, Brett Kiesel, Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller, the Steelers just did what they do all season long: win games. That this team finished 12-4 is a testament to roster depth, organizational stability and outstanding coaching. They won one of the toughest divisions in football and the right to host this game. Look around the league. Who else does that without their starting quarterback for the first four games? Let me know when you find one. And you can’t count the Eagles this year (who, by the way, still only won 10 games). The Steelers are GOOD.
What struggles they do have usually stem from one problem: the O-Line. Pittsburgh at times struggles to run the ball, and has some sieve-like stretches in pass protection. Plus, Big Ben likes to hold the ball. This makes for a lot of hits on the QB, which they can absorb thanks to Ben’s size and toughness. The Ravens are an enormous, physical, strong defensive line. The point of attack is what you want to be watching in this game if you want to see where it is being won and lost.
It will be physical. It will be tense. It will be emotional. It might get violent. There WILL be blood. STEELERS 23, RAVENS 20
NEW YORK JETS (11-5) at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (14-2)
Let’s get this out of the way first: If I was related in any way to a 42-point loss just a few short weeks ago to this very team in this very building, I would be absolutely freaking SILENT this week. Obviously, I would not be a good fit on the Jets. Rex Ryan and Bart Scott, most notably, continued driving the bluster wagon, engaging in a war of words with…well, nobody, really. Wes Welker did break out the time-tested and rather well-played subtle foot reference press conference trick. But really, this was just about a young bull moose snorting and scratching, making a pre-rut display of his wares.
Meanwhile, the Old Bull, which has won more battles of this kind than the young bull has even seen, stands on unmoved in his territory and awaits The Moment.
Somewhere in the past two years, I am convinced that Bill Belichick looked around his division, decided the Jets were going to be the team he needed to beat for the foreseeable future, and went about re-inventing the Tom Brady machine. The offense is now build almost specifically to attack the Jets. New England’s small, ultra-quick weapons counter the big, physical defensive backs of the Jets, who themselves exist as a counter to what is generally known as the “prototype” NFL wide receiver. It is no coincidence that the Patriots now have no such receiver on their roster and have loaded up on the jitterbugs.
I see no reason to believe the Jets are going to win this game. Seriously. And that’s to take nothing away from them. I believe the Patriots are on a mission. Brady looks as focused and inspired as ever, and Belichick is putting together outstanding game plans. They were 14-2, for Pete’s sake, and they traded Randy Moss after the season began. Let that sink in. The last game they lost, nine weeks ago in a drubbing by the Browns, was tantamount to insulting the Gods, because the Patriots have since unleashed the Kraken on the rest of the league.
If the Jets are to win, they must make the Patriots one-dimensional. The problem with that is that making them one-dimensional means you’re still handing the ball to Tom Brady. And the Jets haven’t shown the dominant run defense lately to make teams one dimensional. The Colts don’t count, they didn’t run it well all year. But the Patriots did. Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis combined to form an outstanding duo, and proved an effective compliment to the ball control passing game Brady runs with his speedy munchkins.
The Jets are a good enough team to win this game. They are tough on D, and they have explosive streaks on offense. Those who’ve been following along also know that I like Mark Sanchez. But there is no way I am picking Mark Sanchez to go on the road and win against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. I’m just not. It’s not that the Jets are not good enough. I just don’t think they’re ready. PATRIOTS 31, JETS 23.