By BOB LABRIOLA
The following are some of the interesting matchups to watch when the Steelers host the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday at Heinz Field:
THE BALTIMORE RAVENS VS. THEIR 2008 SCHEDULE: From a statistical standpoint, it was the Steelers who faced the NFL's most difficult schedule, but the Ravens' version had its own anomaly that made it extra challenging. Baltimore's original schedule called for a game in Houston on Sept. 14, but that had to be cancelled because of Hurricane Ike. That became the Ravens' bye week on the books, but in their bodies they already had practiced all week to prepare for what they believed was going to be a game vs. the Texans. The game was moved to Nov. 9 – the Ravens' originally scheduled bye – and the sum effect has been that Baltimore has played for 17 straight weekends. Those four-plus months contained two games vs. the Steelers, two vs. the Titans, at Indianapolis, at the New York Giants, at Dallas. And the second of those games against the Titans – in last weekend's Divisional Round – was predictably physical. How much more can a human body withstand?
STEELERS C JUSTIN HARTWIG VS. RAVENS NT HALOTI NGATA: Whether these guys butt heads on every snap or not, this is the kind of a game where control of the middle of the line of scrimmage will be critical. This game will contain the league's two best defenses, and the first two meetings were low-scoring, field-position affairs. The Steelers offensive line is coming off its best performance of the season, and it also is fair to describe the unit as one on the rise based on how the end of the regular season unfolded – there were the 13 fourth-quarter points vs. Dallas, the 12-play, 92-yard drive in Baltimore, the 176 rushing yards vs. Cleveland. But opposing teams simply do not run the ball on the Ravens: 81.4 yards per game during the regular season, with a 3.6 average and only four touchdowns; a 3.4 per carry average in the playoffs. With the exception of turnovers, what transpires along the line of scrimmage could be the key to the outcome of this game – and it also might impact the total of turnovers as well.
STEELERS CORNERBACKS VS. RAVENS WR DERRICK MASON: Whenever the Ravens are discussed, their toughness is a topic, but usually it's meant for the defense. It also should include Mason, who has sacrificed his body for the cause over the course of the Ravens' run through these playoffs just as much as, say, Ray Lewis. Mason has been playing with a shoulder injury for weeks, but he continues to make plays. So far in the postseason, he has nine catches for 149 yards (16.6 average) and the 48-yard touchdown in their 13-10 win over the Titans that allowed them to advance to this round. And seven of those nine catches have been for first downs. The Steelers' secondary is all-hands-on-deck from a health standpoint, and the team utilizes four cornerbacks – Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden, Deshea Townsend and William Gay – during the course of a game. Dealing with Mason figures to be an all-hands-on-deck kind of job.
THE PRESSURE OF THE AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME VS. RAVENS QB JOE FLACCO: The only rookie starter to win two playoff games, Flacco has continued to be calm even as the media attention to that very quality has intensified. Coach Mike Tomlin doesn't believe any stage is going to prove too big for Flacco. "He's no longer a rookie," said Tomlin. "This guy has the hardware that says otherwise. He's led a football team. He's obviously gained the respect of a very veteran-laden football team, particularly defensively. They ride with him, as the guys say. He's won postseason games, he's won in hostile environments, he's won on the road, he's delivered. I knew that about him when we were up on them the first time we played those guys. He took them down the field and forced overtime. I saw enough at that time to realize that we're going to have our hands full with this guy for a very long time. He's done nothing to disprove that. He's got his team in striking position to compete for a World Championship."