Ravens will soar over Ben

In the National Football League some of the hardest-hitting games all year feature the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The fact that the sides square off again in the playoffs is like a New Year’s gift to pigskin lovers.

The latest chapter in the Ravens-Steelers rivalry plays out this Saturday 15 January at 4.30pm on CBS. Both sides go into the American Football Conference Divisional round brimming with confidence. Pittsburgh bested Baltimore for the AFC North division title and a number two seed at 12-4. The Ravens meanwhile were second in the division at 12-4 and in spite being a fifth seed they crushed number three Kansas City 30-7 in the AFC Wildcard round last weekend.

Pittsburgh has a lot of strengths. Offensively the club can score with the best of them behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (3200 passing yards, 17 touchdowns). Big Ben has a fair share of wide receiver threats steadied by Hines Ward and Mike Wallace (who combined for over 2000 receiving yards and 15 TDs). Toss in a game changer at running back in Rashard Mendenhall (1273 yards, 13 TDs) and it’s no wonder the side ranked in the top 15 in offence in 2010.

Defensively the trademark Steeler toughness and grit is there. Between sack master James Harrison (10.5 sacks, 100 tackles) and safety extradonaire Troy Polamalu (63 tackles, seven interceptions) Pittsburgh keeps in most teams in check and rank in the top five in most statistical categories.

Baltimore meanwhile have long been built on defence. Ray Lewis, 35, is still a force at linebacker (139 tackles, two forced fumbles) while Ed Reed, 32, continues to play through injuries (eight INTs, one forced fumble). As the Ravens showed against the Chiefs they can bottle up any rushing attack and avoid big plays in the passing game.

Offensively not enough credit has gone to QB Joe Flacco (3622 yards, 25 TDs) who has proven to be more than a effective game manager. Most times he has targeted wideout Anquan Boldin (837 yards, seven TDs) with Derrick Mason (802 yards, seven TDs) getting in on the act. Making it easier all the way round has been a pair of rushers in Ray Rice and Willis McGehee who have helped Baltimore sport the 14th best running attack in the league.

Pittsburgh-Baltimore games are always tough to call and Saturday’s match-up is no different. It’s not a confident pick but I think Baltimore will push through by two points.

The other AFC contest this weekend features another divisional rivalry. AFC East foes the New York Jets and the New England Patriots face off on Sunday 16 January at 4.30pm on CBS. I’ve been riding the Jets bandwagon all year and in spite of a so-so showing from QB Mark Sanchez last week at Indy, Tomlinson’s running and the New York defence got the job done. On the other hand the sting of the 45-3 thrashing by Tom Brady and his red-hot Patriots is still fresh in my mind. I might be circumventing common sense but I’ll go with my gut and say the Jets pull off the upset by a touchdown.