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Friday, January 16, 2009
AFC title pick (sort of)

By James Walker
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

I had an epiphany several days ago while trying to get a room key at the front desk of my hotel in Pittsburgh.

"So who are you picking this week?" the hotel worker asked.

I immediately thought to myself that it's going to be a long week -- and it was.

Despite being asked time and time again, there will be no predictions on the AFC Championship Game between the Pittsburgh Steelers (13-4) and Baltimore Ravens (13-5).

But to provide the type of analysis people are asking for, here are three reasons why each team can win Sunday's conference title game and advance to Super Bowl XLIII:

Reasons for the Ravens

 
  Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
  In six career games against the Ravens, Willie Parker has averaged just 2.8 yards per carry.

1. Ravens are road warriors

The Ravens have taken the stance that they will play football anytime and anywhere. That has proved to be true. Baltimore has won seven of its last eight road games and most recently went into hostile environments in Miami and Tennessee to pull out playoff victories. Sunday's game against Pittsburgh will be the third straight division champion Baltimore has faced this postseason. Leaguewide, home-field advantage hasn't meant much in the playoffs. In fact, road teams are an impressive 5-3. Last weekend road teams were 3-1 in the divisional round, possibly setting up another wacky weekend in the two conference title games.

2. Baltimore has Willie Parker's number

If history is any indication, the Steelers will not run the ball effectively against the Ravens. Pittsburgh running back Willie Parker has done very little in six career games against the Ravens. Parker, who is coming off a season-high 146 rushing yards against the San Diego Chargers, averages just 2.8 yards per carry and has a career-high of 63 yards against Baltimore. If the Ravens make Pittsburgh one dimensional, that will go a long way toward helping Baltimore pull out this game.

3. Ravens Pride

This team has tremendous heart, and it's hard to imagine any team beating Ray Lewis & Co. three times this season. Statistics show that it is not impossible. But there is a ton of character and personal pride with the Ravens, which surely will up show in Sunday's game. But if the Steelers beat a prideful Baltimore bunch three straight times everyone -- including Ravens fans -- would agree that Pittsburgh is a worthy team to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

Reasons for the Steelers

 
  Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
  Though he's only 26 years old, Ben Roethlisberger will be playing in his third AFC Championship Game.

1. Pittsburgh is the healthier team

Perhaps the greatest advantage of winning the division is that Pittsburgh had the chance to get healthy and play one less game. The Steelers looked well rested and sharp in last week's 35-24 victory over the San Diego Chargers. Previous weaknesses (running game and pass protection) suddenly looked like strengths with two weeks of preparation, and previous ailments to injured players wasn't a factor. Meanwhile, the Ravens are hurting after two physical playoff games against a pair of division winners in the Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans. That Titans game, in particular, was brutal as Baltimore suffered significant injuries to starting cornerback Samari Rolle, linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs and running back Le'Ron McClain.

2. Steelers have the veteran QB

Really the only difference in the first two games between the Ravens and Steelers was that Pittsburgh had a veteran quarterback who was able to make big plays down the stretch. Offense will be at a premium in this game. It's safe to say that both defenses will control the pace of the game, but at some point plays will have to be made to put points on the board. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is already playing in his third AFC Championship Game, is more adept at making those clutch plays. Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco has done well in the postseason but never participated in a game of this magnitude.

3. Pittsburgh is confident

After winning both games, the Steelers feel they're the better team. That remains to be seen. But up to this point, they have earned the right to feel that way following a regular-season sweep. It's been more of a quiet confidence in Pittsburgh. The team is very businesslike and has done very little trash-talking this week. In fact, there hasn't been much trash-talking on either side, which is unusual for this game. That tells me we are due for an explosion of emotions and physicality once these two teams hit the field on Sunday.