AFC North: 2010 AFC Divisional playoffs

QBs separate Ravens and Steelers

January, 15, 2011
Ben RoethlisbergerGregory Shamus/Getty ImagesSteelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 9-2 in his career against the Baltimore Ravens.
PITTSBURGH -- There is not much that separates the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. Both teams have elite defenses, Pro Bowl players, future Hall of Famers and two of the best coaching staffs in the NFL.

But on Pittsburgh's sideline you have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. And on Baltimore's sideline you have Joe Flacco.

Game, set and match in favor of the Steelers.

Roethlisberger was masterful against Baltimore once again during Pittsburgh's 31-24 divisional-round playoff victory Saturday. He threw for 226 yards and two touchdowns. Roethlisberger's biggest play was a key, 58-yard bomb to rookie receiver Antonio Brown on third-and-19 that led to Pittsburgh's go-ahead score with less than two minutes remaining.

The game marked Roethlisberger's seventh consecutive win over Baltimore -- Pittsburgh's biggest rival -- and improved his career record to 9-2 against the Ravens. It's painfully obvious that the Ravens will not climb "Mt. Roethlisberger" until Flacco closes ground on Pittsburgh's two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback.

As Roethlisberger kept making big play after big play, Flacco floundered with another poor playoff outing, throwing for only 125 yards and one touchdown and committing two huge turnovers (one interception and one fumble). In a very close game that came down to the final possession, Roethlisberger's passer rating was 101.8 compared with Flacco's 61.1.

[+] EnlargeJoe Flacco
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarJoe Flacco was sacked four times in the second half and the Steelers held the Ravens to only three points after halftime.
"He's better. Right now Ben's better," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said bluntly. "He's more experienced, he's been through it more times and seen more things. It's not a slight on Flacco at all; it's a compliment to our guy. We have total confidence in Ben that when we need a play he's going to make it."

The look on Roethlisberger's face Saturday night was matter-of-fact. There was no big smile or special show of emotion in the locker room or during his news conference after one of the best wins of his career. Roethlisberger expects to step up in key postseason moments, so much so that he barely wanted to indulge in his clutch play.

"I have confidence in our guys," Roethlisberger shrugged. "It's not just me by any means, all I have to do is throw it."

Baltimore needed big plays from Flacco against Pittsburgh but didn't get them.

The Ravens' defense was tremendous in the first half. They forced two Pittsburgh turnovers early that led to 14 points, including a forced fumble of Roethlisberger that was picked up by Ravens defensive lineman Cory Redding and returned for a 13-yard touchdown.

The Ravens led 21-7 in the first half before Pittsburgh's defense got to Flacco in the second half and things fell apart. Flacco was only 4-of-12 passing for 43 yards and had both of his turnovers in the second half. Flacco also didn’t get much help as Baltimore receivers dropped some passes. Four of Pittsburgh's five sacks also came after intermission, as Pittsburgh outscored Baltimore 24-3 in the second half.

"I think you kind of saw Joe get a little rattled. He was getting hit a couple of times," Clark said as he continued to compare the two quarterbacks. "We put some pressure on him and Ben never [gets rattled]. I think he likes it."

Flacco dropped to 2-6 against the Steelers and 0-6 in games that Roethlisberger has played. Flacco's two wins against Pittsburgh came in 2009 when Roethlisberger sat out with a concussion and this season when Roethlisberger was serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.

"We're both good football teams and the bottom line is they're better at winning right now than we are," Flacco said. "We have to improve. We're just not there yet."

And neither is Flacco. But afterward, Roethlisberger offered Flacco some words of encouragement.

"I'd just tell him to keep his head up," Roethlisberger said. "He's a really, really good player. He's going to be one of the best in this league."

But for now Roethlisberger continues to rack up wins against Flacco in this great rivalry.

This is the fourth time Pittsburgh has made it to the AFC title game in Roethlisberger's seven seasons. The Steelers will try to advance to the Super Bowl for the third time since the 2005 season when they play next weekend against the New England Patriots or New York Jets.

Meanwhile, another great season ends for the Ravens as Flacco continues his maturation process. Flacco has led Baltimore to the playoffs in three straight seasons, which is quite an accomplishment. But for the Ravens to win a Super Bowl, their third-year quarterback needs to put together more Roethlisberger-like performances in the postseason.

Ravens-Steelers halftime notes

January, 15, 2011
PITTSBURGH -- The Baltimore Ravens lead the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-7 at intermission.

Here are some notes at halftime:
  • On Friday we wrote in the AFC North blog that rust could be an issue for Pittsburgh, and that's clearly the case in the first half. The Steelers haven't played in two weeks, and combined with Baltimore looking very sharp and bringing its 'A' game, that's made for a lopsided first half. The Ravens are taking advantage of Steelers' penalties (six) and turnovers (two) and turning them into points. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and tailback Rashard Mendenhall both had big fumbles for Pittsburgh, and Baltimore turned them into 14 points. Pittsburgh kicker Shaun Suisham also missed a 43-yard field goal right before halftime.
  • Baltimore has done a solid job on offense of avoiding Pittsburgh's pressure by running several screens and draw plays for decent gains. The Steelers often blitz on second and third downs, and the Ravens have caught the Steelers a few times in the first half. Baltimore's first touchdown was scored on a 14-yard draw play by tailback Ray Rice.
  • The officials have made their presence felt early. There have been two pass interference calls -- one for each team -- totaling 74 yards. Both calls eventually led to touchdowns. Officials did get the big fumble call correct against Roethlisberger when he was hit by Terrell Suggs, who has two sacks in the first half. Everyone on the field thought it was a forward pass, until Ravens defensive lineman Cory Redding picked up the football and walked into the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown. Overall, there were nine penalties in the first half.
  • On the injury front, Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden suffered a hip injury and didn't return. The team announced that his return to the game is questionable.

Ravens get a huge (and strange) TD

January, 15, 2011
PITTSBURGH -- One of the strangest playoff touchdowns you will ever see occurred in the first quarter between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers.

Deep in its own territory, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was hit from behind by Ravens defensive end Terrell Suggs while trying to throw the football. It was a fumble, but all 22 players stood still for several seconds because they thought it was an incomplete pass.

After no whistle was blown by the officials, Ravens defensive lineman Cory Redding made a smart play by picking up the football and waltzing into the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown. Pittsburgh challenged the play, but the fumble call was upheld.

The Ravens lead 14-7 after the first quarter.
Ed Reed and Troy PolamaluUS PresswireEd Reed and Troy Polamalu are two of the best playmaking safeties ever.
There are a lot of opinions about the talents and accomplishments of Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu and Baltimore Ravens counterpart Ed Reed. But very few people have a perspective like Darren Woodson's.

The five-time Pro Bowler played the position at a very high level for 12 years with the Dallas Cowboys. He has won three Super Bowls and now is a football analyst for ESPN.

The AFC North blog caught up with Woodson this week to get his insight on our always interesting "Troy Reed" debate and what makes both players so special.

Darren, let's start with your breakdown of each safety.

Woodson: Ed is in the middle of the field probably 90 percent of the time. So basically he's the quarterback of the defense, making calls in the secondary, and he's the guy we would call the "windshield wiper." What's impressive about him is being able to cover sideline-to-sideline and having the range that he does. I don't think I've ever seen anybody in history at that position who has the range that Ed Reed has. What makes him special is he's able to read route combinations. Whatever Reed sees, he believes. He has so much confidence in his own abilities that when he sees something, he's going to take a chance, and that's what you don't see with a lot of free safeties. ...

I think Polamalu is probably the best anticipator in the league. Polamalu is a guy who, with everything that's in front of him, he has that ability to make a play. If he's seeing the quarterback, he's able to react, whether it's making a tackle or getting an interception. That's what he's special at. And one thing I don't think people realize about Troy is he's a [great] athlete. It's almost like when Junior Seau first came in the league, where he's jumping over guys and making interceptions. They are so similar in that way, where if the ball is in the air, or it's a tipped ball, Troy has a way of coming up with that play. He has great hands and an innate ability to be around the football all the time. His blitzing, timing the blitz and knowing the cadence of the quarterback -- you have to be in that film room all day long trying to memorize a quarterback's habits. I don't think there's a better blitzer from the safety or defensive backs position than Polamalu. Charles Woodson is a great blitzer. But Troy Polamalu, the timing that he has on those blitzes is impeccable.

It's pretty clear Reed and Polamalu are different types of safeties. Considering you played the position for a dozen years, which style is more difficult?

Woodson: Well, I think Ed's position is easier to play, because there's never really any coverage responsibility. He's free 90 percent of the time and he’s not covering anybody. He's the free guy. Troy’s situation is different, because they ask him to do so much. The Steelers will ask Troy to cover a slot receiver at times. They'll ask him to blitz. But I think that puts Troy in a position to make more plays than Ed.

Any comparisons you can make with past players to these two safeties?

Woodson: Let's see, starting with Ed. Who is a middle-of-the-field free safety I could compare him to? I think to [former San Francisco standout] Merton Hanks. He's a guy from the corner position who moved to the free safety position and would get interceptions. I think Ed is 10 times better than Merton. But as far as playmakers, both of them were always around the ball. Troy? As a safety? Man, he's unique. [Former Niners star] Ronnie Lott was more of a hitter. But I think as far as a game-changer, you can probably compare him to Ronnie Lott.

Polamalu and Reed are now considered the NFL prototypes, but they've been in the league for a while. Why, in the past seven or eight years, has there not been another safety like Polamalu or Reed to come along?

Woodson: Because I think their talents are that much better than everyone else who's come through the league. They're also in the perfect situation. When you talk about these two guys, you have to look at the defenses as a whole first. These are two extremely aggressive defenses that are always in attack mode. Most defenses aren't always in attack mode the way these two defenses are. So they're playing on two teams that fit their styles. Ed is always in the middle of the field and he can go from sideline to sideline. He fits that type of lane and that’s a benefit to him. Troy, the Steelers are always in attack mode, too. But Troy is always in the box for eight-man fronts. He can shadow underneath and make a play that way. I think the systems really benefit what they do and make them that much better football players. If you put these two guys on different teams, say you put Ed Reed on St. Louis, will he be the same guy? Probably not. But he's still going to make plays because of his ability, and Troy being the same way.

Last question and this might be the toughest one. If you had to pick one safety to start your defense with, who would it be, Reed or Polamalu?

Woodson: Whew! That is a good one. [Long pause.] Man. ...that's a hard one to answer. I would probably say Ed Reed to start a defense with. Because Ed is a guy who will always make a play on the ball. He has the best hand-eye coordination I've ever seen. And the hardest thing for a safety or a defensive back is when the ball is in the air, you're trying to find that ball. It's like Willie Mays making that basket catch. It's hard to run one way, then run backward, and then find the receiver and the ball at the same time. No doubt about it, I've never seen anybody do that like Ed Reed. So as far as changing the game, I would probably start my defense with Ed Reed, to be honest with you. I know I can put him in any situation. I know I can put him on any team, and he will be the free safety in the middle of the field who makes plays on the ball. Now, Troy, it will be a little different. If you put him in a conventional defense, he’s probably not going to be the same guy.

So there you have it from one of the best NFL safeties of the past 20 years. If Woodson could only choose one safety for his defense, he's going with Reed.

Here are other opinions on both Pro Bowl safeties from this week:

Ravens MLB Ray Lewis

"I don't know if there’s that much of a difference. They both play the game with great instincts. They both prepare incredibly [well] and they just love the game. They love the game. And those are the two few safeties that actually turn the game into an offensive possession when they do have the ball in their hands. And, I think that’s what makes both of those guys who they are – Ed and Troy. It's an honor watching both of them play. It's not really [an honor] watching him play when he's playing against us, but it's a real honor to sit back and watch, probably, two of the best safeties to ever play this game go at it."

Ravens coach John Harbaugh

"One thing I think about these two safeties is they have unbelievable hands. These are two guys that just have a great ability to catch the football, and that gives them a chance to make plays on the ball downfield. They make great catches, so they get turnovers. They’re both hitters, they both are very instinctive, they both know the game inside and-out."

Steelers safety Ryan Clark

"Totally different players. Troy mixes it up a little bit more. Ed is the consummate ballhawk. Troy has ball-hawking skills, but Troy is a box guy. Troy plays in the middle of the field and plays near the linebackers. I think Ed is a true, true free safety."

Ravens-Steelers III: Fans sound off

January, 14, 2011
Baltimore Ravens Pro Bowl linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs created a buzz this week by wearing a controversial T-shirt, which showed a Raven making a not-so-nice gesture to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Was it over the line or just Suggs having a little fun?

Here is some reaction from Ravens and Steelers fans in our AFC North inbox:

Dan from Hanover, Pa., writes: Suggs' T-shirt choice is unfortunate. It is unsportsmanlike and is a horrible example to his younger fans. To his credit, he's been pretty civil with his words this week, but the shirt was definitely over the line.

Dan from Lynchburg, Va., writes: I love the Suggs T-shirt. Where do I buy one? That's is how all us fans feel about the other team and city. That's what makes this such a great rivalry. Suggs has continued to talk about winning a championship for the fans, this shirt is for the fans.

Joe from San Antonio, Texas, writes: I think it's a classless display. Terrell Suggs has won nothing worth mentioning as a Raven, and wasn't it just last year he struggled with sacks? Plus, it's not just adult males that follow the Ravens, it's kids, some of whom probably look to players like Suggs as a role model. He needs to go back to Communication 101. There are other ways of, ahem, expressing yourself.

Ryan Morrison from Baltimore, Md., writes: I think that the shirt is just him having some fun. People in Baltimore have been looking at these shirts for a couple years now and it's not surprising to us. But i guess the rest of the world sees it different.

Mutt from Warrenton, Va., writes: There is no need for trash talk in this rivalry. Both teams are tough and not intimidated by the other. I am left to assume that Suggs is either nervous or just a loudmouth.

David from Salt Lake City, Utah, writes: "Hey Terrell," I couldn't help but notice there is no ring on that finger!

Ethan from Reisterstown, Md., writes: I don't think Suggs' new shirt is meant maliciously. It's just the general attitude the fans have for each other - not in real life, just in jest. I mean, really, any fan of the Ravens pretty much hates the Steelers, and I'm sure in Pittsburgh the reverse is true.

Darrell Thompson from Fort Worth, Texas, writes: I think this is a way of Suggs staying loose. These two teams have a lot more class than what's going on in the AFC East.

Peter from St. Andrews, Scotland, writes: He can say what he wants. He hates the Steelers, I hate the Pigeons. That doesn't mean I don't respect them for being as good a team as they are, and I'm sure he feels likewise about the Steelers. After the way Ben Roethlisberger shrugged him off in the game-winning drive in December, he has no choice but to respect! And no disrespect to Suggs for that play, he was a beast in that game!

Joe Brewer III from Columbia, S.C., writes: Sure, Terrell Suggs may dress louder, but who hits harder? We'll see who gets the W.

New England Patriots Homer of the Week

You knew fans from the AFC East wouldn't mind their business this week.

Anonymous Patriots fan writes: All the trash-talking for what? I thought you do that after you win? Don't worry, Ravens and Steelers. Do all the trash-talking you want. Both of you will be watching the Patriots win another ring.

Ravens-Steelers III: It's 'Armageddon'

January, 14, 2011
AM ET IllustrationAre you not entertained? The Steelers and Ravens split their two earlier meetings this season.
PITTSBURGH -- The Ravens-Steelers rivalry is easily the most intense in the NFL.

Baltimore defensive end/linebacker Terrell Suggs wasted little time after the Ravens defeated the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday to start talking about the hated Steelers. He likened the teams’ third meeting this season Saturday to “Armageddon” and even “World War III” and called the players “modern-day gladiators."

Why, of course.

The Steelers toned down the rhetoric this week, but they’re just as eager for the divisional-round game at Heinz Field.

You know some of the basics -- each team defeated the other on the road this season, Pittsburgh leads the all-time series 20-12 (counting two playoff wins) and the Steelers defeated the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game two years ago in one of the hardest-hitting games I’ve seen.

Here are 10 things you may not know as Ravens-Steelers III looms:

1. Even old ladies despise Ravens

A fan's craft project hangs in the Steelers’ locker room, in between the lockers of offensive tackle Max Starks and rookie center Maurkice Pouncey. Made of cotton and knitted with purple and black thread, it has a large “X” through the name “Ray” in the center.

A Steelers fan from Ohio created the piece and sent it to the team along with a lengthy letter explaining how much she despises the Ravens and Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis.

“We thought it was funny because it was an elderly lady, like a grandma, but she had enough guts to knit that together,” Steelers offensive lineman Willie Colon said. “That’s a real tribute to her.”

Former Pittsburgh starting center Justin Hartwig saw it, loved it, and put it up on the wall next to his locker. The Ray Lewis quilt has been in the vicinity of the offensive linemen’s lockers for nearly two years, regardless of who the Steelers are playing that week. It serves as a nice little reminder all season of the Ravens’ linebacker.

“That’s been our rival and Ray Lewis is definitely the heart of that team and the heart of that organization,” Colon said. “Any time you want to kill a monster you have to go for the heart.”

[+] EnlargePittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger
AP Photo/David DrapkinThe Ravens bloodied the nose of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on Dec. 5.
2. Ben Roethlisberger ‘hates’ playing the Ravens

You would think that, with an 8-2 career record against Baltimore, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would love playing against the Ravens.

You would be wrong.

“I hate playing these guys because they are so good, especially on defense,” Roethlisberger said.

And they hurt people, especially Roethlisberger.

Roethlisberger owns six straight wins over Baltimore, but the wins rarely come without a price. In the last meeting between the teams on Dec. 5, Roethlisberger suffered a broken nose after taking a shot to the face by Ravens Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata.

The NFL fined Ngata $15,000 for the hit. But Roethlisberger played through the pain and led the Steelers to a come-from-behind win in Baltimore, which helped secure the AFC North division title and a first-round bye.

[+] EnlargeCornflakes
AP Photo/Carolyn KasterDoctors said the broken nose Ben Roethlisberger suffered against the Ravens looked like "Corn Flakes."
Roethlisberger did interviews after the game with a crooked nose that a doctor later said looked like “Corn Flakes.” Roethlisberger had surgery to repair it the next day.

“He actually looks better now,” Steelers receiver Hines Ward joked this week. “They broke his nose, but he’s a warrior.”

In 11 games against the Ravens, Roethlisberger has been sacked 38 times, by far the most times he has been sacked by any team in the NFL. In a Week 12 game at Baltimore in 2006, Roethlisberger was sacked a career-high nine times. In the second quarter of that game, then-Ravens linebacker Bart Scott ran around left end untouched and splattered Roethlisberger with a huge hit to the chest.

"That's probably the hardest I've ever been hit in my life," Roethlisberger told reporters afterward.

3. But look out, Ravens

Roethlisberger finished the season strongly, throwing for 600 yards in the final two games. According to Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, he’s playing the best football of his career.

“He’s as good as I’ve ever been around,” Arians said this week. “He just continues to grow.”

During his four-game suspension to start the season, Roethlisberger worked on several parts of his game, including improving his accuracy and throwing motion.

“He’s shortened his delivery a little bit. … It’s kind of like a golfer changing his stroke a little bit. It was minor, but it really gets the ball out of his hands faster,” Arians explained.

The quicker delivery has contributed to Roethlisberger’s reduced sack total. Last season, Roethlisberger was sacked 3.12 times per game. This season, he was sacked 2.66 times per game, almost a half of a sack less per game.

4. A rivalry within the rivalry

There will be a time when stalwarts such as Ward, Lewis, Ed Reed, Aaron Smith and James Farrior won’t be a part of this great rivalry. But one matchup you can expect to see for the next 5 to 10 years involves Ngata, 26, and Steelers rookie center Pouncey, 21.

Both Pro Bowlers, Ngata and Pouncey will play a large role this weekend -- and beyond -- in which team controls the line of scrimmage in this series. Each is a first-round pick, Ngata in 2006 and Pouncey in 2010.

The 6-4, 305-pound Pouncey had a great rookie season, starting all 16 games, but Ngata was easily his stiffest test. In the first two meetings, Ngata was dominant with 15 tackles and 1.5 sacks. There’s no shame in that because Ngata -- called “The NFL’s version of the the Incredible Hulk” by Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil -- dominates a lot of players.

“The thing about Pouncey is I think his weakness today is big power guys,” Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson said. “His movement skills are so good, and you have to remember few interior offensive linemen come out of school as a junior. So he’s a very young person, and I don’t think his strength and bulk have quite caught up with his frame and athleticism.”

Williamson said that the 6-4, 350-pound Ngata is several years ahead of Pouncey in his development. But Williamson also said that he wouldn’t be surprised if in two or three years Pouncey develops into the NFL’s best center and catches up with Ngata, who may be the best interior lineman in football.

[+] EnlargeAnquan Boldin
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicAnquan Boldin caught 12 passes for 184 yards and a TD in two games against the Steelers this season.
5. Looking for an X factor?

Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin is new to this rivalry, but he’s always been a handful for the Steelers.

Boldin was acquired by Baltimore in an offseason trade with the Arizona Cardinals for key games like this. In four career games against Pittsburgh, Boldin has two 100-yard performances and 28 receptions for 388 yards and two touchdowns.

In the Super Bowl XLIII loss to the Steelers, Boldin had eight receptions for 84 yards. He caught 12 passes in two games against the Steelers this season.

Of the Steelers, Williamson said, “... quick stuff can be an issue for them,” because of their coverages and blitzes. “Boldin is very smart, and he’s often the hot receiver when opponents blitz. You can move him all over the formation, and he’s especially good in the slot. He’s the type of guy who can give the Steelers problems because he can nickel-and-dime you to death.”

6. Once a Raven? Pffffft!

The Ravens once had a chance to pair 2008 Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison with future Hall of Famer Lewis at linebacker. Baltimore signed Harrison to a free-agent contract in 2003. But Baltimore had so much depth at linebacker with players such as Lewis, Peter Boulware, Adalius Thomas, Ed Hartwell and Scott, it cut the undrafted Harrison soon after.

“He was just one of those guys who slowly developed,” former Ravens coach Brian Billick said. “But he’s developed and is obviously a great player. I think he fits [the Steelers’] scheme perfectly.

“We had a number of guys and he was a little bit one-dimensional in terms of what he did at the time. But he’s obviously matured and grown in his game.”

This week, Harrison scoffed at the idea that he was ever a Raven.

“Everybody has a misconception that I was there for a while; I was there for eight days,” Harrison said. “Everything happens for a reason, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. There is a reason I was there, and there’s a reason that I’m here now. … I’m happy.”

7. The Professor says…

ESPN’s John Clayton, who has covered the NFL for more than three decades, has seen his share of bad blood between teams. “The Professor” said he thinks Ravens-Steelers is the NFL’s most heated rivalry, but said it doesn’t measure up to the Raiders-Steelers rivalry of the 1970s.

“The Ravens-Steelers rivalry now is kind of like the Houston Oilers-Steelers rivalry of the 1970s,” Clayton said. “There was truly animosity between the Oilers and Steelers, but there was always that respect. They wouldn’t diss each other much because they knew there might be a punch coming back.” The Steelers beat the Oilers in AFC Championship games in 1978 and 1979.

“The old Steelers’ rivalry with the Raiders was simply brutal, some of the most physical football I have ever seen. Steelers receiver Lynn Swann used to get squashed in a Raiders secondary that included Jack Tatum and George Atkinson. Now, if they allowed defensive backs today to smack receivers all the way down the field the way they allowed them to back then, maybe Steelers-Ravens would approach that level of intensity.”

8. This series is this close

Since 2003, Baltimore and Pittsburgh have played each other 17 times and each team has scored 302 points. During that span, Pittsburgh has nine wins, Baltimore eight.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Ravens and Steelers are the most dominant and consistent defenses over the past decade. Since 2000, Baltimore has allowed an NFL-low 2,992 points in the regular season (17 points per game). Pittsburgh is second in that span, allowing 3,011 total points (17.1 ppg). No other NFL teams have allowed fewer than 3,200 points since 2000.

9. Lewis, Ward don’t cross trash-talking line

In an effort to spread the love in this rivalry, we asked Steelers veteran receiver Ward this week to name his favorite Ravens player.

“Ha ha, I don’t have a favorite Raven, to be honest with you,” Ward said.

Not even a little bit, Hines?

“Nah,” Ward responded. “I respect them. They’re great ballplayers, and to say I played against Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and those guys, it’s a huge honor because I know what type of competitors they are. But you won’t see me and Ray texting each other before the game wishing him good luck.”

OK, we tried. Ward and Lewis have been in the middle of a lot of confrontations over the years, and they usually involve hitting and trash-talking. Ever wondered what is said between these two Future Hall of Famers?

“I’m not going to talk about his mom, and he’s not going to talk about my mom,” Ward said. “Stuff like that we will keep in perspective, but it’s heated. I’m not out there looking to start anything. But over the course of the game, I’m blocking him or somebody’s blocking him and we’re getting into scuffles where I’m kind of in the middle of things. He’s still Ray Ray. People don’t know him like we know him.”

Lewis, of course, weighed in on the subject of the Steelers and Ward this week.

“Listen, I like pizza. I like a lot of things, and then there’s a lot of things I don’t like,” he told reporters. “It’s OK to use that word, ‘like.’ But it’s always good when you don’t get that other word. And that is, when you don’t respect somebody. [Ward] gives us the same respect that we give them.”

10. Hate to break it to you, but …

This rivalry isn’t all bruises and trash-talking.

Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace is friendly with Ravens left tackle Michael Oher, whose life story was told in the hit movie “The Blind Side.” Oher famously was adopted by a Memphis, Tenn., family and became a first-round pick of the Ravens in 2009.

Wallace and Oher both went to the University of Mississippi and instantly hit it off. In three of their four years together in college, Wallace visited Memphis to be with Oher and the Tuohy family for Thanksgiving. Unfortunately for Wallace, he wasn’t portrayed in the movie.

“We ate some good food, but I think his mom bought it, though,” Wallace said, laughing. “She may have bought it, but nevertheless, it was still good. We had chicken, mashed potatoes, stuff I wasn‘t really used to eating. Being from New Orleans, I ate gumbo and stuff, but this was different.”

Still best friends, Oher and Wallace communicate regularly and spend time together during the offseason.
After resting all week, Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu (ankle, Achilles) returned to practice on Thursday. He is expected to play in his second consecutive game Saturday against the Baltimore Ravens.

In other injury news, Steelers starting cornerback Bryant McFadden also had full participation for the first time this week. He was limited with a groin injury. Defensive end Aaron Smith (triceps) was the only player limited in practice for Pittsburgh.

For Baltimore, starting center Matt Birk (knee) and cornerback Chris Carr (thigh) both sat out of practice Thursday.

Ravens-Steelers III: Injury reports

January, 12, 2011
Here is the latest news on who practiced and who didn't for the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers:

Steelers (12-4)

Coming off the bye week, the Steelers are as healthy as they've been in months. They only have one player who sat out of practice entirely Wednesday and that's Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu (Achilles). Recently Pittsburgh has been resting Polamalu during the week before bringing him back before the final practice. Polamalu said Wednesday that he will practice Thursday. Starting cornerback Bryant McFadden (hamstring) and defensive end Aaron Smith (triceps) had limited practices. Smith, who has been out for two months, said Tuesday he doesn't expect a final decision on his playing status until late in the week.

Ravens (13-4)

Baltimore was fortunate to come out of last week's wild-card win over the Kansas City Chiefs healthy. The Ravens have five players listed on their injury report, with receiver Donte' Stallworth (illness) and starting center Matt Birk (knee) being the only two who didn't practice Wednesday. Cornerback Chris Carr (thigh) was limited but he's expected to play. Linebacker Tavares Gooden (shoulder) and safety Tom Zbikowski (back) are both improving and fully participated in practice. All things considered, the Ravens are a healthy group coming into the divisional playoff game.
PITTSBURGH -- While there is plenty of bitterness involved in the AFC North rivalry between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, there is just as much mutual respect in both locker rooms.

For example, Pittsburgh veteran receiver Hines Ward discussed his respect Wednesday for Ravens Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed. Ward recently introduced Reed for the NFL's compilation of the league's 100 greatest players.

"I did that, and it was just out of respect," Ward said. "They asked if I would do a presentation on Ed Reed and I said 'Sure, why not?' We've had our battles over the years. He's hit me and I've hit him a couple times. It's always been very physical between both of us.

"But at the end of the day -- and I'm a little bias towards Troy [Polamalu] -- but he is by far, No. 1 or No. 2, the best safety in the league."

Reed pulled off an amazing feat this season. Despite starting on the physically unable to perform list and missing six games following hip surgery, Reed led the NFL with eight interceptions in 10 games. Often Reed's picks come in bunches. He had three multi-interception games this season and is the NFL's active leader in that category with 11 total.

"He's a game-changer, same thing with Troy," Ward said of Reed. "When you're playing good and you're a great player, great things just happen when you're around. [Reed] will pick up a fumble and take it to the house. A tipped pass, he will take it to the house or somebody will pitch it to him and he will take it to the house.

"Those guys just have a key knack for making plays when they need it the most, and he's right up there with Troy."

AccuScore: Ravens-Steelers

January, 12, 2011

Jenny Dell goes inside the numbers to see how the Ravens-Steelers game plays out in simulations.

Ravens-Steelers III: Ed Reed returns

January, 11, 2011
Baltimore Ravens Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed returned to the team Tuesday after spending time with his family in Louisiana to deal with the disappearance of his younger brother.

"Ed got back and he practiced," Ravens coach John Harbaugh told reporters. "He went through the meetings today. He got back for the meetings. He was in good spirits. He seemed like he was doing pretty well."

Brian Reed, 29, was reported missing last week following a police chase where he jumped into the Mississippi River to avoid authorities. Ed Reed, 32, took a private plane to Louisiana after Baltimore's 30-7 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs to be with his family.

Ed Reed's return to practice Tuesday is a strong sign that he will play in Saturday's divisional playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
PITTSBURGH -- Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith saw media members begin to swarm his locker following Tuesday's practice. But Smith admitted ahead of time that he didn't have any definitive update on his playing status for Saturday's divisional playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens.

Smith had triceps surgery in late October but was kept on the active roster in the event he could return for the playoffs. The Steelers say his rehab is going well. But a final decision on his return is not expected until the end of the week.

"It's hard to say," Smith said of whether he will play against Baltimore. "We have to get all the information, look at it and evaluate it."

Smith described the injury, surgery and rehab as a long journey. It's been more than two months since Smith last played, but he believes he's close to being back. Smith said Tuesday that he will put his trust in Pittsburgh's medical staff and wait for the green light.
PITTSBURGH -- Steelers second-year receiver Mike Wallace said he's heard it all about playoff football from teammate and future Hall of the Famer Hines Ward this week.

[+] EnlargeMike Wallace , Hines Ward
AP Photo/Amy SancettaHines Ward wants to make sure Mike Wallace will be ready for the atmosphere and intensity of a playoff game.
"You know Hines is always ready to tell you a story," Wallace said with a smile.

At every chance during the bye, the 13-year veteran has been telling Wallace about the difference between the regular season and playoff football. Wallace, 24, is Pittsburgh's leading receiver and is playing at a Pro-Bowl level. But Wallace will make his postseason debut Saturday for the Steelers (12-4) against the Baltimore Ravens (13-4).

Ward is doing everything he can to make sure the dynamic Wallace is ready for the increase in intensity, especially in this brutal rivalry with the Ravens. Wallace, as he has for two seasons, is a willing student and says he's soaking in Ward's wisdom.

"You have to take the [important] things out of the story, because you gotta know going in there it's going to be a really long message," Wallace said in jest. "But he's sending me a really good message telling me about his experiences, even though it's going to be an hour or two."

Ward, who has two rings, knows better than anyone that a chance to win a Super Bowl doesn't come around often. The winner will advance to the AFC Championship Game, and Pittsburgh needs Wallace to play well in order to make a deep postseason run.

Wallace was one of the NFL's top breakout players this season with 60 receptions for 1,257 yards and 10 touchdowns.

"He needs to just continue going out there and being Mike Wallace, and when you get your opportunity, make a play for us," Ward explained. "The intensity will pick up, because there’s more at stake, and each play is magnified. We may not get another chance to make a play, so we need to capitalize on the opportunities. I look for Mike Wallace to have a good postseason and a good ballgame."

Ravens-Steelers III: Ben on Harbaugh

January, 11, 2011
PITTSBURGH -- Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger shrugged Tuesday at recent comments made by Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh.

When Harbaugh was asked this week about Roethlisberger playing with a broken nose in the teams' previous meeting on Dec. 5, Harbaugh responded: "He's a tough guy. He had the broken nose. I was glad we broke his nose and then I was very impressed that he played through it. Obviously, you can throw very effectively with a broken nose -- he proved that."

It sounded like Harbaugh was complimenting Roethlisberger for his toughness. But some ran with the "glad we broke his nose" part of the quote.

In the Steelers' locker room Tuesday, Roethlisberger said he knows Harbaugh and wasn't bothered by the comments. Like Roethlisberger, Harbaugh is a Miami (Ohio) alum.

"I think it was taken out of context, if you ask me," Roethlisberger said. "I know Coach Harbaugh. He's a Miami guy and us Miami guys stick together; there’s so few of us. Actually, on the field before every game we talk to each other and ask how everything is going. So I don't think it was intended maliciously at all."