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Monday, January 12, 2009
First look: Ravens-Steelers


Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

No. 6. Baltimore Ravens (13-5) at No. 2 Pittsburgh Steelers (13-4), Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET

The first meeting was epic.

The second meeting was a classic.

But the third installment between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens in Sunday's AFC Championship Game has the potential to be legendary.

This is exactly what the NFL needs in January: A hard-hitting matchup of two of the league's toughest teams.

As the coaching staffs from both sides begin to put together their game plan for next week, here are three things to look out for:

1. Which QB will step up?

The biggest -- and perhaps only -- difference in the first two meetings was that Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was able to make just enough plays against an elite defense and Baltimore rookie Joe Flacco failed to do the same. Neither offense can expect much against the league's top two defenses. But when a crucial drive or play was needed down the stretch, it was the more seasoned Roethlisberger who was able to produce in a close game. No one has doubts that Flacco is going to be a great NFL quarterback in time. But he can speed up that process by helping his team win Sunday and out-dueling Roethlisberger in the process.

2. Coaching, coaching, coaching

This AFC Championship Game pits two of the NFL's best, but least experienced, head coaches. Both Baltimore's John Harbaugh and Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin combine for just three years head coaching experience, and never ventured this deep into the playoffs. Will either coach suddenly get tight with so much on the line? Will both throw caution to the wind because they don't know any better? It remains to be seen. Keep in mind that both coaches also have tremendous experience on their staffs, led by a pair of defensive coordinators in Baltimore's Rex Ryan and Pittsburgh's Dick LeBeau.

3. Don't forget special teams

These are not the most exciting plays in football, but punts, field goals and hidden yards (kickoff and punt returns) are going to be huge in this game. The Steelers proved Sunday how big special teams is in the playoffs when Santonio Holmes broke a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown to jump-start the rout of the San Diego Chargers. But Baltimore's special teams overall has been more sound this year, especially in the punting game. With two very similar and evenly-matched teams, one great special teams play could be the difference.