The Steelers & Ravens Fight It Out In The AFC North

The Pittsburgh Steelers have lost two in a row, including the gut-wrenching Sunday Night loss at home to the Chargers. The Baltimore Ravens have won three straight. And an AFC North race that looked all but settled in favor of Pittsburgh is now a dogfight with four games to play. The Steelers are 7-4-1, the Ravens nipping at their heels with a 7-5 mark. Here’s a look at the two archrivals…

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I’d define the difference thusly—the Steelers are the more compelling team, when it comes to storylines and Super Bowl potential. The Ravens are the more admirable team. I don’t write that with any bias—in fact, I vastly prefer Pittsburgh in this rivalry between two cities I used to live in. But if you admire football teams that simply play consistent and achieve to their potential in the face of adversity, then that has to be Baltimore in 2018.

The Ravens are playing amidst the shadow of a likely coaching change. It’s been reported all year that John Harbaugh and the organization are headed for an amiable split. Amiable or not, it would be easy for players to quit on Harbaugh, in the same way Green Bay’s players mailed it in on Mike McCarthy. But the Ravens’ players didn’t, even when their hopes were at their bleakest.

Baltimore doesn’t have dynamic playmakers. Terrell Suggs, at age 36, is a shadow of what he once was. But in a lot of ways, Suggs is the epitome of this team—he’s still a steadying force for what’s still a defense-first team. They don’t do it with feared passrushers or lockdown corners. This Raven defense is just consistent throughout and they’re the top-ranked unit in the league.

Pittsburgh, on the other hand, has been defined by their 36-year-old vet, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben’s performances have been all over the map. He’s thrown 13 interceptions and had some inexplicably bad games and mysterious awful throws at the worst possible time.

But on the flip side, he’s also done an outstanding job at spreading the football around in the passing game. JuJu Smith-Schuster is putting up numbers equivalent to the great Antonio Brown. The tight ends, Vance McDonald and Jesse James, are an invaluable part of the passing attack. And the Steeler offense is fourth-best in the league.

Pittsburgh is being done in by their defense. The secondary is mediocre at best and has frightening weak spots on the corner. T.J. Watt gets his numbers, with ten sacks so far this year. But the film graders at Pro Football Focus take a tougher view of Watt’s game and have given him marks that are average at best. That suggests Watt is finding himself out of position on the plays where he’s not tacking the quarterback. Bud DuPree is graded with similar results at the other outside linebacker spot.

The schedules are reasonably equivalent. The Steelers have to host the Patriots and go to New Orleans. The Ravens have road dates with the Chiefs and Chargers. Each team has two games they would be expected to win.

The natural default is to give Pittsburgh the edge. The first reason being that they have the edge, with the half-game lead. The second reason is that logic suggests the Steelers aren’t going to keep losing like this and the Ravens are due to slip up somewhere. The third reason is simply that Pittsburgh has the higher upside. They’re the team you can envision in the Super Bowl. Baltimore is the team you can envision fighting its way into the playoffs and leaving in the first couple weeks.

For the Ravens then, the ideal scenario is this—whether you play Lamar Jackson or Joe Flacco at quarterback, stay away from mistakes, let your defense win games and hope the Steelers implode of their own volition. If nothing else, you at least get into the playoffs and maybe end up back in Heinz Field for the 3 vs. 6 game. Baltimore might not have what it takes to win four straight in the playoffs, but this is not a team any favorite can get comfortable against.