Ravens at SteelersSaturday, 4:30 p.m.Line: Steelers by 3
Fans of Ravens-Steelers games also like scratchy old blues 78s, weather-beaten barns and gnarled produce from roadside fruit stands. Steelers-Ravens games hark back to the days when defense dominated the N.F.L., every final score was 13-10, and games were usually decided by a last-minute strip-sack or a daring long pass from a crumpled pocket. When these teams meet, drives are rare, sacks are common and punters get as much screen time as ”American Idol” finalists. These are games for traditionalists, but they are also always close enough to entertain everyone: the last six regular-season games have been decided by a total of 19 points.
The Steelers beat the Ravens in the A.F.C. championship game two years ago, but John Harbaugh’s current team is more experienced and more talented than it was when it netted only 198 yards from scrimmage in that game. The Steelers, on the other hand, never change: tough quarterback, heavy-duty running back, deadly linebackers, no-nonsense coach, 12 wins, now and forever.
Ravens on OffenseJoe Flacco set a Ravens postseason record with 265 passing yards against the Chiefs. If 265 yards do not seem record-worthy, remember that the Ravens won a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer and once went 10-6 under Kyle Boller and Anthony Wright. Those 265 yards were not the result of four 66.25 yard passes: the Ravens have rediscovered short passing and ball control, with Todd Heap catching 10 passes and the offense playing keepaway for nearly 42 minutes last Sunday. In the team’s Week 15 loss to the Steelers, Flacco completed 61- and 67-yard passes, but the Ravens could not do anything else and only scored 10 points. The re-emergences of Heap, the backup running back Willis McGahee (54 total yards on Sunday) and other role players can keep the Steelers from playing three defenders deep and blitzing just about everyone else.
Steelers on OffenseHitch routes and dump-off passes may work for some teams, but Ben Roethlisberger wants nothing to do with them. Mike Wallace averages 21.0 yards per reception, and the average pass to Wallace travels a robust 15.9 yards through the air: think Bradshaw to Swann, not Brady to Welker. Meanwhile, Steelers running backs have caught just 12 passes in the last five games, though Roethlisberger did look to Rashard Mendenhall seven times while trying to escape the Ravens’ blitz in Week 12. The message is clear: Roethlisberger would rather risk a sack to complete a bomb than fiddle around with puny outlet passes. The Ravens’ secondary had a vacation week when the Chiefs scrapped their downfield passing attack (such as it was). Vacation is over.
Special Teams NoteThe injured Steelers punter Daniel Sepulveda netted 39.1 yards per punt; the replacement Jeremy Kapinos nets just 32.3 yards per attempt. Seven yards of field position make a big difference when these teams meet.
PickThe first team to gain 100 yards wins; it should happen sometime in the fourth quarter. Steelers.
Packers at FalconsSaturday, 8 p.m.Line: Falcons by 21/2
A winter storm shocked Atlanta this week; the icy conditions closed schools and caused accidents in a region where snowplows are as exotic as ostriches. With the Packers arriving on the storm’s heels, the sudden tundra-fication of Georgia can only be interpreted as a bad sign.
Bad weather won’t affect the action inside the Georgia Dome — even if the roof collapses Metrodome-style, Arthur Blank can get replacement parts at cost. But the Falcons are not equipped to handle deviations from the norm. They are sturdy, methodical and predictable: the league’s most reliably above-average team. Bland efficiency produced a 20-17 win over the Packers in Week 12, but the Packers have improved, and playoff games are often won by the team with a spark. The Falcons just aren’t very sparky.
Falcons on OffenseThe Falcons do not defeat defenses so much as erode them. Matt Ryan throws 28 passes. Michael Turner rushes 23 times. Roddy White catches eight passes, Tony Gonzalez six. Jason Snelling rushes six times and catches four passes. Repeat until playoffs. Ryan completed 24 of those 28 passes in Week 12, though only one pass netted over 20 yards: when the Falcons’ system is clicking, they don’t need big plays. White’s knee injury could be the bug in the Falcons’ programming: if the Packers can single-cover a hobbled White, they can blitz more often with their safeties and cornerbacks.
Packers on OffenseThe rookie James Starks ran for 123 yards on Sunday, often from a full-house formation behind two fullbacks. Packers running backs carried just 11 times for 26 yards in Week 12, so Starks can have a major impact against a Falcons run defense that was vulnerable late in the season. Defensive backs Brent Grimes and William Moore helped turn around a defense that surrendered 4,041 passing yards last year. Moore is penalty prone (three roughness fouls, two long pass interference flags) but has five interceptions and hits hard. Grimes displayed a knack for clutch interceptions this season, but that was because quarterbacks still try to pick on him in critical situations.
Special Teams NotesEric Weems returned both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown this season and recorded 10 tackles on special teams. He also does windows.
PickThe problem with driving in cruise control is that the really daring motorists keep passing you. Packers.
Note: The picks do not reflect the betting line.
This is a more complete version of the story than the one that appeared in print.
GRAPHICS: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers: 4:30 p.m. Eastern, CBS Line: Steelers by 3; Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons: 8 p.m. Eastern, Fox Line: Falcons by 2 1/2