Playoff Matchups

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

Bookmark and Share

N.F.L. to Fine 3 Players for Helmet-to-Helmet Hits

The N.F.L. wants to give players and teams fair warning that it plans to ratchet up discipline for violations of players’ safety rules, the league spokesman Greg Aiello said. Players, coaches and teams will be told Wednesday that future disciplinary actions will be harsher, setting the stage for possible suspensions.

, the linebacker who knocked two out of their game with helmet-to-helmet hits — one was within the rules; the other was a penalty the officials missed, the league said — was fined the most, $75,000, because of previous trouble. Earlier this season, he was fined $5,000 for slamming quarterback Vince Young to the ground while sacking him.

Harrison and his coach, Mike Tomlin, insisted Harrison’s hits were clean and that he should not be fined. Before the fines were announced, Tomlin stood by his remarks, but said he supported harsher penalties and rules changes to ensure player safety.

“I think it is the proper initiative that the N.F.L. has,” Tomlin said. “I think we need to safeguard the men that play this game to the best of our abilities and make it as safe as we can. I’m a proponent of player safety and whatever rule or rule adjustments we need to make to make it safer.”

safety , who committed the most egregious foul when he launched himself into tight end Todd Heap as Heap tried to make a catch, was fined $50,000. And Atlanta Falcons cornerback , who hit receiver DeSean Jackson so violently that both were concussed, was fined $50,000.

In a letter to each of the players, Ray Anderson, the N.F.L.’s executive vice president for football operations, warned that “future offenses will result in an escalation of fines up to and including suspension.”

The failure to suspend players retroactively after one of the N.F.L.’s most troubling days raised the question of whether the league had talked tougher than it was prepared to immediately act.

On Monday, Anderson noted that some players considered fines the cost of doing business and that only suspensions — even for first offenders — were likely to deliver the message that helmet-to-helmet hits would not be tolerated.

The N.F.L. has suspended players for hits without warning. In 2008, safety Eric Smith was suspended a game for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Anquan Boldin. Smith was one of two players suspended that year. In 2009, one player, defensive back Dante Wesley, was suspended. None have been suspended this season.

Aiello said the desire to warn players of increased discipline first was “because the overall level of discipline for these violations is being increased and suspensions will be more likely if these violations continue.”

The reaction to the fines was swift and offered a look at why the N.F.L. will have to battle some of its players in an effort to crack down on helmet-to-helmet hits. linebacker Aaron Curry called the fines “absolutely crazy” on his feed Tuesday, and he took exception to the fine for Harrison. “His hit happen every play!” Curry wrote. “He jus happen to knock somebody out!”

Earlier Tuesday, Patriots Coach raised an issue that also complicates the N.F.L.’s crackdown — the inconsistency of officiating. Harrison’s hit on Browns receiver Mohamed Massoquoi was a foul, Anderson said Monday, but it was not flagged.

“You just have to understand how the game is being officiated and what the calls mean — what’s a block in the back, what isn’t a block in the back; what’s illegal contact, what isn’t illegal contact, what’s pass interference, what isn’t pass interference, what’s holding, what isn’t holding,” Belichick said. “There are a lot of gray areas in all those calls, so we have to learn what those are and hope that the officials call them consistently from week to week, which, that’s an issue, too.”

Bookmark and Share

N.F.L. May Suspend Players for Harsh Hits

Anderson also said the competition committee could consider rules changes in the off-season to ban all hits using the helmet.

On Sunday, violent helmet hits sent linebacker Zack Follett to the hospital on a backboard (he was released Monday) and caused receiver DeSean Jackson to forget the play on which he was injured. linebacker James Harrison knocked two players out of the game with head injuries.

More egregious was the hit by New England safety Brandon Meriweather on Baltimore tight end Todd Heap. Meriweather launched himself into Heap, a clear violation of the rules (Meriweather was penalized). Anderson called that hit “agitating” to him.

“The way football is played, it’s going to be difficult, but it may be necessary,” Anderson said of banning all hits involving the helmet. “All things will be on the table as we evaluate and look at this. It’s critically important. It’s not just a career-threatening situation for a guy like DeSean Jackson. But maybe life-altering.

“Very frankly, we don’t want to see another Darryl Stingley on our watch,” Anderson continued, referring to the wide receiver who was paralyzed by a Jack Tatum hit in a 1978 preseason game and .

The N.F.L. has focused on player safety with increasing urgency in recent years, as study after study has indicated the long-term effects of head injuries. But with so many scary hits in such a short time, opinion seemed to coalesce quickly for the first time Sunday that while the N.F.L.’s intent with the rules change clamping down on such hits was good, its follow-through needed to be stronger than fines to enact a sea change in a generation of players raised on highlight reels glorifying big hits.

Anderson, who sounded agitated Monday morning, said he was struck by comments made Sunday night on ’s pregame show by the former coach and the former safety Rodney Harrison, who called for suspensions for helmet-to-helmet hits. Harrison had a reputation as one of the hardest hitters in the game, and some opponents considered him a dirty player. On Sunday, Harrison said that when he played, fines did not get his attention, but suspensions did.

“They underscored what folks have surmised, and that is, fines don’t do it,” Anderson said. “Fines, in some people’s situations, are just the cost of doing business.”

George Atallah, a spokesman for the players union, said that although the union supported any rules changes that would improve player safety, it was equally concerned about having a fair and transparent process for suspensions and appeals.

John Mara, the Giants’ president and a member of the competition committee, said Monday that an attempt to write rules to eliminate all hits with the helmet might be extreme. Games are played with remarkable speed and ferocity, and each rules change demands that players and coaches modify the way they play.

Running backs like the ’ Adrian Peterson lower their heads to deliver a blow as they are being tackled, and defensive players are taught from Pop Warner days to “explode” into their target. When members of the competition committee meet with current players at the scouting combine each February, players, most of them defenders, say that rules changes are making it impossible for them to do their jobs.

Mara said, “Our response is, we don’t think it’s impossible, and No. 2, if we have a choice between making it impossible to do your job and protecting somebody from a concussion or a serious neck injury, we’ll choose the latter.”

Mara said he, too, was troubled by the series of plays Sunday. He said that a few years ago, it seemed to him that leading with the head was becoming the preferred tackling technique, but that rules against launching at a player seem to have reduced the number. He also cautioned against overreacting, citing predictions that the injuries would increase this season after a spate of injuries in Week 1.

“These are bang-bang plays,” Mara said. “They have a fraction of a second to make a decision. I’m not sure I want to go crazy over what happened yesterday. I want to see at the end of the year. We look at tape of every single one of those hits. Then you have a good understanding of if there is a trend here.

“To me, it would be almost impossible to legislate it completely out of the game.”

Bookmark and Share