Ravens vs. Steelers Wild Card Preview: A Playoff Rubber Match
The NFL playoffs are a unique time, a time during which miniature rivalries spark when teams without much of a history -- such as the Cardinals and Panthers -- square off with big implications on the line.
But not every matchup is that way.
Nobody will have to dig too deep to find a narrative or dust off the VCR to find grainy film of the last time the Steelers and Ravens faced each other.
This year, the Ravens and Steelers split the season series, and each team had a decisive win. Way back in Week 2 on Thursday Night Football, the Ravens stymied Pittsburgh, holding them to 6 total points and scoring 26 of their own. But Pittsburgh had a 20-point win in its favor, too. In Week 9, Ben Roethlisberger threw for 6 touchdowns en route to the sixth-best single game passing performance this year and a 43-23 victory.
Without Le'Veon Bell, Roethlisberger will have to be closer to six touchdowns than six total points. But Joe Flacco, who has two of the top-five single game performances this year, and the Ravens sure won't go home without putting up a serious resistance.
What do our algorithms think about the game, though? You can find out by checking out the game projections page (available for premium subscribers) and seeing in-depth breakdowns of games from NFL history that most closely resemble this one -- based on point spread and team composition -- which is just awesome to see, honestly.
Leaning on Ben
According to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics, which measure how well a player or team performs above expectation, Roethlisberger finished as the third-best quarterback this season, posting a career-best Passing NEP of 159.10 -- well above his previous best of 89.97 in 2007.
Helping him get there was Antonio Brown, who led the league in Reception NEP (151.91). That's the sixth-best Reception NEP mark since 2000 behind four of the best receivers in recent history: Torry Holt (168.55) in 2003, Calvin Johnson (162.56) in 2012, Marvin Harrison (161.30) in 2002, and Randy Moss (156.95 and 155.21) in 2007 and 2003, respectively.
But the biggest obstacle the Steelers have to overcome, of course, is the loss of Bell, who led all backs with a Total NEP (which includes Rushing NEP, Reception NEP, and Passing NEP) with 82.85 points above expectation. Second place, by the way, was, roughly, half as good. Marshawn Lynch posted a 46.38. It's no wonder that the Steelers had the fifth-best offense in the NFL.
The rest of the backs on the current roster -- aside from freshly-signed Ben Tate -- tallied just 22 carries this year, combining for a Rushing NEP of -8.03 and -0.36 per carry. For context, Leon Washington had 13 carries this year for a Rushing NEP per rush of -0.35. So there's that.
Of the 43 backs who saw 100 or more carries, Tate (119 carries) ranked 37th in Rushing NEP per carry, so signs point to Roethlisberger's airing it out early and often.
The forecast for Saturday Night calls for temperatures in the upper 40's with a chance of precipitation in the 70's and winds of 12 miles per hour. Don't expect such mild weather -- and that is quite mild for a January in Pittsburgh -- to slow down Roethlisberger and the passing game. If it gets shut down, it'll be because Baltimore made it happen.
Can Baltimore Slow Down the Pass?
This year, the Baltimore defense struggled with secondary issues, and as a result, they were torched at times, evidenced by Roethlisberger's huge Week 9. But Baltimore actually finished the year ranked 18th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP, so they were just slightly on the wrong half of the league. Pittsburgh, by the way, was 26th, so Flacco actually draws the better matchup.
Speaking of Flacco, he ranked 10th in Passing NEP (89.35) and posted his best Passing NEP ever -- his second-best was 56.40 in 2009.
In addition to some better-than-expected passing, Baltimore has -- now that Bell is out -- the advantage in the backfield. Justin Forsett ranked second in the NFL in Rushing NEP among running backs. His 22.67 was second only to Marshawn Lynch (27.34). (Bell's 18.59 ranked fifth, by the way.) This productivity gave the Ravens the eighth-best defense in the NFL overall. Again, Pittsburgh was fifth.
Circling back to the defense, the gap between the two teams wasn't nearly as close as it was on offense in the regular season. Despite their 18th-ranked pass defense, the Ravens ranked fifth overall in defense, thanks to the fourth-best run defense in the NFL. Pittsburgh was just 25th overall, ranking 13th against the run (and, again, 26th against the pass).
Based on this, it looks like Baltimore has the edge, but what does recent history have to say about it?
Probably my favorite part of our projections is that they dig back into the annals of history and find similar games based on team similarities and point spreads.
The closest game to this matchup since 2000 took place in 2005. The Patriots (who are the Steelers' top comparison this year) faced the Buccaneers (the Ravens in this matchup).
If the game unfolds that way, it would be bad news bears for the Ravens, as the Patriots won 28-0. Tom Brady threw for 3 touchdowns and 258 yards on 20-of-31 passing. The Pats ran for just 83 yards, but that was still better than the 30 that the Bucs mustered. Chris Simms tallied 155 yards with no touchdowns or picks, going 21-of-34.
That game has a 90.46% similarity to this matchup, but the second-closest has a 90.34% resemblance -- not too much of a difference. That was a 2008 tilt between the Patriots (the Steelers) and the Steelers (representing the Ravens). The Steelers won 33-10, which is good news bears for the Ravens.
Less than three minutes into the game, the Patriots' Sammy Morris ran in a seven-yard touchdown, but the Pats mustered only three points afterward. Roethlisberger (i.e. Flacco) wasn't great, throwing for 179 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception on 17-of-33 passing. But the Steelers ran for 166 yards, which is good news for Forsett if he can get going on the ground against a good-not-great run defense. Doing so could help the Ravens keep the still-dangerous Steelers offense off the field. The 2008 Steelers had the ball for 35:05.
Those two different outcomes are very close in likelihood, but what do our algorithms ultimately decide?
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