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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Sunday, November 6, 2011 at 9:09 AM

When the Baltimore Ravens crushed the Pittsburgh Steelers back in Week One of the NFL season, it looked like a tone had been set for the 2011 campaign. Defending AFC Champion Pittsburgh would take a step back this year, possibly because of the Super Bowl hangover that's hit so many recent runners-up. And, Baltimore would take its turn at the top of the AFC North, and possibly the AFC and the whole NFL…finally living up to the promise of recent years.

Now, two months later, it's Pittsburgh who can grab control of this division (and arguably the whole AFC), while Baltimore is on the verge of slumping into 'Wildcard or Nothing' status.

Here's what's happened since that first meeting:

*Pittsburgh has gone 5-1 straight up, and currently sits all by themselves atop the AFC North.

*Baltimore has gone 4-2, with embarrassing losses to Jacksonville and Tennessee, and a near-miss on what would have been a humiliating home loss to Arizona last week.

*Pittsburgh has defeated AFC power New England in such dominant fashion that it's hard to put any other AFC team on their level at the moment.

*Baltimore's offense has fallen off the map in games where they don't connect on a couple of bombs. The Ravens averaged just 3.7 yards-per-play in a win over the Jets, and plummeted down to 2.8 ypp in the Monday Night loss in Jacksonville. The team has also turned the ball over 13 times in their last six games…which is far from playoff caliber performance.

Should Pittsburgh beat Baltimore Sunday Night on NBC, the Steelers would have a two-game lead on the Ravens, and they would even up the head-to-head tie breaker that took a blow in that season opener. Barring injuries to Pittsburgh stars, that would virtually lock up the division even though we're at the midpoint of the season. But, if Baltimore wins…then we're back in a tie at the top, but the Ravens would hold the tie-breaker edge with a regular season sweep.

To say this is a big game is an understatement. And, it's arguably a make-or-break game for the Ravens in terms of the playoff picture given their recent form and a couple of teams from Ohio nipping at their heels.

AFC NORTH STANDINGS
Pittsburgh 6-2
Baltimore 5-2
Cincinnati 5-2
Cleveland 3-4

If you've been reading our NFL Stat Reports on Wednesdays, you know that we're not particularly high on Cincinnati or Cleveland. The Bengals are doing things with mirrors to a degree against a schedule that hasn't been particularly tough. And, Cleveland's offense is one of the ugliest things we've seen in years. The new head coach was supposed to fix that!

But, all that being said…Cincinnati and Cleveland DO play DEFENSE! And, it's good defenses that are disrupting the Ravens of late. You may not think of the Bengals and Browns as being playoff caliber (we don't), or as being in the same class as Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Here's the key question. Are they better than the class of Jacksonville and Arizona? Those teams just outscored Baltimore 39-37 the last two weeks!

Baltimore thought they were the next big thing after beating the Jets and Texans. Now, they're hanging by their fingertips on the ledge of relevance…with four games still left after tonight in a division that's playing good defense. Entering the weekend, there were 11 teams at 4-3 or better in the AFC fighting for just six playoff spots. Baltimore's margin for error isn't as big as they had been thinking. A win tonight would help significantly. A loss…and they're just another name in the hat.

Let's run through our favorite indicator stats for tonight's teams to see if they suggest a potential outcome…

DRIVE POINTS PER GAME (scored and allowed on 60 yards or more)
Baltimore: 12.6 on offense, 6.7 on defense
Pittsburgh: 15.4 on offense, 10.6 on defense

You regulars know this is our favorite stat in all of sports in terms of 'defining' a team. Both of these squads have really excelled in terms of differential. We don't have any troubles saying both are playoff caliber teams, and Super Bowl contenders. Baltimore's problem is that they're relying too much on deep passing to have an impact offensively. And, even with all the highlight throws you've seen in their best games, they still only grade out as a team with an average offense and a fantastic defense. That's par for their course…and it's a reason they've been watching Super Bowls on TV with the rest of us in recent seasons.

The raw differentials here are +4.8 for Pittsburgh, and +5.9 for Baltimore. That's a good sign for those of you thinking about the dog plus the points here. Are you confident that Baltimore will connect on enough deep throws to live up to their math?

THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS
Baltimore: 33% on offense, 29% on defense
Pittsburgh: 51% on offense, 38% on defense

This is where the issue really jumps out. Baltimore can't move the chains! They have an average offense because occasional deep throws have helped them overcome a horrible performance on third downs. Yes, the defense is fantastic again. And, that's good enough to beat most people. It's not good enough to beat playoff teams consistently unless you're getting a lot of help from turnovers.

With Pittsburgh, you have to respect how smart this offense is playing this year. They're taking care of business, marching up and down the field (which you saw all game last week vs. New England). Those are Super Bowl caliber numbers…a +13 point differential with quality on both sides of the ball. Baltimore's +4 just doesn't measure up. Those of you thinking about taking Pittsburgh Sunday Night can take heart in that.

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL
Baltimore: +3 (16 takeaways, 13 giveaways)
Pittsburgh: -10 (3 takeaways, 13 giveaways)

Pittsburgh's problems so far this year are one of the big mysteries of the season. This strong defense…that has been scaring people for years, ONLY HAS THREE TAKEAWAYS ALL SEASON! That should be impossible. Even if you just have guys playing generic football, your opponents should lose the ball more than that just because of their own miscues! Pittsburgh is playing more passive on defense than they should be. And, there's probably some laws of math about to get involved and rain turnovers down on them from the heavens.

The rest of the league should be pretty scared that Pittsburgh has a 6-2 record despite such a poor performance in turnovers. When that boomerangs back to something logical, they're clearly on the short list of potential champions.

Let's also point out something important. That season opening blowout that Baltimore inflicted on Pittsburgh was largely fueled by a 7-0 turnover edge. Now, Baltimore won the game straight up clean with the right edges in the right places. But, it was a BLOWOUT because of all the turnovers. Let's take that game out of the turnover equation:

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL SINCE WEEK ONE
Pittsburgh -3
Baltimore -4

Pittsburgh still has some explaining to do. But, Baltimore's been much sloppier than people have realized. We mentioned earlier that they lost the ball 13 times in the last six games. They forced 1 turnover or less on four different occasions…including in the three games that have cast doubt on their greatness (Tennessee, Jacksonville, and Arizona).

We can add that to the list. Baltimore needs to connect on bombs on offense, and force turnovers on defense, or they're just another team. Clearly they were just another team the last two weeks. Over the course of 16 games, they'll make enough of those impact plays to reach the playoffs…but probably not enough to win three or four straight games against playoff caliber teams in January.
Will they make enough of those plays to beat Pittsburgh tonight on NBC? That's what you as handicappers have to determine. JIM HURLEY will have something for you in this game when the plays go up…either as a major release or a TV bonus. You can always purchase NETWORK'S BEST right here at the website with your credit card. BIG JUICY WINNERS are also available in the office at 1-800-323-4453.

When you want to win big money in the biggest games…link up with the biggest name in handicapping, JIM HURLEY!

 

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