Submitted by Jim Hurley on Friday, January 2, 2015 at 7:00 PM
In January of 2009, the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game…on their way to a Super Bowl victory. In January of 2011, Pittsburgh beat Baltimore on the way to an AFC championship appearance. In January of 2012 and 2013, Baltimore managed to avoid Pittsburgh on the way to back-to-back AFC Championship appearances and one Super Bowl win.
These teams meet twice every regular season in games that typically loom large in the playoff race. Then one or the other is usually in the mix for a Super Bowl berth. When fans are lucky, these AFC North titans clash in the playoffs in true do-or-die fashion.
That makes Saturday Night’s Wildcard meeting (nationally televised by NBC) the showcase game in the AFC this weekend. You know intensity is going to be dialed up to the maximum for both rivals. Let’s see if JIM HURLEY’S key indicator stats are hinting at the likely winner.
Won-Lost Records (Strength of Schedule)
Baltimore: 10-6 (#29 schedule in USA Today)
Pittsburgh: 11-5 (#30 schedule in USA Today)
Well, Jeff Sagarin’s strength of schedule numbers are throwing a cold shower on proceedings immediately. Both of these teams have drifted back from their championship caliber of past seasons. Baltimore could only manage a 10-6 record against the fourth easiest schedule in the NFL. Pittsburgh was just a game better against the third easiest schedule. The AFC North drew the lowly NFC South in this season’s interconference rotation. That helped both teams play into January. In terms of this game, we’re going to see intensity…but we may not be looking at the winner scaring Denver or New England on the road next week given the lack of battle-testedness for both. (Pittsburgh would advance to face Denver with a win, while Baltimore would visit New England should they spring this upset).
Baltimore: 5.7 on offense, 5.2 on defense
Pittsburgh: 6.2 on offense, 6.0 on defense
Very different styles here. Baltimore had the significantly better defense, but struggled on offense fully executing the system of new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. He was supposed to fix what was broken! Pittsburgh had a big offensive season on the arm of uncharacteristically healthy Ben Roethlisberger. Important to note that Baltimore had the better differential at +0.5 to +0.2 vs. very similar schedules. Edge to the Ravens here.
No meaningful difference between those performances over a 16 game schedule. That’s a strike against both in terms of going deep in the AFC brackets. They were unimpressive in the risk/reward area against extremely weak schedules! No edge either way in terms of predictive value. One team may ultimately have a big TO edge…but there’s no way to know for sure in advance who that’s going to be.
Baltimore was slightly overrated for the season, largely because it was expected that Kubiak would have a bigger influence on the offense. Pittsburgh was slightly underrated, possibly because the market had forgotten how potent Big Ben is when he isn’t battling a bad ankle or a sore back or a bruised sternum! If Baltimore remains overrated, and Pittsburgh underrated, that could offer up a value perspective Saturday evening.
Current Line: Pittsburgh by 3, total of 46.5
Home field advantage is probably only worth 2.5 points here given the teams’ familiarity with the climate and each other. Nobody is taking the worst of it in terms of game conditions. The market is giving Pittsburgh a slight nod as the superior team based on their regular season record. Our indicator stats are showing that Baltimore has what it takes to stay close and maybe win outright if they can avoid turnovers or keep Big Ben from making big plays.
For handicappers…that’s probably the single biggest key. What will Pittsburgh and its 6.2 YPP offense do on a cold January night against Baltimore’s 5.7 YPP defense?
JIM HURLEY loves handicapping all the personnel matchups in the NFL Playoffs. This is where classic in-depth handicapping really comes into play because there are few “intangibles” that influence motivation or intensity. Everybody brings everything they have!
You can be sure NETWORK is in playoff mode themselves this weekend. You’ll be able to purchase BEST BETS in all four games right here at the website with your credit card. If you have any questions, call us in the office Friday afternoon or Saturday morning at 1-888-777-4155. Be sure to ask about a great package for remaining football when you call. This program includes all NFL through the Super Bowl, plus the college football National Championship game set for Monday Night January 12.
Our Wildcard previews continue through the weekend. Saturday’s report will crunch the numbers for the early Sunday game matching Cincinnati and Indianapolis. Early Sunday, we’ll cover the weekend finale matching the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys. Then, it’s a few days of COLLEGE HOOPS before our Divisional previews begin.
All the excitement of New Year’s is in the rearview mirror…but THE WINNING IS JUST BEGINNING in 2015 because the NFL Playoffs are ready to start! Let JIM HURLEY drive you down THE ROAD TO RICHES all the way through the college championship and the Super Bowl!
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