The first game of the NFL Playoff Schedule could easily be the best game when the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers go at it for the 3rd time this season in the rubber match to determine who will move on to the AFC Championship Game next weekend.
A 16-game regular-season schedule and two head-to-head meetings did little to distinguish the Pittsburgh Steelers from the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North race.
Therefore, it's only fitting that these heated division rivals will again be locking horns in Saturday's AFC Divisional Playoffs, where considerably more than simple bragging rights will be at stake.
Both the Steelers and Ravens concluded the regular season with 12-4 records while splitting the home-and-home series, with both contests each decided by three points and neither outcome determined until the final minutes. Baltimore rallied for a 17-14 triumph at Heinz Field in Week 4, with quarterback Joe Flacco's touchdown strike to wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh with 32 seconds remaining accounting for the winning margin, while Pittsburgh exacted revenge with a 13-10 decision on the road on Dec. 5, going ahead for good on a late touchdown set up by playmaking safety Troy Polamalu's sack of Flacco that forced a fumble.
Close calls are nothing new when these two evenly-matched combatants get together. Six of the past seven games between the Steelers and Ravens have had a final difference of four points or less, and the teams have gone into overtime three times during that stretch.
Pittsburgh was granted the AFC North title by virtue of a better record than the Ravens within the division, which also gave the Black and Gold the conference's No. 2 overall seed, an opening-round bye in the playoffs, and the right to host Saturday's tilt.
Baltimore may be coming in as the hotter team, however. The Ravens won their final four tests of the regular season following their frustrating Week 13 defeat to Pittsburgh, then ran roughshod over AFC West champion Kansas City in last Sunday's Wild Card Round to keep their Super Bowl dreams alive.
A determined Baltimore defense limited the Chiefs to a paltry 161 total yards -- including 25 in the second half -- in the 30-7 rout, while Flacco did his part by setting franchise postseason records with 265 passing yards and a pair of touchdown throws.
Saturday's matchup will likely be a sterner challenge, however, especially considering Pittsburgh's success in this series when Roethlisberger has played. The standout signal-caller owns an 8-2 lifetime record against the Ravens and has guided the Steelers to victory in each of his last six tussles with Baltimore.
Roethlisberger, who's also guided Pittsburgh to eight wins in 10 career postseason starts, was not available for the Steelers' early-October loss to the Ravens while serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.
The Steelers closed out the regular season by winning six of their last seven outings and secured the division crown with a 41-9 thrashing of Cleveland in Week 17, with Roethlisberger throwing for 280 yards and two scores on a sharp 15-of-22 passing.