Difficult path to take for Steelers
Monday, January 10, 2011
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

You know what they say about being careful about what you wish?

It has me worried this morning.

"It's got to be Baltimore," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward was saying Sunday. "I've had a feeling it was going to be Baltimore all along. I wouldn't want it any other way. It's going to be some football game."

For those of us watching, sure. There's nothing better in the NFL than Ravens-Steelers, especially at Heinz Field in the playoffs. I'm already counting down minutes until 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

But are the Ravens the best divisional round matchup for the Steelers? Hardly. Going into the weekend, the Steelers knew they would play the Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs or Indianapolis Colts. They ended up with the toughest assignment, by far. To get to the Super Bowl, they have to beat the Ravens and then almost certainly the Patriots in New England Jan. 23 in the AFC championship game. I can think of easier paths.

One would have had the Chiefs coming here Saturday. The Steelers would have done to them what the Ravens did Sunday in Kansas City: Whoop 'em good. The Ravens' defense swarmed quarterback Matt Cassel, who was making his first playoff start, and forced five turnovers. The Chiefs managed just 25 yards of offense in the second half. NFL postseason games are seldom that one-sided.

An even better route for the Steelers would have had the Colts as the opponent Saturday. That scenario was ruined when the New York Jets came back to beat the Colts, 17-16, Saturday night with a field goal as time expired. That's the real shame of the weekend. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning doesn't cause the fear he once did, especially not without injured tight end Dallas Clark. The Steelers' defense would have stopped him. And, really, wouldn't you have preferred to see the Ravens go to New England Sunday and beat up the Patriots a bit? Maybe even beat them, period? Crazy? I don't think so. The Ravens went to Foxborough, Mass., a year ago and handed Patriots coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady their first playoff loss at home, 33-14, after eight consecutive wins.

Who knows? Maybe the Jets will upset the Patriots and make it to the AFC championship game in Pittsburgh, should the Steelers play host to it. I don't see it, though. Not after the Patriots beat the Jets, 45-3, Dec. 6 at Gillette Stadium.

No, the Steelers are going to have to do it the hard way.

The Ravens will come to Heinz Field with a lot of confidence after winning here, 17-14, Oct. 3. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn't play that game because of his suspension, but neither did Ravens safety Ed Reed because of a hip injury. The Ravens also thought they were the better team when the Steelers won in Baltimore, 13-10, Dec. 5 when Steelers safety Troy Polamalu made the big play late, sacking quarterback Joe Flacco and forcing a fumble. Ravens tight end Todd Heap pulled a hamstring on the first play and missed the rest of the game. He had 10 catches for 108 yards Sunday against the Chiefs.

All of that doesn't mean the Steelers can't beat the Ravens. They most certainly can. They will be the much fresher team, having the weekend off and catching the Ravens after they have a short week. They are playing at home. And they will have the big edge at quarterback this time. I know Flacco had a huge game against the Chiefs -- 25 of 34 for 265 yards and two touchdown passes -- but I'll still take Roethlisberger, who is 8-2 against the Ravens.

The Steelers also will be a confident bunch.

"I like everything about this team," safety Ryan Clark said. "We had a problem with penalties earlier in the season and we've kind of quieted that down. The special teams did a nice job bouncing back after [giving up a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in a home loss Dec. 19 against the Jets]. The defense is making a few more plays, here and there. And the offense is putting the ball in the end zone. That's huge."

As Roethlisberger put it, "I think we are getting hot at the right time."

Ward is counting down minutes to Saturday, as well.

"The Steelers and Ravens ... That's the way it's supposed to be."

I've got no complaints.

Well, one.

Too bad it's not Ravens-Steelers in the AFC championship game.