Week 17 AFC Preview and Prediction: Baltimore vs Pittsburgh

So the Ravens are all set for the postseason without needing to score a point, and the Steelers are coming to town with a must-win scenario. Sounds like a Week 17 special of NFL boredom – watching a 1st string cautiously defeat a 2nd string.

Maybe not this time. The Baltimore Ravens are a fascinating club to watch no matter who is on the field. Lamar Jackson is outstanding, but an offense with 2 distinct personalities is never boring.

In a Week 16 revenge bout with Cleveland, we got to see both faces of Baltimore’s attack. Jackson had been allowed to open things up against New York in a prime-time Week 15 romp, and Harbaugh kept on the same track against the Browns. While the eye associates wide-open, 4-WR pigskin with spectacular collisions and injuries, the head coach probably figured getting the ball out of Jackson’s hand quickly was the best way to keep the MVP front-runner healthy for the postseason. But when Cleveland scored to close the gap early in the 4th quarter, the Ravens went into their patented “Sun Belt” offense and ran every single play on a clinching TD drive.

Which face of Baltimore’s diabolical playbook will surface against visiting Pittsburgh in Week 17? The answer might tell us which bet on the board makes sense.

Who: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens

When: Sunday, December 29th, 4:25 PM EST

Where: M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore, MD

Lines: PIT (-2) at BAL (+2)  / O/U Total: (37)

Predictions and Handicapping: Week 17 in Baltimore

Mike Tomlin’s crew will have to win on the road, and will also need Tennessee to lose to Houston to squeak into the postseason. All things considered, it’s a fantastic coaching job by Tomlin in 2019. But the Pittsburgh skipper’s narrative has been overwhelmed by another story, at least as far as the betting public is concerned.

Harbaugh has taken the unorthodox step of telling the media he’s going to be resting players on Sunday. Now that’s refreshing. How often have we heard the blustery baloney about “we always play to win” and “I don’t know who you guys think I can just stick out there” only to watch the home-field lock division champion play defensive backs off the practice squad in Week 17?

Jackson will not suit up, and joining him on the sidelines (at least) will be Marshall Yanda, Earl Thomas, Mark Ingram and Brandon Williams. Former Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III will be under center for Baltimore, marking the only time in NFL history that 2 former Heisman-winning quarterbacks have started for the same team in the same season.

Baltimore is averaging 204.9 rushing yards per game, and is closing in on the all-time record of 3,165 rushing yards set by the 1978 New England Patriots. We can expect plenty of running from RGIII and Gus Edwards, but what kind of running plays the Ravens employ will be crucial to setting the record and scoring points.

Steeler fans have seen happier times even as all marvel at the coaching staff. While the QB carousel of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges continues, the Steelers have now lost back-to-back games after winning 7-of-8 to get into contention, including a miserable 16-10 defeat to the pitiful New York Jets.

Hodges had played like the big man on campus, giving the town hope while Pittsburgh struggled to replace Ben Roethelisberger. But after just 1 touchdown and 6 interceptions during the current 2-game skid, Hodges was replaced with Rudolph in the 2nd half of the Jets game. Tomlin wasted no time this week in stating Hodges will start once again on Sunday.

No matter whom the quarterback, the Steelers have not scored a 4th quarter touchdown in 8 straight games. That could weigh crucially on this Sunday’s match-up since Baltimore’s smallest and slowest defenders will be on the field in the 2nd half, while in the 1st half we could see something more akin to the usual Raven defense.

Match-up Analysis and Recommended Wager

I thought long and hard about the Over/Under in this contest, and then realized there’s a surer wager in a different set of markets.

Arguments for the Over (37) and the Under seem to make equal sense. Robert Griffin III is either still strutting around asking to play in a Run & Shoot system, or he’s learned from watching Jackson that a dual-threat QB can lead an explosive offense and stay healthy with solid running and forethought on option-keepers. Scrambling like mad in heavy traffic is what tends to injure dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL. RG III’s infamous career-threatening injury came on a passing play. Baltimore will run a clock-chewing offense and go max-protect on passes to make sure that doesn’t happen again, and the result is that the Ravens could score in every quarter and still not produce a lot of touchdowns-per-play without the 1st-string QB. As for Pittsburgh’s offense, the easier it is to run on Baltimore’s 2nd-string front-7 the more Tomlin will call for runs and further drain the clock. The O/U could be a nail-biter.

However, bookmakers were crazy to give Baltimore the original point-spread nod, and the spread should be closer to (-6) on Pittsburgh now. It’s going to be like a 3rd-week  preseason game in which 1 head coach goes mad and decides to win at all costs, while the opponent becomes less and less interested. RG III could have a heartening day and still lose the game as his supporting cast takes a seat in favor of rookies.

Take the Steelers to cover (-2).

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