How the Ravens got here: Rookie QB Joe Flacco remained unflappable and the team's dominant defense continued its ball-hawking ways, forcing four rare Chad Pennington interceptions in a 27-9 wild-card win at Miami. Then, against the top-seeded Titans, the Ravens gave up 391 yards, bending but not breaking in an upset, thanks to Matt Stover's 43-yard field goal in the final minute of Saturday's 13-10 victory.
How the Steelers got here: They won their second consecutive AFC North title on the backs of their top-ranked defense and five fourth-quarter comebacks by QB Ben Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh finished 12-4 and secured a first-round bye before beating the Chargers 35-24 Sunday in the division round.
HISTORY: Steelers won both matchups this season (23-20 on Sept. 29 and 13-9 on Dec. 14 to clinch the division title).
X Factor: Ravens K Matt Stover, the third-most accurate kicker in NFL history, can prove to be clutch in final minutes (just ask the Titans); Pittsburgh has the best home record since the AFL-NFL merger (1970).
Ravens' key matchup: Joe Flacco hasn't been counted on to win a game by himself, and he has struggled against the Steelers (46 percent completion rate, seven sacks). So the Ravens will need to run the ball effectively to balance it out. Problem is, Pittsburgh's top-ranked defensive unit was the AFC's best against the run (80.2 yards per game). Expect RBs Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain, if healthy, to get a decent load and keep the Steelers pass rushers from feasting on Flacco.
Steelers key matchup: Keeping QB Ben Roethlisberger on his feet. "Big Ben" tends to hold onto the ball too long (sacked 139 times in past three seasons) and has struggled in the Steelers losses (10 interceptions, three touchdowns), which should be music to the ears of the ball-hawking Ravens defense. But Baltimore's defense is susceptible if you spread it out and hit it with short, quickly timed passing routes (see: Hines Ward). Give Roethlisberger time, and the Steelers have a good shot.
Ravens will get to Tampa if: Joe Flacco continues to play like a veteran, and their defense continues to turn turnovers into short-field opportunities for their offense.
Steelers will get to Tampa if: Ben Roethlisberger can stay upright, and the Steelers defense can make Flacco finally look like a rookie.
Joe Smith, Times staff writer