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NFL forecast: Big Ben, Ravens ready for AFC North rumble

By Matt Youmans  (VSiN senior editor) 

December 10, 2017 07:40 AM
Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers, riding a seven-game win streak, are 5-point home favorites over Baltimore. The record in the AFC North rivalry is 11-11 since 2008.
© USA Today Sports Images

It’s a black-and-purple rivalry that is not for the weak and feeble. Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers dish out toughness and take it, too.

Baltimore and Pittsburgh have collided 22 times since 2008, when coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco arrived for the Ravens. The record in the series is 11-11, with most of the games decided in the final two minutes or by a field goal.

The nastiness of the Cincinnati-Pittsburgh rivalry, a one-sided series in favor of the Steelers, was described Monday night by Roethlisberger as “AFC North football.” That was the ugly side of it. The best of it will be on display Sunday night.

The Steelers (10-2) are riding a seven-game win streak and can clinch the division with a win. The Ravens (7-5) have won four of their past five in a push for a wild-card spot. As usual, the stakes are high.

Despite the perception that Pittsburgh is much more explosive offensively, the Steelers have scored only one more point than Baltimore this season (281 to 280), and the Ravens own the better point differential (plus-73 to plus-68) through 12 games.

Baltimore ranks No. 3 in the NFL in scoring defense (17.3 points per game), and Pittsburgh ranks No. 5 (17.8). The biggest advantage for the Steelers is Roethlisberger, who has 22 touchdown passes and two elite weapons — running back Le’Veon Bell and wideout Antonio Brown — for support.

Flacco has 11 touchdown passes, and an elite kicker in Justin Tucker. But Flacco is off his finest game of the season, passing for 269 yards and two touchdowns in a 44-20 victory over Detroit, and usually saves his best for the Steelers.

Pittsburgh is in a tough spot after a brutally physical game against the Bengals — a 23-20 win in which the Steelers trailed 17-0 — and with a visit from New England on deck.

The Ravens are the play as 5-point road underdogs, though the line has dipped to 4½ at most books. Expect a field goal to decide it. This is AFC North football, after all.

Four more guesses for Week 14 (home team in CAPS):

* Redskins (plus-6) over CHARGERS: Changes are on the way in Washington, where Jay Gruden remains on the coaching hot seat and Kirk Cousins figures to be the starting quarterback elsewhere next season. But, for now, Gruden’s team still has slim playoff hopes. Cousins and the Redskins are better as road ‘dogs, posting a 7-3 ATS record in their past 10 in that role. The Chargers have won three in a row in Los Angeles, but Cleveland, Buffalo and Denver brought in completely inept offenses, and beating Cousins will be a bigger challenge.

* BRONCOS (plus-1) over Jets: A week after being embarrassed, Denver should give a great effort, especially if coach Vance Joseph has any motivational skills. Joseph has been saddled with three stooges as quarterbacks, but Trevor Siemian is the best of the bunch. It’s no secret the Broncos are 0-8 straight up and ATS since early October. It’s time for the ugly streak to end. Josh McCown has been money as a home ‘dog, but the road favorite role does not suit the Jets.

* Eagles (plus-1) over RAMS: Carson Wentz and the Eagles (10-2, 9-3 ATS) went on a two-month tear before crash landing in a 24-10 loss at Seattle. Wentz passed for 348 yards, but he threw an interception, lost a fumble at the goal line and was sacked three times. The top storyline is about Wentz and Jared Goff of the Rams, the top two picks in the 2016 draft. Goff went No. 1, but it’s obvious Wentz is better. Instead of jockeying for draft positions, Philadelphia (plus-146) and Los Angeles (plus-139) are now the league’s top two teams in point differential. The Eagles were road favorites in a tougher spot in Seattle. Wentz, who has passed for 29 touchdowns, should be a good bet to bounce back.

* GIANTS (plus-3½) over Cowboys: A week after quarterback Eli Manning was controversially benched, Ben McAdoo has been dumped, and the latest news is being celebrated in New York. This is a classic case of a coaching change giving a team a shot in the arm, and this coaching change is coupled with a popular quarterback switch back to Manning. The Dallas defense ranks 21st against the pass, which is good news for Manning. The bad news is Sean Lee, one of the league’s five most valuable linebackers, is returning for the Cowboys. Prior to routing Washington, when the Redskins were wrecked by self-inflicted wounds, Dallas had been outscored 92-22 during a three-game losing skid. The Giants are in a hot emotional spot with Eli back in the saddle.

Last week: 5-0 against the spread

Season: 35-26-4

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