- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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PITTSBURGH -- Early in the season, Steelers linebacker Larry Foote came to a conclusion about the AFC. He felt the two best teams were the Steelers and Ravens.
"When you want to have a good team, you have to start with defense,'' Foote said. "I knew all year long we were the best two teams in the AFC, in my opinion. When you have a good defense like that, you can be in any game. No doubt, teams want to assimilate teams like Pittsburgh and Baltimore for just the way they play. You can't coach what we got.''
Steelers-Ravens games are usually low-scoring and physical. Although the Steelers won the first two, they know it won't be easy to get the third when the rivals meet in the AFC Championship Game.
"It's hard to beat a team three times in a row in a season,'' Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor lamented.
The personality of each team revolves around its defense. Ray Lewis has been the motivation for the tough defensive play of his Ravens teammates for more than a decade. The Steelers are led by experienced leaders such as James Farrior, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu, who all do more hitting than talking.
Expect a collision at Heinz Field on Sunday.
"We hate them on the field, there ain't no doubt about that,'' Foote said. "But we give them the ultimate respect. They take us to the wire in each [game].''
Here are the biggest questions going into the AFC Championship Game:
1. Which team has more on the line?
Clearly the Steelers have more to prove, and that pressure goes to head coach Mike Tomlin. Under Bill Cowher, the Steelers lost four AFC title games in Pittsburgh. The Steelers' 35-24 victory over the Chargers on Sunday was huge because it was Tomlin's first playoff win. Watch out -- the confidence coming from that win could propel the Steelers to the Super Bowl. The Steelers look like a team peaking at the right time: They are healthy, they've got their running game going and their third quarter against the Chargers, in which the Steelers held the ball for all but 17 seconds, was impressive.
2. What are the injuries heading into the AFC title game?
The Ravens have a long list, but everyone should play except linebacker Antwan Barnes, who missed Saturday's victory over the Titans with a chest injury. The biggest question mark is linebacker Terrell Suggs, who injured his shoulder Saturday and didn't finish the Titans game. Suggs said after the game that he would play next week regardless of the extent of the injury, so don't count him out. The likely scenario is Suggs will dress and at least play on passing downs. The Ravens will have around 10 players on their injury report this week. Cornerback Samari Rolle suffered a minor groin injury Saturday, but he expects to play in Pittsburgh. He was questionable all last week because of a thigh injury. Safety Jim Leonhard suffered a minor concussion, but the team doesn't think he will miss much practice this week. Tight end Todd Heap took a hit to the ribs and was already playing with a sore back. Running back Le'Ron McClain tweaked an ankle. Among the other Ravens who will be listed on the injury report are safety Ed Reed (knee), defensive tackle Justin Bannan (foot), linebacker Jarret Johnson (calf), kicker Matt Stover (ankle) and cornerback Fabian Washington (neck).
The Steelers couldn't be healthier. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger showed no ill effects from the concussion he suffered in Week 17. As he does in normal weeks, wide receiver Hines Ward will probably miss Wednesday's practice to rest. Pittsburgh has no other injury issues. The Steelers are as healthy as they've been all season.
3. How will weather affect the AFC title game?
Because of the late start, the temperature will probably dip into the low 20s as the game progresses. There is a threat of snow, but not as big a threat as there was for the game against the Chargers. Heinz Field held up well Sunday, and though the field was a little moist, there didn't seem to be many footing problems. Neither quarterback -- Roethlisberger or Joe Flacco of the Ravens -- should be affected by the conditions. Roethlisberger was able to move in the pocket without any problems against the Chargers.
4. Will Flacco wilt under the pressure of his first championship game?
Don't count on it. The guy has been unflappable all season. In Baltimore's 23-20 overtime loss at Pittsburgh in Week 4, Flacco didn't get rattled despite being sacked five times and pressured throughout the game. He executed a 76-yard, nine-play touchdown drive in the fourth quarter that sent the game into overtime.
"He ain't no rookie no more,'' Foote said. "He's been outstanding. He gets better and better each week. What impresses me is his deep ball along with the relationship that he has with his receivers.''
5. Who could be the difference-maker?
Steelers halfback Willie Parker, who burned the Chargers for 146 yards on 27 carries Sunday. Parker has been battling knee and other injuries all season, but he says he's 100 percent and he looked it Sunday. In a rare move, Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians opened the game with three straight Parker runs. Two possessions later, he opened a drive with four straight runs.
"I wanted to run right at them,'' Parker said, and eventually the Steelers' lead back wore down the Chargers' defense with hard runs inside the tackles. Some of Parker's worst days have come against the Ravens, however. In six career games against Baltimore, Parker has only 262 yards and averaged 2.8 yards per carry. He's been stuffed behind the line of scrimmage 10 times in 92 attempts. "They're stingy,'' he said of the Ravens' defense.
6. Which team holds the edge in the series?
The Steelers, thanks to their tough defense and Roethlisberger's ability to produce late scoring drives, have taken back the edge in a very physical, hard-fought rivalry. The Steelers have won three of the past four meetings, including the 23-20 overtime win in Week 4 and the 13-9 win at Baltimore in Week 15. While Roethlisberger was developing in 2006, the Ravens' defense gave Baltimore the edge -- the Ravens had a three-game winning streak against the Steelers that included a two-game sweep in 2006 and a win in Pittsburgh in 2005. The Ravens gave Roethlisberger a pounding in those 2006 games, particularly in the game in Baltimore.
7. What type of passing offense will each team try to execute?
Expect each team to try between four and five long passes. Roethlisberger caught the Chargers in a lot of man coverage Sunday and threw the ball deep when he did. Flacco loves to throw deep, and even though he's a rookie, he did better than Roethlisberger on deep passes during the regular season, completing 15 passes that traveled at least 21 yards in the air to Roethlisberger's 11. Flacco's quarterback rating on passes of 21 yards or longer was 90.4 and he was among the league leaders with six long touchdown passes.
8. Which Ravens receiver worries the Steelers' secondary?
Taylor says it's the smooth, difficult-to-cover Derrick Mason. Mason had eight catches for 107 yards in the Week 15 meeting, and he was playing with a dislocated shoulder.
9. Has the league forgotten about the comments Suggs made regarding bounties after the first Steelers-Ravens game?
No. The league hasn't forgotten, so don't be surprised to see a lot of penalty flags. There were 20 penalties in the Ravens-Titans game. Referee Gene Steratore called 13 penalties in the first Ravens-Steelers meeting, and referee Walt Coleman called 12 penalties in the second meeting, many of which were minor. With a Super Bowl berth on the line, this game should have the most flags of the three.
10. Which team is going to the Super Bowl?
You have to put your money on the Steelers. Although it's hard to beat a division rival three teams, the Steelers have a defense that can stop the run and pressure Flacco into mistakes. Plus, the Steelers won't be surprised by anything the Ravens try. The Steelers are peaking at the right time -- they are healthy, Parker is running well and Roethlisberger couldn't have been any sharper against the Chargers.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
1dEric D. Williams