Saturday, Apr 21, 2018
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At this point, quarterback is the difference

Sometimes, pro football is poetry. Think of the "Greatest Show on Turf" in St. Louis. Think Joe Montana-to-Dwight Clark. But sometimes, pro football is mayhem and chaos, bones crunching and sweat turning into icicles.

Today's AFC championship game between Pittsburgh and Baltimore will be the latter. Yards will come at a premium, points will be vigorously discouraged. It won't be pretty. The winner might be unbowed but will nonetheless be bloodied.

These are the best defenses in the NFL. The Steelers allowed 237 yards and less than 14 points per game during the regular season. The Ravens gave up 261 yards and 15.2 points. Pittsburgh won the two previous meetings, 23-20 in overtime and 13-9.

This one should not be for the faint of heart or the queasy. Parental discretion is advised.

Still, for all the talk about defense and running games and special teams and kicking for field position, this should, like most playoff games, come down to quarterbacking.

And Ben Roethlisberger gives the Steelers a pronounced advantage.

Joe Flacco of the Ravens is one win away from being the first rookie quarterback to lead a team to the Super Bowl, and he has had a remarkably efficient season. Some critics claim the Ravens have won despite the rookie, but that's far from fair considering his unflappable demeanor and his ability to minimize mistakes.

Flacco, like Roethlisberger earlier in his career, recognizes he doesn't necessarily have to win games, but he must avoid losing them.

A conference championship game is played at a different level, though. At some point, a quarterback has to be the difference.

It is what Roethlisberger does as well as anybody. He rarely gets style points, he rarely wins beauty contests. But he stands up to pressure, keeps plays alive and somehow gets it done.

Big Ben is 58-22 as an NFL starter, including 7-2 in the playoffs. If he can keep the ball headed towards his fine stable of receivers and out of the hands of Baltimore safety Ed Reed, Roethlisberger should play in his second Super Bowl in four years.

The Ravens' defense is certainly stout behind Reed, linebacker Ray Lewis and others but could be shorthanded today. Top corner Samari Rolle is probably out (thigh), and end/linebacker Terrell Suggs (shoulder) will be a game-time decision.

Pittsburgh's defense is deeper and better. The Steelers' running game is better with a healthy Willie Parker. Their receivers are better. Roethlisberger is better.

Pittsburgh 17, Baltimore 9.

The NFC championship game also will be a tale of quarterbacks. Arizona's Kurt Warner is playing at a level reminiscent of his "Greatest Show on Turf" days, and it will be interesting to see how Philadelphia, which typically does not like to double team receivers, attempts to handle Cardinal star Larry Fitzgerald.

Then there is the rejuvenated Donovan McNabb, who was benched midway through a drubbing at the hands of the Ravens in November, but has since produced 11 touchdowns and just four interceptions in a 6-1 stretch that has seen a far more balanced Philly offense.

The Cardinals won't be able to run on the Eagles as productively as they did in their first two playoff games, but the Arizona defense has been stopping the run and forcing turnovers.

An all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl?

Sorry. If the Cards can avoid a slow start that evokes memories of an earlier 48-20 loss in Philly, Arizona should win this time, 27-23.

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