Key matchup: Ravens passing game vs. Steelers pass defense

Mike Wilkening
AFC North Spin cycle: Ravens wobbling down the stretch

Much rides on Ravens QB Joe Flacco's play on Sunday night, writes PFW senior editor Mike Wilkening in Saturday's key matchup: 

Ravens passing game vs. Steelers pass defense

Many are going to focus on whether the Steelers' offense can score enough without QB Ben Roethlisberger to beat visiting Baltimore on Sunday night.

However, the Ravens' offense could be the key to this pivotal AFC North matchup. 

In fact, let's take this a step further. 

This game could boil down to whether Ravens QB Joe Flacco plays well. 

If Flacco plays something close to his best, Baltimore has a wonderful chance to improve to 8-2 and take a two-game lead on Pittsburgh. While the Steelers' defense is significantly better than the Ravens' defense in all facets, Flacco is capable of giving the Pittsburgh secondary some real problems if he's on top of his game. 

Look no further than the second meeting between the clubs in 2011, when Flacco's passing was the difference between the Ravens winning and losing in a 23-20 triumph. The Ravens' game-winning drive, punctuated by a Flacco-to-Torrey Smith TD throw with eight seconds remaining, was all on the strong right arm of Baltimore's starting quarterback. At the end of one of of the biggest games of the regular season, one that gave Baltimore the AFC North title, Flacco was the best player on the field when it mattered most. This was one of the shining moments of Flacco's career. 

If Flacco plays that well on Sunday, the Ravens will be tough to beat. The Steelers would need QB Byron Leftwich to step up his game, or their inconsistent running game to carry the day. 

But if Flacco struggles like he has in other road starts this season, the Steelers, even without Roethlisberger, are going to give the Ravens everything they can handle. 

Flacco's struggles on the road are well-documented, old news perhaps. Nevertheless, here are the numbers: In four road starts, Flacco has completed just 71-of-136 passes for 719 yards with three TDs and four interceptions. His average passing attempt has gained a mere 5.3 yards, compared to a robust 9.3 in four home starts. 

OK, the offense's success and failure Sunday can't all be pinned on Flacco. Surely the Ravens will need their pass-catching corps, led by WRs Anquan Boldin and Smith, to play well. And the Ravens' offensive line will need to be on its game, too. As for RB Ray Rice, we'll just say this: He has shown he can get his yards against Pittsburgh, whether as a runner or receiver, and we would expect the same Sunday night.

So again we circle back to Flacco. 

What an opportunity this is for him. 

Having a big game is not out of his scope by any means. He knows the Steelers very well. And he has to know this is a defense he can beat. He has done it before, after all. Moreover, Pittsburgh doesn't generate the pass-rush pressure it once did. Also, FS Troy Polamalu (calf) isn't going to be roaming all over the field. 

The Steelers are weakened. Can Flacco and Co. capitalize? 

These Baltimore-Pittsburgh games never lack for drama.