Pittsburgh Steelers @ Baltimore Ravens
Start-time: Friday, 01:30
TV: Live on SS1
It's been over a year now since the Baltimore Ravens made it to Disneyland and back in a fairytale Super Bowl XLVII. But now the fantasy is fading on their championship credentials. Crucial defensive playmakers (Ray Lewis and Ed Reed) are now long since departed, while some misfiring offensive weapons are failing to add any more power to Joe Flacco's throwing elbow.
And lately, it's getting even worse. The Ravens discharged star running back Ray Rice on Monday after damning footage of him assaulting his wife in an elevator was released on line. It's shocking stuff and the organisation were swift to act and distance themselves from controversy. As coach, John Harbaugh confirmed with textbook understatement: "seeing that, well, it's changed things."
So not only have the Ravens lost much of their offensive flair, but any warm and fuzzy locker-room atmosphere will also have followed Rice out the door. One might opine that this week's early game in the perfect place to rebuild their shattered solidarity - a primetime match-up against their divisional rivals should refocus the mind - yet the suspicion persists that this is the time for the Pittsburgh Steelers to hit them where it hurts: at home.
Cincinnati overturned the Ravens at M&T Bank last week, despite doing their best to throw it away in the second half. The Bengals had led by 15 at the half, but a combination of poor red-zone conversion (as evidenced by five field goals) meant they couldn't kick clear. Sensing blood, Flacco (35 of 62 throws for 345 yards and one pick) rallied his troops somewhat, before Cincinnati wideout AJ Green ultimately juggled his side out of an embarrassing post-match press conference.
While Baltimore's towering quarterback is a proven winner, authentic enough to stave off any Week One detractors, the feeling remains that Flacco will forever remain a wafer shy of elite-QB status. Completion rates of 54% don't cut it. And with a three-time Pro Bowler now absent from his backfield, stand-in RB Bernard Pierce looks ill-equipped to fill the void with just 14 yards off six carries.
Big Roethlisberger (365 yards on Sunday), on the other hand, has more potent offensive options at his beck and call. Chief amongst those at the weekend was second-season RB Le'Veon Bell with almost 200 yards rushing and receiving. With numbers like that, this already reeks of a breakout year for the 22-year-old.
Bell's versatility marks him out as Roethlisberger's go-to guy on key downs, where his shorter crossing routes and consistent post-catch yards offer another avenue to those receiving lanes marshalled by proficient receivers like Markus Wheaton and Antonio Brown. Indeed, Bell's performance and the ensuing coverage he commanded was ultimately the reason for freeing up Wheaton for some solid completions in the final quarter.
In short, Mike Tomlin's team appear a re-emerging force this term. Big Ben is back ticking on time after an injury-free 2013 campaign (where he took every snap under center) and while he's still not much quicker than an oil tanker outside the pocket, he's even better at absorbing the hits.
In fact, it's the defense which could be the weak link. Their ageing vets seem an inch or two short of pace (they even gave storied safety Troy Polamalu the captain's band to inspire "an extra yard") while some green youngsters need to wake up to the shape-shifting formations with which Cleveland confounded them in the third quarter.
When all's said and done, though, homefield advantage shouldn't be enough to protect the Ravens (they're the 1.84/5 favourites to back). The Steelers have outscored them 107-70 in their past four games and their form can continue its upswing to widen that gap. Play it safe by all means with a handy field-goal head-start, but this might not be as close as the Vegas handicap line suggests.
The AFC North is always a tight, bruising division, yet this year I confidently expect the Steel City to provide the cutting edge.
Back Pittsburgh Steelers (+3) to win on the Match Points Spread @ 1.84/5 or better
Back Pittsburgh Steelers (+0.5) to win on the First Half Points Spread @ 2.01/1 or better
Back Pittsburgh Steelers to win on the Moneyline @ 2.26/5 or better
Back Pittsburgh Steelers to win Half Time / Full Time @ 3.185/40 or better
Back L. Bell to score First Touchdown 9.08/1 or better