PREGAME STRETCH: Steelers at Bills

Natz, Simms, Pete Morelli and a lurking snowstorm, oh my...

Blogger’s note: We’re traveling to New Orleans for vacation this weekend so this pregame blog is abbreviated and there probably won’t be a game blog this week. There will be plenty of witty, incisive tweets, though, @15MinutesBlog. (Not from me, mind you, but I’ll retweet some witty, incisive ones.)

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) at Buffalo Bills (6-6) at Ralph Wilson Stadium, er, New Era Field, capacity 71,870; Sunday at 1 p.m., CBS

Announcers: Jeem Nantz and Pheel Simms. Annoyance factor: Off the charts. What kind of cruel joke is this? Nantz and Simms don’t do 1 p.m. games… in Buffalo… featuring fringe playoff teams. Information courtesy www.the506.com.

Weather – or not?: Snow, mid 30’s. December weather in Buffalo, when Lake Erie is still completely thawed, is always a crapshoot and this weekend will be no different. As we noted last week (Last week! Take that, Mary Ours!), the first real blast of Arctic air is setting up a big-snow weekend for the Great Lakes, but the exact direction of the wind makes all the difference and right now it looks like there could be 12 inches difference in snowfall in as little as 20 miles difference in geography. Information courtesy www.weather.com.

How they rank: Buffalo offense: 32nd passing, 1st rushing, 9th ppg; Pittsburgh defense: 19th passing, 6th rushing, 7th ppg; Pittsburgh offense: 8th passing, 18th rushing, 12th ppg; Buffalo defense: 8th passing, 26th rushing, 17th ppg; Sacks: Buffalo 3rd (33); Pittsburgh 14th (26); Sacks allowed: Buffalo 29th (35), Pittsburgh 2nd (16). Comment: The Bills are a real puzzle: Run the ball great, can’t defend the run; sack the quarterback, can’t protect their own, etc. How about the Steelers improving again in rushing defense? Somehow, they’ve gotten noticeably and statistically better without Cam Heyward.

Referee: Ol’ Blind Pete Morelli. Competence factor: What’s competence? If this turns out to be a snow game, that would be great because Ol’ Blind Pete has a great, floppy-eared white hat and he looks really silly in it. Beyond that, we wouldn’t expect much amusement as Ol’ Blind Pete should have retired about five years ago and continues to muck up games, and especially replay challenges, weekly. The good news is that this crew is only calling about 12 penalties per game for 102 yards, but remember it’s not quantity but quality (or lack thereof) that really matters.  Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com and www.profootballreference.com.

The line: Steelers -1.5. Smarts say: What a tough line. Rex Ryan teams always play Steelers tough. Weather is unpredictable. This is the kind of game where you see how good Vegas really is. The over/under of 47 means something like Pittsburgh 25-23. Information courtesy www.dannysheridan.com and www.pregame.com.

The last time: NFL games don’t get much worse than the one where the 2-6 Steelers beat the 3-6 Bills, 23-10, in November of 2013 at Heinz Field. Good ol’ E.J. Manuel was under center for Buffalo that day while good ol’ Jericho Cotchery caught a TD pass for Pittsburgh in an all-time snoozer.

Key matchup: Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger vs. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger. So much talent, scheme and strategy potentially in play Sunday and (if the weather’s decent) it comes down to this: If Pittsburgh’s quarterback plays reasonably well and does not turn over the football, his team will win. It’s that simple and there’s no sense in pretending otherwise. If the Steelers are to make the postseason and have any shot at advancing deep, their quarterback must win them THIS game (since he did not do that at Miami earlier this year) .

Quick hits:

+ In case you had any doubts, Mike Tomlin made it clear this week at his press conference that he just doesn’t get it when it comes to using analytics in his job. In response to a question about fourth down decisions, Tomlin snapped, “We don’t use analytics. We play to win.” A more short-sighted, ultimately backward answer he’s never given. Using analytics doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily win or lose any more games than not using analytics. It’s all about HOW they’re used. They are a coaching tool, the same way leadership, discipline and preparations are coaching tools. To discount using them out of hand only ensures you’re working with less tools and ultimately might not be as good as you could be. Silly. We’ve said here before that we think Tomlin’s total disregard for the statistical side of football for his gut instinct costs the Steelers one win per regular season.

+ Despite all those computer simulations that give Pittsburgh a better chance of winning the AFC North than Baltimore, it sure looks to us the Ravens are in the driver’s seat on any potential tiebreaker, making this Monday’s Baltimore-New England game most important for Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes because we just can’t imagine the Steelers will go 4-0 down the stretch and if they go 3-1, they’ll need the Ravens to go 2-2.

The pick:… This game is so obviously a trap game for the Steelers that we’re wondering if it’s too obvious in that regard. Ben Roethlisberger has been terrible on the road for the most part, the weather forecast is miserable, the Bills run the ball better than anyone in the league and the Steelers suddenly good defense is due to return to Earth. All signs point to us picking the Bills to win this game so we’ll probably hate ourselves afterward, but… Steelers 24-23.

Last week: Like the Steelers playoff chances, things are looking up for us in the prognostication department with another double win moving us to 8-4 straight up and 7-5 against the spread.

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