PREGAME STRETCH: Pittsburgh at Houston

Will Patriots loss linger or can Steelers finally focus against an inferior foe

THE GAME: PITTSBURGH STEELERS (11-3) VS. HOUSTON TEXANS (4-9)

NBC/NFL, MONDAY, 4:30 P.M., NRG STADIUM, 71,795.

Announcers: Mike Tirico and Kurt Warner. Although yinzers will be rejoicing the absence of Cris Collinsworth here, the tradeoff is a lot less insight into what’s happening on the football field. Warner is not good. That said, this game being on national television might be a saving grace for the Steelers here because it’s got all the trappings otherwise (losing record by opponent, likely lame duck coach, third-string QB) of a Tomlin Trap Game. But it never seems like those games happen on national TV. Information courtesy www.the506.com

Weather – or not: Indoors? NRG Stadium has a retractable roof, but it’s unclear to us whether the Texans ever play with it open. The stadium also features artificial turf, similar to the turf in Cincinnati, so it should not be too much of a culture shock for Pittsburgh. Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: Bill Vinovich. This is arguably the best white hat in the NFL, fronting the crew calling the fewest penalties in the league (average 10 per game for 86 yards). In other words, they are the guys who should have been working last week’s game while Tony Corrente and his goobers got stuck working Christmas in Houston. Just more NFL supidity. Of interest, the Texans are eighth in the league in pre-snap penalties with 37 of them. The Steelers are 20th with 30 pre-snap infractions. Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com, www.profootballreference.com and www.nflpenalties.com (it takes three, count ’em, three web sites to provide you with the best each week in officiating background information).

The last time: The Steelers trailed 13-0 before scoring 24 straight second-quarter points then hung on for a 30-23 win in October of 2014 at Heinz Field. The Texans featured Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback that day and got 100 yards rushing from Arian Foster and 100 receiving from DeAndre Hopkins. Pittsburgh leads the all-time series, 3-2, and is 1-1 at Houston.

The line: Pittsburgh -9.5/44

Smarts say: This opened a point higher but fell immediately to its current level and steadied. The over/under is relatively low for such a large spread and means something like 27-17 Steelers. A conspiracy theorist might point out the controversial replay reversal last week kept the Steelers-Patriots game as a push and also flipped the over back to under. Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 2nd passing, 21st rushing, 9th scoring (24.6 ppg), 4th sacks allowed (21)

HOU defense, 27th passing, 24th rushing, 32nd scoring (27.1 ppg), 20th sacks (31)

When the Texans have the ball:

HOU offense, 18th passing, 15th rushing, 4th scoring (22.8 ppg), 29th sacks allowed (45)

PIT defense, 5th passing, 9th rushing, 7th scoring (19.9 ppg), 3rd sacks (43)

Giveaway/Takeaway: HOU -9; PIT 0

So…: Despite the fact they’re down to their third-string quarterback, it’s interesting that defense is where the Texans are lagging statistically. Information courtesy www.nfl.com and www.espn.com.

Key matchups: Steelers four-man rush vs. Texans offensive line

Why: The Texans line is not good at protecting its quarterback, surrendering 45 sacks, which is 29th in the league, and seeing two starters lost to injury. That’s a very similar situation to what Pittsburgh faced entering Indianapolis a month ago and the result was zero pressure for three quarters before being forced to blitz (and finally fluster) Jacoby Brissett. So, a week after getting all kinds of pressure on Tom Brady with four rushers, this game just might answer the question about how focused the Steelers get for these “should win” games. As an aside, the Texans’ fourth-(now second)-string quarterback is a gentleman by the name of Taylor Heinicke, from that football factory Old Dominion (which won the Bahamas Bowl last year).

Player on the spot: Ben Roethisberger

Why: The Steelers terrible road losses to terrible teams have had one constant, their quarterback has been terrible. After a wobbly week where he made a terrible decision against New England, sounded after the game like he wasn’t sure what down that terrible decision occurred on then changed his tune the next day to say he was sorry about his terrible decision but it all would have worked out if he had only listened to his instinct to make an equally terrible decision, we are wondering how Ben Roethlisberger will perform on Christmas Day in a game that has all the trappings of those Ghosts of Trap Games Past but is missing one important thing, Antonio Brown.

Playoff picture:

+ The Steelers clinch a first-round bye with a win and Jacksonville loss or tie or a tie and a Jacksonville loss. Pittsburgh will know at kickoff Monday whether they’re playing to clinch a bye or just to maintain a one-game lead for the #2 seed since the Jaguars play the 49ers at 4:05 p.m. Sunday.

+ Obviously, a stumble by the Patriots down the stretch would open up the door for Pittsburgh to reclaim the top seed and the best chance for that stumble likely would come against playoff-contending Buffalo at 1 p.m. Sunday.

+ Jacksonville and Kansas City can clinch their respective divisions with wins Sunday.

Quick hits:

+ As details emerged about the mess the Steelers made of the last few plays in the waning seconds against New England last week, it became apparent Todd Haley bears a lot of responsibility for Pittsburgh not being ready with a third-down play at the end, which is just inexcusable. When your head coach says have a play ready for third down and you don’t have a play ready for third down? Yikes.

+ The other thing that became apparent if you read between the lines is that Ben Roethlisberger initially didn’t realize what down it was when he called for a fake spike. In the locker room after the game, Roethlisberger insisted he was trying to give himself “one more play” with the spike. But by Tuesday morning on his radio show, that story had changed to “trying to preserve the chance at a field goal to tie the game.”

+ We probably watched 20 different “process of the catch” rulings this week and we feel like we understood and agreed with just about every one of them, except for the Brandin Cooks touchdown that was upheld in Houston earlier this year. That was a bad call. That ball was not possessed. So, we don’t think the problem with the rule is that it’s necessarily hard to recognize or administrate. The problem is that it’s hard to recognize and administrate in real time. The standards being applied are contrary to the sensibilities of the eyes and brains of the people watching and playing the game. The rule doesn’t need changed because it’s negatively impacting the outcome of games, it needs to be changed because it’s negatively impacting the perception of people who watch and play the game. And if you’re negatively stimulated long enough, you’ll look for positive stimulation elsewhere.

+ There IS a rule that is much more impactful on the outcome of games, much more damaging to the integrity of those outcomes and much more arbitrarily applied and that is assessing pass interference as a spot foul. How many games have seen altered outcomes by the “process of the catch” rule over the past five years? Five? Seven? Each week, there are 5-7 games where the outcome is swung by a bad PI call that results in 30, 40 or 50 yards of gain and an undeserved score. Before the NFL even begins to think about whether it can improve PI accuracy via replay, it should reduce the impact those calls have on the game. The argument against such a change is that it will result in an increase in DBs taking intentional PI calls. It will. But the result of that play — 15 yards and a first down — is much closer to the punishment fitting the crime than setting someone up at the 1-yard-line after a 50-yard prayer and an iffy PI call (and yes, we’re looking at you Joe Flacco).

+ Annual reminder that the Pro Bowl has very little to do with the skill level or performance of the selected players (see Pouncey, Marukice) and that being selected to the All Pro team is the real honor.

The pick: As this week has unwound, we’ve developed a sense of impending doom about this game. Being as we’re the same people who predicted a 24-point margin of victory last week for the Patriots, that could mean nothing. Or it could mean that after five straight high-intensity, prime time games, Pittsburgh might walk into this one, 1,500 miles from home, on Christmas Day, against a terrible team, thinking they can win just by showing up. Usually that kind of game starts with offensive problems, but we think the defense will have a large say as to whether Pittsburgh is upset in this one. The Texans have scored 52 points in the past four weeks, 13 per game. Hold them to that Sunday and the Steelers will win no matter what… Pittsburgh 20-13.

Last week: Although we were way off in predicting a Patriots second-half blowout, we did get the winner but lost ATS with a push. That leaves us 9-5 straight up and 9-5 against the spread for the season.

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