STEELERS PREGAME STRETCH: Lightning strikes?

The red-hot Chargers and their red-hot QB look a lot like Sunday's home team, but better

WEEK 13

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (8-3) VS. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (7-3-1)

NBC, SUNDAY, 8:25 P.M., HEINZ FIELD, 68,400

Last week in a nutshell

Headline: HOLIDAY GIVING / The Steelers kicked off the season of giving by handing a victory to the Denver Broncos in a game where Pittsburgh overwhelmed the Broncos defense and marched up and down the Mile High turf, only to see four turnovers, two of them in the endzone, tilt the outcome to the hosts.

This week’s announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth and Michelle Tafoya. After a couple of games with Tony Romo, we don’t think there’s any question Collinsworth has reclaimed the title of “best analyst in pro football.” Romo seems to be trying too hard in his sophomore season, although he still shows moments of brilliance, while Collinsworth keeps chugging as the best-prepared, most insightful, most consistent color commentator working. Information courtesy www.the506.com.

Weather – or not: Cloudy, temperatures falling into the high 40’s. For a west coast team coming east in December, you could not have a much better scenario than a relatively warm night game that allows body clocks to function fairly normally (5:30 p.m. San Diego time). Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: Bill Vinovich. This is another crew on the low end of the penalty spectrum, averaging 11 assessed penalties per game for 90 yards against the league average of 13 for 111. We say “another crew” above because that was the reputation of last week’s crew, fronted by Tony Corrente, who lived up to that billing by calling 11 penalties for 84 yards. However, it was the one penalty that crew didn’t call (a gigantic, huge, blatant hold against Vince Williams at the point of attack on Phillip Lindsay’s 32-yard, second quarter run that set up Denver’s first score) that got a lot of attention after the game. We know it seems hypocritical to bitch about too many penalties every week then bitch about a penalty that wasn’t called, but this gets to the real issue with NFL officiating right now. Fans want calls made that blatantly and obviously affect the outcome of plays. When officials miss those, it makes all those illegal contact fouls being called away from the ball all the more infuriating. Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com, www.profootballreference.com and www.nflpenalties.com.

The last time: The Steelers have won four of the last five games in this series, including a wild and wacky 2015 game in San Diego that saw Valentino Blake take an INT back 70 yards for a score, Mike Vick hook up with Markus Wheaton on a 72-yard touchdown and Le’Veon Bell crash into the end zone as the clock showed :00 to give Pittsburgh a 24-20 victory. In the last Heinz Field meeting between the teams in December 2012, Philip Rivers threw for three TDs and the Chargers throttled the Steelers 34-24 in a game that was not nearly that close.

The line: Pittsburgh -3.5/52. Smarts say: Finally, a line that makes sense to us, two very similar teams, one with a decided home-field advantage. This is also the first over/under above 50 in nearly two months for a Pittsburgh game. Putting the line and O/U together and you get 27-24 Steelers. Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 2nd passing, 27th rushing, 6th scoring (28.7 ppg), 3rd sacks allowed (15)

LAC defense, 7th passing, 13th rushing, 4th scoring (19.9 ppg), 16th sacks (28)

When the Chargers have the ball:

LAC offense, 10th passing, 8th rushing, 7th scoring (27.9 ppg), 6th sacks allowed (20)

PIT defense, 6th passing, 9th rushing, 11th scoring (22.6 ppg), 1st sacks (39)

Giveaway/Takeaway: LAC +4 (10th in league); PIT -7 (26th in league)

Strength of schedule (games played so far): LAC .439; PIT .459

So…: Two teams that really look like mirror images of each other with two glaring exceptions. One runs the ball far better and wins the turnover battle regularly. If the Chargers do both those things Sunday, they’ll win again. Information courtesy www.nfl.comand www.espn.com.

On the spot:

Pittsburgh: James Conner

Why: Ruh. Roh. We noted last week that Conner was facing the first real psychological adversity in his pro football career (after a critical dropped pass in Jacksonville) and he responded… with another critical (and crazy) turnover at crunch time in Denver. Everyone in the Steelers organization did and said all the right things after the Jaguars game, and certainly you can expect the team to remain outwardly behind Conner this week, but… jobs, livelihoods and playoff positioning is on the line and Conner needs to get his groove back ASAP, on Sunday night before a national TV audience. No pressure or anything.

Los Angeles: Philip Rivers

Why: You know our position on Philip. He makes funny faces that the media loves and racks up huge stats that the media drools over but he hasn’t won squat that matters. And time is running out for him to do that. And he knows it. But if you’ve been around as long as we have, you know this could be a different story. It was Ben Roethlisberger who was supposed to go in the first four picks of the 2004 NFL Draft to either San Diego or New York and Philip Rivers, he of the same alma mater as Coach Bill Cowher, who would be sitting there at No. 10 for Pittsburgh to select as their quarterback of the future. Legend has it that Cowher was crestfallen when the Giants shocked the world by taking Rivers at No. 4 and trading him to San Diego for Eli Manning. In the Pittsburgh war room, talk turned to taking an offensive tackle, the legend goes, with the head coach and others not enamored with Roethlisberger. It’s said that Dan Rooney himself made a rare intervention to push the team toward destiny with Big Ben. We’ll never know. No one will say for sure. But one thing is clear: The Steelers got the best of the three-QB shuffle that went down that day:

> Rivers 53,467 yards, 368 TDs, 114-89 W/L, 4-5 in playoff games, 0-0 Super Bowls

> Eli 54,775 yards, 353 TDs, 114-111 W/L, 8-4 in playoff games, 2-0 in Super Bowls

> Ben 54,729 yards, 353 TDs, 142-66-1 W/L, 13-8 in playoff games, 2-1 in Super Bowls

Key matchups:

Steelers CB Joe Haden vs. Chargers WR Keenan Allen. Why: You might have heard about Philip Rivers completing his first 22 passes last week. It was in all the papers. Well, the rhythm that drives that kind of performance starts with Allen as much as it does Rivers. With 69 (nice) catches, Allen has 50 percent more than River’s next favorite target. If Haden can neutralize Allen and disrupt Rivers’ rhythm, San Diego’s offense will sputter rather than purr.

Quick hits:

+ We’ve known for weeks that the Steelers have a turnover problem, but it really hit home in Denver where some crazy, high-profile turnovers by the Steelers were set against the backdrop of a defense that looks like it might be forever before it actually creates a turnover. Now, that defense is tackling better and playing better, mind you, but it looks cautious, sometimes flat-footed and mostly passive. Pittsburgh is 26th in the league in turnover differential at -7. The six teams below them have a combined record of 16-39. Of the 13 teams with negative turnover equations, only the Steelers and Ravens have winning records. So, if Pittsburgh can fix that, all is well, right? Maybe… or maybe not. You have to ask yourself what is driving the turnover differential and consider it in big-picture terms. For example, that defense that is not creating any turnovers is also not giving up nearly as many big plays as it once did. Do you want to trade those two things? Ben Roethlisberger absolutely throws a lot of interceptions. Do you want him sliding into game manager mode in the twilight of his career? To our eyes, offensive fumbles are the one area where you can focus on improving (fortify ball security, Mike Tomlin might say) without having any unintended consequences. Ball security comes in a lot of different guises. In the case of Xavier Grimble, switching the ball into his outside hand, something he’s been taught to do since he was a kid, might have made a difference. In James Conner’s case, it might be focus. In other cases, it could be something technical in terms of where and how players are holding the football. After taking all that into consideration, you have to remember the biggest factor in turnovers is still luck.

+ After leading the team in receiving yards in the preseason, James Washington’s rookie campaign at wide receiver has been a bust with just eight receptions for just 77 yards and a single TD. He’s seemed timid and out of sync with Ben Roethlisberger and has had some high-profile drops, none moreso than his bizarre “crash drop” in Denver when he violently went to the ground trying to catch a ball he could have easily run under in stride for a touchdown. It’s even more bizarre when you consider Washington brought a reputation for “combat catches” out of Oklahoma State and demonstrated a knack for them in the preseason. That would seem to indicate his issues involve confidence and developing a relationship with Ben Roethlisberger, who threw exactly zero of those preseason passes Washington caught.

+ The Steelers loss in Denver dropped them from the No. 2 slot in the AFC to No. 4 and probably snuffed out any hopes of a first-round bye. So, now the focus shifts toward who might be Pittsburgh’s first-round opponent. This much is easy, if the Steelers finish in the fourth spot, their first round game almost certainly will be a rematch with the Chargers. It’s more murky if PIT gets the No. 3 spot, but the likely outcome right now would be a third game with the Baltimore Ravens, possibly/likely with Lamar Jackson at quarterback. Looking at the remaining schedules of the top four AFC teams right now and we think the biggest potential shifts are between Pittsburgh and Houston for the #3 and #4 spots, as those two teams have the toughest remaining schedules. We have Houston winning three of its last five to finish 11-5, but that could become 10-6 very easily. We have Pittsburgh winning three of its last five (W-L-W-L-W) to finish a half game back, at 10-5-1, but that could easily be 9-6-1. So, if you’d prefer a rematch with the Chargers, you’re hoping for Texans wins. If you think the Ravens are more Pittsburgh’s speed, you’re rooting against Houston.

KC (10-1): @OAK, BAL, LAC, @SEA, OAK. Projected finish 14-2

NE (8-3): MIN, @MIA, @PIT, BUF, NYJ. Projected finish 12-4

HOU (8-3): CLE, IND, @NYJ, @PHI, JAX. Projected finish 11-5

PIT (7-3-1): LAC, @OAK, NE, @NO, CIN. Projected finish 10-5-1

The pick: A lot of people think Pittsburgh has a big edge in this game because Chargers’ do-it-all back Melvin Gordon won’t play due to a knee injury. We beg to differ as we think Gordon’s backup, Austin Ekeler, will do a great impression while the Steelers are focusing on stopping LA’s passing game. We don’t look for a high-scoring game, but we do think a late Ekeler touchdown will be the difference….Chargers 11-10.

Note: Even though we’re picking the Steelers to go 3-2 in their last five games, we will pick them to lose each week in this spot.

Last week: We were very right about Phillip Lindsay getting the better of James Conner in the running game last week and the Broncos covering and winning, leaving us 3-7-1 straight up and 4-7 against the spread. Also, we’re not sure why many Steelers fans and media members got so up in arms about the run/pass balance in Pittsburgh’s offense when they were clearly using short, safe passes as de facto rushes, which allowed Conner to help frequently with Von Miller, in case you didn’t notice. If you added the number of Steelers pass plays that went for less than five yards gain to the number of rushes, you’d be very close to 50-50 balance.

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