#STEELERS PREGAME STRETCH: Weapons race

A classic clash: Saints' many weapons vs. Steelers fresh legs

WEEK 16

PITTSBURGH STEELERS (8-5-1) VS. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (12-2)

CBS, SUNDAY, 4:25 P.M., MERCEDES BENZ SUPERDOME, 74,295

Last week in a nutshell

Headline: END GAME / Tom Brady marched the New England Patriots down the frozen, crusty Heinz Field sod in the fourth quarter toward a near-certain go-ahead score – not just once, but twice – as he’d done so many times before. But this time – no, these TIMES – the Steelers much-maligned defense, which hasn’t had many fourth-quarter answers this season, let alone answers for Tom Brady, wrote a different ending. First, there was Joe Haden’s acrobatic interception inside the Steelers 5 to end Drive No. 1. Then there was the surge of Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt in Brady’s face on the Patriots final play, causing a wild-high throw that veteran Morgan Burnett wisely knocked to the ground, to end Drive No. 2 and the game, keeping Pittsburgh’s precarious AFC North lead intact, and perhaps just as importantly if this season is going to end with a Super Bowl in the Steel City, knocking the Patriots into the Wild Card round of the upcoming playoffs.

This week’s announcers: Jim Nantz and Tony Romo. Nantz was hilarious last week, barely able to conceal his horror at the outcome at Heinz Field. At one point, just like a petulant fan on Twitter, he groaned about a flag being thrown by an official 40 yards from the play. In his postgame wrapup, he lamented the holding call on New England that helped short circuit their last gasp drive. Good times. Speaking of good, Romo was phenomenal last week. There are times when his steam-of-consciousness, getting inside the quarterback’s head analysis doesn’t fit the game he’s analyzing, but last week was not one of those times. Information courtesy www.the506.com.

Weather – or not: Mostly indoors and pleasant. Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: Craig Wrolstad. This overofficious crew had Steelers-Ravens II this year, assessing 103 penalty yards on the Steelers on just eight calls (you do the math). Three of those were defensive pass interference calls (#RavensBestPlay) for a total of 68 yards. For the year, this crew averages 13 penalties and 121 penalty yards assessed per game against league averages of 14 and 116. Speaking of 14, in each of the past two games, Pittsburgh’s opponent has had 14 penalties assessed against it. That’s an officiating trend we can get behind. Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com, www.profootballreference.com and www.nflpenalties.com.

The last time: Drew Brees threw five touchdown passes to five different receivers as the Saints dusted the Steelers, 35-32, at Heinz Field in November of 2014 in a game that was not nearly as close as the final score indicates (NO led 35-16 with 10 minutes left). On the receiving end of the Brees scoring throws were Benjamin Watson, Erik Lorig (Remember him? Me neither), Nick Toon (Remember him?), Kenny Stills and Marques Colston. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 435 yards in the game but had two costly interceptions before two late TD passes. In three games against Pittsburgh in a Saints uniform, Brees has thrown for 960 yards, 8 TDs and a single interception.

The line: New Orelans -5.5 /53.5. Smarts say: This opened as -7 and a lot of money jumped all over the Steelers. The same thing happened with the O/U, which opened at 57 and dropped quickly, which we think means some amount of respect for the Steelers defense as the Saints have scored 48, 21, 43, 45, 48 and 31 points at home this season. The spread and O/U would come together for something like 30-24 Saints. Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 3rd passing, 30th rushing, 5th scoring (27.4 ppg), 4th sacks allowed (20)

NO defense, 28th passing, 13th rushing, 7th scoring (20.9 ppg), 4th sacks (45)

When the Saints have the ball:

NO offense, 11th passing, 8th rushing, 2nd scoring (32.8 ppg), 1st sacks allowed (16)

PIT defense, 13th passing, 9th rushing, 15th scoring (22.6 ppg), 2nd sacks (46)

Takeaway/Giveaway: NO 22/14 +8 (8th in league); PIT 14/23 -9 (28th in league)

Strength of schedule (games played so far): NO .472; PIT .480

So…: Those stats show two teams very similar in philosophy with one of them (the Saints) being better at execution. Obviously, whether the Steelers cans top the Saints running game and whether the Saints can stop the Steelers passing game will be major story lines. And we’d be remiss if we didn’t remote the Steelers won a huge game last week while AGAIN losing the turnover battle. It makes you wonder what will happen when they do. Maybe this week? Information courtesy www.nfl.comand www.espn.com.

On the spot:

Pittsburgh: Chris Boswell

Why: We were 100 percent certain Chris Boswell’s Steelers career was over after he missed that chip shot field goal in the third quarter last week. And we felt terrible for him sitting there on the bench by himself, realizing that not only had he let his team down again, but lost his job and millions of dollars. Think about how YOU would react to that. In the wake of that scene, we could not believe Mike Tomlin let Boswell kick again and were even more shocked that he absolutely drilled the critical 48-yarder (as he had done so many times last year) in the fourth quarter. Tomlin, who knows Boswell the man and Boswell the kicker better than any of us do, believed in both Boswells and now we have no choice but to do the same. We do think getting out of Heinz Field and kicking in perfect indoor conditions could help keep him on track. And we were thrilled to hear he deleted his Twitter account the day after the Patriots game. Any professional athlete who keeps their Twitter is either an A-level narcissist (not that there’s anything wrong with that) or an A-level masochist. It sounds like Boswell is neither and now he can focus on being an A-level kicker again.

New Orleans: No one, really

Why: The Saints have already locked up the NFC South crown. They lock up home field advantage throughout the playoffs with one more win and they have the hapless looking Panthers (likely minus Cam Newton) at home next week. It would be nice to beat the Steelers but it’s not mandatory. The sun will come up tomorrow if they lose, Drew Brees will still be an MVP candidate, they’ll still be living in one of the greatest cities in the world, life is pretty good right now for the Saints.

Key matchups:

Saints RB Alvin Kamara vs. Steelers LBs/hybrids. Why: Kamara is the kind of player who has caused the Steelers fits the last few years – 860 yards rushing, 627 yards receiving, pick you poison. If you go with the nickel package to provide another run defender, the Saints pass and get Kamara matchup up with a LB, say, Vince Williams. If you go with the dime package to get a more agile player covering Kamara on passing routes, the Saints run and undersized defenders now have to deal with one of the best OLs in football and tackling Kamara one on one. Pittsburgh figured out how to stop Tom Brady last week. Maybe they can figure out how to defense a double-threat RB this week.

Playoff picture:

+ While the Steelers might have saved their season and buoyed their playoff hopes with their big win last Sunday, there’s still plenty of work to do to actually get in the field. The most certain way for that to happen is for Pittsburgh to win its final two games, but that will be no easy task. One advantage the Steelers have is that they’ll know their situation when they step on the field Sunday in New Orleans. If the L.A. Chargers, who are still playing for a chance at winning the AFC West, can beat the Ravens on Saturday night, Pittsburgh’s path to the AFC North crown becomes easier. Win one game and they’ve got it. However, if the Ravens pull out the unlikely victory (and we’re guessing they will), the Steelers are on the hot seat. A Ravens win would mean PIT must win both its game or go 1-1 and have the Browns defeat Baltimore in Week 17 to claim the AFC North crown.

PIT: @NO, CIN

BAL: @LAC, CLE

+ The other Saturday game (Washington at Tennessee) has implications for the Steelers, as well. Both the Titans and the Colts have run their record to 8-6 and if both teams win again this week (Indy hosts the New York Giants) then one of them will end up 10-6 since they play each other in Week 17. A 10-6 team would potentially knock the 9-6-1 Steelers out of the last playoff spot if Pittsburgh splits its final two and the Ravens win out.

IND: NYG, @TEN

TEN: WAS, IND

+ If the Chargers do end up defeating the Ravens this Saturday, it not only helps the Steelers, it sets up a huge game Sunday night with the Chiefs needing to win at Seattle to hang onto both the AFC West lead and the #1 seed in the playoffs. A Seahawks victory (following a Chargers victory) could potentially leave the AFC seeds looking like this: #1 Chargers #2 Texans #3 Patriots #4 Steelers #5 Chiefs #6 Colts.

LA: BAL, @DEN

KC: @SEA, OAK

+ That leaves Bill O’Brien’s Texans as the only team left to discuss. Houston was the big beneficiary of the Steelers win, sliding into the #2 seed and a potential first-round bye, but they’ll need to beat the suddenly resurgent Eagles in Philadelphia to keep it since the Patriots have a head-to-head win over them. No easy task. If they stumble, the Patriots are poised to slide back into the #2 seed with a couple cupcake conference games at home to close out their season.

HOU: @PHI, JAX

NE: BUF, NYJ

+Putting it all together in terms of the Steelers:

> PIT controls its own destiny, win both games and they’re in as AFC North champs.

> Steelers fans are Redskins and Chargers fans this Saturday.

Quick hits:

+ The NFL regular season is a grind. By Week 16, nearly 10 percent of players have been lost for the season to injury. The rest are playing with some kind of injury. Fresh legs can be a huge advantage at this point in the season. Enter Eli Rogers, James Washington and Jaylen Samuels, three young players who made their first big contributions this year against the Patriots in Week 15. Coincidence? Probably not. Repeatable? We shall see.

+ Almost all of the post-Patriots game national press focused not on the Steelers winning a football game against an archrival, but rather on the Patriots losing that game and specifically on whether Tom Brady’s play is diminishing. LOL on the second point. Just a few weeks ago, the same media were singing Brady’s praises as “ageless.” The real issue with the Patriots is that Brady’s weapons are diminished. Rob Gronkowski can barely run, Julian Edelman looks timid, Josh Gordon didn’t look right Sunday and it came as no surprise later in the week when it was learned his old demons had re-emerged. We’re not sure why New England didn’t use Sony Michel more Sunday.

The pick: If this game were in Pittsburgh or one a neutral field like, oh, we don’t know, say Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, we’d go with Pittsburgh. But the Saints are just too much on their own turf. We wouldn’t be surprised to see this get away from the Steelers completely (and we don’t think such an outcome would be the end of the world for Pittsburgh). That said, if the Steelers can make a statement in the first quarter and get the Saints crowd out of the game, anything might happen. We’ve spent a lot of time in New Orleans. The residents love the Saints and they really, really love when the Saints are good, but they are not exactly adept at dealing with adversity on the football field. They’ve had too many years of terrible Saints teams to feel comfortable with a good one. All THAT said, while we think they might have reason to worry down the road, fans in the Big Easy will be able to relax a little after Sunday… New Orleans 38-24.

Last week: We were wrong, wrong, wrong about the Steelers losing to the Patriots. Boy, was that a stupid prediction. At least we only lost a little pride. The first legal sports bettor at Rivers in Pittsburgh put $11,000 on the Patriots. Dissing your hometown team and then losing your shirt? Ouch. The double miss last week leaves us at 5-8-1 straight up and 6-8 against the spread.

COMMENTS