PREGAME STRETCH: Giants at Steelers

Tomlin and his team need another strong December run

New York Giants (8-3) at Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5) at Heinz Field, capacity 65,050; Sunday at 4:25 p.m., FOX

Announcers: Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. Annoyance factor: Minimal. One of the best things about this season full of fairly terrible football has been the absence of fairly terrible football coverage and commentary from Jeem Nantz and Pheel Seems. Information courtesy www.the506.com.

Weather – or not?: Cloudy, low 40s. A very benign weather year might get interesting next weekend with the Steelers traveling to Buffalo with an Arctic blast of cold air and a warm great lake in the mix. Information courtesy www.weather.com.

How they rank: New York offense: 12th passing, 31st rushing, 21st ppg; Pittsburgh defense: 23rd passing, 9th rushing, 10th ppg; Pittsburgh offense: 8th passing, 18th rushing, 13th ppg; New York defense: 24th passing, 5th rushing, 5th ppg; Sacks: New York 13th (25); Pittsburgh 15th (24); Sacks allowed: New York 2nd (14), Pittsburgh 2nd (14). Comment: Don’t look now, but the Steelers are climbing the rankings in both running the football and defending the run, the stuff of championships.

Referee: Terry McAulay. Competence factor: The pause that refreshes. McAulay is a pro’s pro who’s worked three Super Bowls (including the last one the Steelers won) and probably should have gotten a fourth last year. The crew is averaging 16 penalties and 132 penalty yards assessed this year and has only thrown flags on the home team 39 percent of the time, about 10 percentage points below McAulay’s career average. That’s something to keep an eye on as it’s likely to even out by the end of the year, meaning a whole lot of flags on a home team at some point.  Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com and www.profootballreference.com.

The line: Steelers -5.5. Smarts say: Wut? We know the public betting trends always mean the Steelers will seem overvalued but that seems like way overvalued to us. The over/under of 50 means something like Pittsburgh 28-22. Do you think the Giants are only going to score three TDs against the Steelers defense? Information courtesy www.dannysheridan.com and www.pregame.com.

The last time: Eli Manning had a miserable afternoon, completing only 10 passes in a 24-20 Steelers win. A 70-yard fumble recording for a score by the Giants’ Michael Boley looked like it would be the difference in the game until the Steelers outscored New York 14-0 in the fourth quarter. Isaac Redman’s one-yard plunge with four minutes remaining set the final.

Key matchup: Steelers LB James Harrison vs. Giants LT Ereck Flowers. Here we are in December again, and Jarvis Jones has wilted again, and Old Man River Jimmy Harrison is Pittsburgh’s best hope of getting any kind of heat on Eli Manning, which is the key to beating the Giants, not necessarily sacking Manning, but getting him off his spot enough that the New York offense loses rhythm.

Quick hits:

+ As the Jarvis Jones era winds down in Pittsburgh, it’s fair now to reflect on what went wrong. We’ve theorized here several times that trying to take a pass rusher in the teens in the first round is a risky proposition to start with because the elite athletes are gone and it’s too early to reach for a productive college player lacking first-round athleticism, leaving you with a “tweener,” sometimes a tweener in both categories. Jones certainly was a tweener athletically but his college production (90+ TFLs and 30+ sacks in his final two seasons at Georgia) was off the chart. At the pro level, though, he spent two seasons as big LB who wasn’t fast enough or strong enough to deal with NFL linemen and the last two as a slimmed-down LB who’s almost fast enough (a Twitter cad noted this week the “air tackle” has become Jones’ signature play) but still not strong enough. By all accounts, Jones has gotten serious about his NFL career, spent more time in the weight room and tried to emulate successful veterans. The answer seems to be that he was good enough for the SEC but simply not good enough for the NFL.

+ If the Ravens win the AFC North this year (start John Houseman voice), they will have earned it. They come down the stretch with: MIA, @NE, PHI, @PIT, @CIN. That’s why all those fancy computers give Pittsburgh a 75 percent chance of winning the division, despite trailing Baltimore in the division at present. How ironic would it be if after chuckling and guffawing about the Bengals bungling this season, Steelers fans (present company included) need Cincy to beat the Ravens in Week 17?

+ From the “Credit Where Due Department,” Mike Tomlin’s teams have been excellent in December (29-13 since 2007) and Pittsburgh will need another excellent closing month to secure the AFC North. It will probably take 4-1 for that to happen, although a 3-2 finish might get the job done IF all three wins are the division games.

+ With the NFL’s plague of injuries hitting younger and younger players (fueled by PED-enhanced bodies crunching PED-ravaged bodies), the importance of and emphasis on rookies is only going to heighten in future years. We’re seeing it in Pittsburgh with three rookie started on defense, something that would have been unheard of even five years ago. Of course, the alpha example is happening in Dallas with Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, who will never be as fresh and healthy in he his NFL career as he is this year.  

The pick:… The Steelers need to make this game a track meet. That’s the kind of game an Eli Manning-led offense has never been great in. The Giants want to slow things down and put pressure on the Pittsburgh defense in the late stages, something they haven’t responded well to in the past handful of years. How it turns out may well determine whether the home team gets into the NFL postseason… Steelers 34-24.

Last week: The Colts could have kept it close against Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving, as we predicted, but their wide receivers had other ideas, leaving us 7-4 straight up and 6-5 against the spread.


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