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Pregame stretch:
Steelers vs. Packers

December 20, 2013 - Ray Eckenrode

Pittsburgh Steelers (6-8) vs. Green Bay Packers (7-6-1)
Sunday, 4:25 p.m. EST, CBS

Announcers: Kevin Harlan and Solomon Wilcots
Annoyance factor: Refreshing. Wow, we thought there was a chance this would be CBS’ No. 1 game and the presence of Harlan and Wilcots indicates it’s No. 4. No worries, if you can tolerate the occasional (or incessant) ROT-lisberger and other W, this duo ain’t too bad. (As an aside, when making sure how to spell Wilcots properly, Google pulled up “Solmon Wilcots wife” as the first preference for search, yet the Internet seems to be bereft of any info about Mrs. Wilcots, which begs the question, “Why are people so interested?”)
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Weather - or not?: Partly cloudy, cold, we mean really cold, single digits. Those temps, combined with 10 mph winds, mean real feel temps will be below zero, even colder than Sunday night’s icebox.
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How they rank
Green Bay offense: 7th passing, 7th rushing
Pittsburgh defense: 8th passing , 19th rushing
Pittsburgh offense: 11th passing, 31st rushing
Green Bay defense: 22nd passing, 25th rushing
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Referee: Carl Cheffers
Competence factor: Dubious. This is the crew that brutalized the Ravens-Lions game on Monday night, making non-existent pass interference calls and missing obvious ones. They also totally made up a critical face mask penalty that gave the Ravens three points, which was, of course, the margin of victory. After being roasted on national TV by Jon Gruden and then receiving their downgrades from the league on Tuesday, they’ll be officiating on eggshells Sunday.
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The line: No line
Smarts say: With Aaron Rodgers’ status up in the air and the Packers unlikely to make a call until Sunday, Vegas is staying clear of this game. We’re guessing Green Bay -2 without Rodgers and -6 with him.
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Key matchups:
Steelers WR Antonio Brown vs. Packers’ CB Tramon Williams (if no Rodgers) or Packers WR Jordy Nelson vs. Steelers CBs Ike Taylor/Cortez Allen (if Rodgers plays)
Because: We’re expecting Eddie Lacy and Le’Veon Bell to cancel each other out (and we thought Mike Tomlin made a good case why Bell was the right pick for the Steelers even though Lacy appears to be a more eye-popping rusher), meaning, like most NFL games, this one will be decided in the passing game, perhaps with a last-team-with-the-ball-wins finish. If Aaron Rodgers does not play, the Packers leaky pass defense is going to need to limit Brown to keep the Steelers in sight. If Rodgers does play, Nelson immediately becomes the most important (other) player on the field and Taylor and Allen will have to repeat the effort they turned in against A.J. Green.

Quick hits:
+ If you’ve read this column or our Twitter feed long enough, you know we HATE the use of slow motion to assess possession on replay challenges. Slow-mo is a great tool on a lot of other challenges, but when possession is involved it’s misused to allow officials to “see” balls being bobbled or hitting the turf in a way that could never be detected by the naked eye and in a way that really doesn’t exist if you watch the play again live. The same principle was in play last week when tons of misinformed NFL pundits used a slow motion replay (have you see any other replay of the play other than the slow motion one?) of Terence Garvin’s hit on Kevin Huber to determine Garvin had “sized Huber up” and put thought into the block he laid. Nonsense. Watch the play the way it happened. Nobody sized anyone up. A blocker blocked a player in an opposition jersey who was trying to make a tackle. Absolutely, that block was illegal under the current rules, but only because of WHO was blocked NOT because of the technique involved. That is a legal block on any other play on the field. That’s why if punters and kickers are going to be considered defenseless players throughout a play but are still going to be allowed to try and make tackles on those plays, they have to be put into red jerseys.
+ ESPN draft guru Todd McShay always releases his first mock draft just after the college season concludes. While it’s an early indicator of who has risen or fallen during the fall, it’s never very accurate because of the hug influence the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine have on decision making. So take it with a giant grain of salt that McShay has the Steelers selecting Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix with the 12th selection. As an aside, if the draft were tomorrow, Pittsburgh would pick 13th after being as high as fourth after the Patriots loss.
+ Before the season began, you’re aware we were very down on the Steelers and predicted a 5-11 final record. They’re obviously going to finish above that mark, but no one would argue the depths of disappointment this season has brought – except us. With the emergence of Kelvin Beachum at left tackle, Cam Heyward on the defensive line and Jason Worilds at linebacker, Pittsburgh is in a considerably better position right now than we anticipated they would be when we issued that dire forecast. In fact, we’re thinking if the Rooneys and Kevin Colbert bite the bullet and make some tough decisions this offseason, saying goodbye to LaMarr Woodley, Ike Taylor and maybe Troy Polamalu (in addition to the more likely departures of Ryan Clark and Brett Keisel), there’s reason to believe Pittsburgh can legitimately be back in the hunt by 2015, which likely will be near the end of Ben Roethlisberger’s prime. (Blogger’s note: That was a 69-word sentence you just read.)

The pick: The last time these two teams met in a season finale, Pittsburgh won, 37-36, on a TD pass to Mike Wallace on the game’s final play (the toe-tapping, fall down grab was possibly Wallace’s best catch in a Steelers uniform) and we expect a similar margin Sunday … and the same winner, Aaron Rodgers or not. Although it’s highly likely Pittsburgh will be eliminated from the postseason before this one kicks off, we think the team has found a playoff groove that could have won a game or two had they gotten in. That starts with Ben Roethlisberger running a scary-good offense and the defense offering just enough to make it stand up ... Steelers 24-23.
Last week: We were one of the few who had the Steelers winning outright Sunday night, bringing us to 6-8 straight up and 7-7 against the spread.

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