By: Zach Metkler, GZ Sports Report Writer
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Just over a month ago, the Steelers were in the midst of a four-game losing streak and were quickly watching their season slip away right before their eyes with a record of 4-5. During that span, the Steelers had an inconsistent offense, a defense that looked like it would not even stand a chance against an FCS football team, and could not find an identity as an organization.
Fast forward to Week 16 of the NFL season, and the Steelers are riding high on a five-game winning streak and sit atop of the AFC North. With their Christmas day matchup against the Ravens this weekend, the Steelers have a lot riding on this game. There are a lot of scenarios that can take place for the Steelers to win the division and make the playoffs but in case you didn’t know, it is easier than that. Win, and they’re in.
With a win over the Ravens, the Steelers would clinch the AFC North. It gets better than that, though. With a win over the Steelers and a Dolphins victory over the Bills, the Ravens would be eliminated entirely from the playoffs.
Not only is the AFC North crown up for grabs, but the Steelers have a chance at nabbing a 1st-round bye (with some help). In a much more drawn out scenario, if the Steelers win out, the Raiders lose their two remaining games (against the Colts and Broncos) and the Chiefs drop one of their last two (against the Broncos and Chargers), the Steelers would secure the 2nd-seed in the playoffs and get a much-needed bye week. While that scenario is a lot less likely to pan out, there is nothing wrong with having the 3rd seed in the playoffs when the season seemed so lost just a month ago.
The moral of this entire story is that the Steelers control their own destiny. If they simply win out, the Steelers can finish no worse than the #3 seed. The thing is, though, if the Steelers were to lose to the Ravens, it wouldn’t eliminate them from the playoffs, as they would be in a tie with the Ravens for 1st-place, with the Ravens having the head-to-head and division advantage. In that scenario, to win the division the Steelers would need to beat the Browns in Week 17 and the Bengals would need to beat the Ravens. A Wild Card spot could still potentially occur if the Ravens were to be the Bengals, but a ton of other factors would have to occur for that to happen, specifically within the AFC West, where the Broncos, Chiefs, and Raiders are all still vying for position. Add in the Dolphins, and you have yourself a race to the finish in the AFC.
Again, the easiest thing to eliminate all of these factors for the Steelers is to simply win out.
The Steelers enter Week 16 as 5-point favorites against the Ravens. While the Ravens got the upper hand against the Steelers in Week 9 at Baltimore, this Steelers team is substantially different than it was then. Ben Roethlisberger had just returned from his knee surgery, the team was without tight end Ladarius Green (more on him in a second), and while the defense played a better game than most people give them credit for, it was the same old “bend-don’t-break but still give up the huge play” mentality that plagued them during their losing streak. The Ravens are also a much different football team than their previous matchup, looking much more formidable on defense and finally putting together some semblance of an offense.
One thing working to the Steelers’ advantage is the Big Three. They have been a force at home this season and show no signs of slowing down (another reason securing the 3rd-seed is vital to guarantee at least one home game in the playoffs). One interesting point about the importance of the Big Three being intact for this matchup was pointed out by Will Graves the other day:
The last time Steelers faced Ravens w/Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown in the lineup at home, Roethlisberger threw for 340 & 6 TDs in 2014.
— Will Graves (@WillGravesAP) December 21, 2016
While Roethlisberger won’t likely put up these numbers this weekend, it does show the impact that a healthy Ben, Bell, and Brown can have at home. One thing that the Steelers potentially have this season that they didn’t have in 2014 is Ladarius Green.
I know what you’re thinking: they had Martavis Bryant in 2014 so it’s a wash. But Green’s ability over the middle of the field is fantastic. Watching him bounce off of opposing tacklers makes him look like a pinball and he rarely shy’s away from contact. The biggest issue here is that Green is not guaranteed to play. After suffering a concussion against the Bengals in Week 15, Green entered the NFL’s concussion protocol and is listed as questionable. The Steelers probably won’t rush him back, especially considering his history with concussions while in San Diego. The Steelers would be safe hands with Jesse James, but he simply does not possess the big play ability that Green brings to this offense. His health will be something to monitor as Sunday draws near.
Green isn’t alone on the injury front, however. Stephon Tuitt suffered a knee sprain against the Bengals and is also listed as questionable for the Week 16 matchup. With Cam Heyward on IR, the Steelers can’t afford any long-term injuries along the defensive line. At the end of the game, the Steelers were playing with just three defensive linemen after both Tuitt and Ricardo Mathews exited the game: Javon Hargrave, Daniel McCullers, and L.T. Walton. Tuitt was becoming the standout bookend the Steelers envisioned when selecting him in the 2nd-round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Having him back would go a long way in helping the Steelers defense.
While the Big Three are arguably the biggest factors for the remainder of the season for the Steelers, the Steelers’ rookie defenders will hold the key for success on defense. Artie Burns, Sean Davis, and Hargrave have all integrated themselves into the defense nicely, albeit with some growing pains. A lot of their success has happened because of the rest of the defense coming into their own. By the rest of the defense doing what they need to do (primarily James Harrison, Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier, Ross Cockrell and Mike Mitchell), this has really freed up the three rookies to be able to fly around the field in an attempt to make the game truly slow down for them. If they can show up against for the remainder of the season, don’t be surprised to see the Steelers making a push for another Lombardi Trophy.
For the Steelers to make a push for another Lombardi, they need to just worry about themselves and keep to the standard. Win and you’re in. If you do that, nothing else matters.
The Steelers control their own destiny. No one else.
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