Joe's Crab Shack
TV: CBS (get ready for Jim Nantz and Phil Simms)
Radio: WDVE and other affiliates
What to Watch For
1. The Boys Are Back
The best possible news the Steelers could have received was that Ben Roethlisberger was able to play. However, Ben is still recovering from his shoulder and rib injury, so we will have to wait at least another week to see him back on the field. Second and third on the "best case scenario" list would involve getting Troy Polamalu and Antonio Brown back on the field. As luck would have it, both figure to be in uniform. This is a huge upgrade for the Steelers on both sides of the ball. Brown's presence will improve the offense tremendously and Troy is an absolute game-changer on defense.
2. Every Day We're Shufflin'
The biggest unknown for the Steelers heading into the game is the offensive line. Willie Colon is still listed as Questionable on the injury report with a knee injury. If he is able to go, he will start at LG with Maurkice Pouncey playing center. Left-to-right the line would be Starks-Colon-Pouncey-Foster-Beachum. If Colon can't play, it looks like Maurkice Pouncey will be sliding over to play guard and Doug Legursky will be coming in to play center rather than Legursky playing LG as he did against Cleveland. Left-to-right the line would be Starks-Pouncey-Legursky-Foster-Beachum. One way or another, it looks as though rookie seventh-rounder Kelvin Beachum will be starting at right tackle. Paul Kruger could reprise his Freddy Kruger impression from two weeks ago against Beachum. This is a bad matchup any way you slice it.
3. Home Joe
The Ravens have torched opponents at home this season and the primary reason for that is Joe Flacco's ridiculous splits between home and road games. In home games he completes 11% more of his passes (66.5% to 55.3%) averages about 4 more yards per attempt (9.32 to 5.65) and has a QB Rating nearly 40 points higher (108.2 to 70.3). Normally, the key to winning the game would be stopping Ray Rice. But for how good Joe Flacco has been at home, the gameplan has to focus on pressuring Flacco into making mistakes with the ball.
4. The Crown of the North
While much of the talk around Pittsburgh has been about the Steelers opportunity to still make the playoffs as a Wild Card, the fact of the matter is that the Ravens can clinch the division title with a win. This would be their second straight division title and their fourth consecutive win over the Steelers. Even though we're entering this game with Charlie Batch at quarterback, losing to the Ravens twice and the Browns in a three week span would be downright sickening. On top of that, losing to the Ravens and watching them clinch the AFC North title? Vom.
5. Be Backup Quarterback Friendly
Coach Tomlin's phrase of the week from his press conference was that the Steelers were not "backup quarterback friendly" against the Browns. Considering they turned the ball over 8 times and couldn't run to save their lives, this statement rings true. Two weeks ago, the Steelers offensive line dominated the Ravens defense in the second half. The line was blowing the Ravens off the ball, but the coaches made a strange decision to try a pass on a 3rd and 2 from inside the 5 despite the success up front. This time around, even with a revamped offensive line, look for the Steelers to keep pounding the rock. The Ravens 26th-ranked run defense is well-documented this season, but that ranking is a bit deceiving. The Ravens are in the bottom 10 of the league in yards against, but have faced the 3rd most rushing attempts and are actually in the top 10 in the league in yards per rush attempt against, averaging only 4.0 yards per carry against. Jonathan Dwyer has been anointed the starting back for the Steelers and he will need to just keep pounding against this Ravens front if the Steelers are going to be able to control the clock and keep the Ravens offense on the sideline.
#5 Seed: Indianapolis (7-4)
#6 Seed: Pittsburgh (6-5)
San Diego, Tennessee, Buffalo, and the Jets are all sitting at 4-7 and would pretty much have to run the table to have a hope at making the playoffs. San Diego's next two games are against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. If they lose either game, they are effectively out of the race. Tennessee plays their next two against Houston and Indianapolis. After losing to Jacksonville, Tennessee would be effectively eliminated in two weeks if they lose both games. The Jets have the easiest pair of games the next two weeks with slumping Arizona and Jacksonville but need two wins to stay in the race before their conclusion where they face the other three teams in this group. Buffalo has four of their last 5 games at home where they are 2-2 this season. Playing .500 ball at home won't get the Bills to the playoffs and they have to win out against Jacksonville, St Louis, Seattle, Miami and the Jets to have a chance at reaching 9 wins.
Assuming 9 wins is what it will take to get into the playoffs, Indianapolis obviously has the best chance of getting there. Despite having two games left against Houston, the Colts also face an up-and-down Detroit team, a slumping Tennessee team, and the downright awful Chiefs. Barring an injury to Andrew Luck, the Colts should get to 9 wins, possibly 10.
At the other end of the spectrum, Miami at 5-6 has an uphill battle to get to 9 wins. The schedule-makers did not do them any favors, backloading their December schedule with two games against New England and a road trip to San Francisco. The Fins also have Jacksonville and Buffalo at home, but they would still need to win two of three against the Patriots and 49ers to get to 9 wins.
This leaves two teams - Pittsburgh and Cincinnati - who are both 6-5, to battle for the last playoff spot. The Bengals and Steelers have a very similar slate of games to close out the season. Both teams play San Diego, though the Bengals have to travel to the west coast and the Steelers get the Chargers at home in the early afternoon. The inverse is true for Dallas, where the Steelers have to travel to Jerry World and the Bengals get the Cowboys at home. Both teams also have to play the Ravens, but the Steelers have to go to Baltimore where the Ravens haven't lost since 2010. The Bengals get the Ravens at home on the last week of the season, when it's possible the Ravens will have absolutely nothing to play for. The Bengals have the clear advantage on that matchup. Of the similar teams that the two teams play, the Bengals have a slight advantage due to playing two games at home and only one on the road whereas the Steelers play both Dallas and Baltimore on the road.
The Steelers do have a slight advantage in the one different opponent - the Steelers get the Browns at home and the Bengals travel to Philadelphia. The Eagles are terrible right now, but a road game is a road game and you never know what will happen. The Steelers figure to have Ben Roethlisberger back before the season finale against the Browns, which gives them a clear advantage. It is highly unlikely the Steelers will turn the ball over 8 times in the rematch.
This leaves us with one final game to discuss: the December 23 showdown between the Steelers and Bengals at Heinz Field. In all likelihood, this game will determine who is the 6th seed in the AFC. The Steelers already have a win against Cincinnati and a win at home would solidify the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Bengals.
Obviously, there are no guarantees and nothing is a lock, but if the Steelers can find a way to piece together three wins against their remaining five opponents (including a win over the Bengals), they should find themselves in the playoffs.