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What To Watch For
1. Return of the Quarterback
It's been three and a half games since Ben Roethlisberger last took a snap under center for the Steelers. That all changes shortly after 1:00 today. Ben was cleared earlier this week to play and all reports out of the Steelers facility said it looked like his velocity had returned. Ben has always been one to play as much as he can, even if he is injured, but even a less-than-fully-healthy Ben is still better than some of the other options this team has at quarterback. Charlie Batch will be ready to roll as the #2 in this game. Last week's win was huge, but if this team wants to go anywhere in the postseason, it needs to have Ben Roethlisberger under center.
San Diego has lost so many linemen to injury this year they are literally taking guys off the street, strapping pads on them, and having them start on the line. Even with LaMarr Woodley out this week, the Steelers should be able to dominate the Chargers up front. James Harrison has started to look like his old self again and Brett Keisel has been able to get solid pressure over the last few weeks. Harrison and Keisel have always dominated the Chargers, with the Deisel even having a special sack celebration just for when he gets Phillip Rivers. Keep an eye out, it's a "row the boat" celebration that Keisel has described as "Going Down Rivers." Awesome. San Diego has given up 36 sacks this year, the 4th most of any team in the league.
3. Missing Ike
One of the most under-the-radar streaks on this Steelers team was Ike Taylor's run of 135 consecutive games played. Even when he was demoted out of the starting lineup by Bill Cowher he still saw time in games. Ike has been a rock in the Steelers secondary but with him suffering an ankle sprain last week the Steelers will have to find a way to survive without him. Last week, Cortez Allen played a heck of a game in relief of Taylor and is starting to come into his own as an NFL corner. On the other side, Keenan Lewis has been the surprise of the season on defense. Everyone laughed when Lewis predicted a Pro Bowl season in training camp, but his 19 passes defended is tied with Tim Jennings of the Bears for the league lead and he is 13th amongst NFL corners in tackles.
4. Big Trouble in Little California
The Chargers have been an utter disaster this season, collapsing down the stretch and committing terrible turnovers at key times in games. The Chargers have committed 24 turnovers this season, the 7th most in the league. Phillip Rivers has been downright terrible, throwing 15 interceptions with only 18 touchdowns. This week, a story came out of San Diego that both head coach Norv Turner and general manager AJ Smith will be gone after this season. It's hard to blame the Chargers organization for making this move as they have gone from a team that was the cream of the crop in the AFC West and a Super Bowl contender to being mired in mediocrity - or worse - and seeing all of their top talent leave town.
5. Getting Healthy at the Right Time
After battling through injuries to key players during the last quarter of the season, the Steelers are finally starting to get healthy. There are still a few key players such as LaMarr Woodley and Ike Taylor that will miss this week's game. However, with Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown back on offense and Troy Polamalu back on defense, the Steelers are starting to look more like the team that won four in a row in October and November. Other players who missed games with injury, including Jerricho Cotchery and Willie Colon are listed as probable on the injury report and have a very good chance of playing. Colon's return will help return some semblance of balance to the offensive line, though hopefully he doesn't miss any more blocks like he did against Baltimore. Kelvin Beachum played his butt off in his first career start against Baltimore, and a lot of the line's success will ride on his ability to hold down the RT spot over the coming weeks. On the whole, this team is getting guys back from injury at the right time and barring any further setbacks, they could be at their best right as the playoffs come around.
By the Numbers
- San Diego has never won a regular season game in Pittsburgh. The Chargers are currently 0-14 in Pittsburgh during the regular season, but 2-1 here in the playoffs.
- Only two of San Diego's 8 losses this season have been by more than 10 points.
- Since 2007, San Diego is 7-9 in 1:00 games
- Since 2007, San Diego is 5-12 in the Eastern Time Zone
- Scott Green will be the head referee for tomorrow's game. Green was also the referee in the 2008 meeting between these two teams which was an officiating disaster that ended in the only 11-10 game in NFL history.
AFC Playoff Picture
The Wild Card Race is essentially down to three teams. Mathematically, nine teams are still alive for playoff spots. That number could be cut in by a third after next week. Currently, Indianapolis (8-4) and Pittsburgh (7-5) are the leaders for the two Wild Card spots. Cincinnati is hanging tight at 7-5. Three AFC East teams follow next with Buffalo, Miami and the Jets all sitting at 5-7. Buffalo and Miami both face NFC opponents and can't be eliminated this week. The Jets face Jacksonville and can be eliminated with a loss and wins by Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. The last three teams - San Diego, Cleveland and Tennessee - are all sitting at 4-8. The Steelers can help their own cause by beating the Chargers and eliminating them from contention. If the Steelers or Bengals win this week, both Cleveland and Tennessee would be eliminated with losses.
We are still a few weeks out from the looming Steelers-Bengals showdown that will likely decide the last playoff spot. The Bengals face the surging Cowboys this week then the slumping Eagles next week. The Steelers face San Diego and Dallas before meeting Cincinnati. The Bengals are currently 1-3 in the division and 5-5 in the conference. Indianapolis, who leads Pittsburgh and Cincinnati by a game for the first Wild Card spot, still has to play Houston twice along with Tennessee and Kansas City. All signs still point to the Steelers-Bengals game on December 23 determining the final playoff spot and it would take a big collapse from one of the top three teams coupled with a big run by one of the AFC East teams for the playoff situation to change.