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Indianapolis Colts vs. Pittsburgh Steelers Prediction and Preview

Indianapolis Colts vs. Pittsburgh Steelers Prediction and Preview

Indianapolis Colts vs. Pittsburgh Steelers Prediction and Preview

When the Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts meet on Sunday, they will see mirror images of each other. Playoff contenders led by tough defenses and veteran quarterbacks on their last legs.

Except for one major difference, of course. The Steelers are on a disheartening three-game slide after starting the season 11-0, while the Colts (10-4) have won four of five and are peaking at the right time.

Pittsburgh has been on a downward spiral since the calendar hit December, as the Steelers haven't scored 20 points in a game since Week 11. Dropping a game at Buffalo on a short week is nothing to be embarrassed about, but losses to Washington and at Cincinnati raise questions about how competitive this team actually is.

Once the favorite for the No. 1 seed and sole AFC bye, the Steelers now only lead the Browns by one game and could be headed towards a winner-take-all Week 17 game for the AFC North crown. The Colts, meanwhile, have the same record as the AFC South-leading Titans but lack a tiebreaker. They can clinch a playoff berth this week with a win and loss or tie by Miami or Baltimore — or a tie and a loss by either the Dolphins or Ravens.

If the season ended after Week 15, these teams would meet at Heinz Field for a first-round matchup. There's plenty of football left to be played, and depending on how this game goes, they could well meet in January — in Pittsburgh or Indianapolis.

Indianapolis at Pittsburgh

Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 27 at 1 p.m. ET


Spread: Colts -1.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Can Ben Roethlisberger be a threat beyond 10 yards?

The Steelers' signal-caller has really shown his age in recent weeks. His intended air yards per pass attempt are down to 6.9 yards, 27th among qualified quarterbacks. His inability or refusal to throw downfield has made the offense one-dimensional and easy to predict.

Drops have been a problem all season, but his receivers finally hung on to the ball last week against the Bengals. The problem was that Roethlisberger couldn't hit them. He completed just 52.6 percent of his passes — his worst rate since Week 8 of the 2016 season — and was completely ineffective beyond 10 yards. He did connect on a 23-yard touchdown with Diontae Johnson but overall was an embarrassing 1-for-14 with an interception on such passes.

By sticking to short passes, Roethlisberger has allowed linebackers and safeties to play close to the line of scrimmage and shut down their running game. Benny Snell Jr. did pick up 84 yards on 18 carries last week — and James Conner is expected back from a calf injury — but the Steelers have rushed for 100 yards just once in their last nine games. The Steelers need an effective, well-rounded passing game to open up the rest of their offense and score at least 20 points once again.

2. Will the Colts continue to dominate the turnover margin?

The Colts have an elite rush defense and capable secondary, but the unit has really shined because of the big plays it creates. Indianapolis is tied for first in turnover differential (plus-12) and third in turnovers forced. It's also been crucial to their winning stretch lately with 11 in their last five games and a plus-seven margin in their last three.

The Steelers also have capitalized on opponents' mistakes, with the second-most turnovers forced in the league. However, those big plays have slowed to a trickle with injuries to linebackers Devin Bush, Bud Dupree, and Robert Spillane. During their three-game losing streak, the Steelers forced just two turnovers while turning the ball over six times.

It's no secret that winning the turnover margin is key to winning games, but that's been especially true for the Colts, who are 1-3 when losing that battle and 8-0 when they have an edge this season. The way these teams are trending, the Colts look to have the upper hand, so the Steelers will have to turn things around quickly.

3. Which team will have the edge on third downs?

Another category that could apply to most matchups, this phase of the game will be a fascinating view into what kind of team the Steelers will be moving forward.

Pittsburgh had been a solid third-down team this season, ranking third on defense (36.6 percent) and 16th on offense (42.1 percent). During their three-game skid, their defense has held up (15-of-45), but the offense fell absolutely flat. The Steelers converted just 11 of 41 third-down opportunities, including a 1-of-10 showing against the Bills.

On the other hand, the Colts have performed poorly in this category over the course of the season — 40.2 percent conversion rate (23rd) and 43.5 percent allowed (21st) — and have gotten in more shootouts as the season has gone on. In the same three-game stretch, they’ve converted on 17 of 33 attempts while allowing opponents to convert 21 out of 40 chances on third down.

Will the Steelers get back on track against a defense that hasn't been able to make enough stops? Finding success again here will be integral to winning this game at home and turning around their season as a whole.

Final Analysis

The Steelers were never as good as their undefeated record implied a few weeks ago, but it's hard to imagine that the team isn't actually any good. However, the Colts look like bona fide contenders built around many of the strengths that propelled Pittsburgh to its 11-0 mark.

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Don't count the Steelers out just yet, but they're lucky that they have two more weeks to get back on track before the games really begin in the playoffs. Perhaps they'll have their issues ironed out by then.

Prediction: Colts 27, Steelers 20