Two 6-5 teams with playoff hopes meet in Sunday night matchup
With every victory this season, it seems as if the Pittsburgh Steelers are primed to be a dark horse in the AFC Playoffs. With every loss, it appears the Steelers won't make the playoffs.
So it stands after Pittsburgh's 39-30 loss to Seattle last week. If the season ended today, the Steelers would not make the playoffs.
Meanwhile the Indianapolis Colts come into Heinz Field on a three-game winning streak behind 40-year-old quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who has thrown seven touchdown passes and two interceptions while compiling a 4-0 record as the Colts' starter in place of Andrew Luck.
Kind of funny, isn't it? After the Steelers played the same franchise they met in Super Bowl XL, now the two quarterbacks from that very game meet the next week.
Both teams are 6-5. Indianapolis needs a victory as they are in a tie with Houston for first place in the AFC South, while the Steelers simply can't afford to fall to 6-6 with division-leading Cincinnati and Denver awaiting them on the schedule the following two weeks.
Indianapolis at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: 8:25 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Pittsburgh -7
Three Things To Watch
1. Can the Steelers' front seven get to Hasselbeck?
Reports of the Steelers' secondary improving may have been greatly exaggerated after they allowed five touchdown passes and 345 yards to Russell Wilson last week. They are now ranked 30th in the entire NFL in pass defense.
When the Steelers have been successful, their pass rush has been effective. The Steelers' 30 sacks this season rank as the fifth-highest total in the NFL, and while they recorded two sacks at Seattle, one came from cornerback William Gay, who often comes in on blitzes in coordinator Keith Butler's defense. Who's going to be covering the receivers if that's the case?
The Steelers' front seven must start applying more pass pressure if they are to be a contender. It's that simple.
2. Who will be the better team in the fourth quarter?
The Colts have 10 players on their roster who are 32 or older. Okay, one of those is kicker Adam Vinatieri, but does that mean fatigue or wisdom come crunch time?
The same could be asked of the Steelers' greybeard, Ben Roethlisberger. He's 33, which would still seem to indicate he is in his prime, but only linebacker James Harrison is older among Pittsburgh's starting 22.
Furthermore, Roethlisberger has also thrown interceptions in five straight games and has left three of his six starts early this year.
Yes, it seems odd to wonder if Roethlisberger is getting long in the tooth after throwing for 456 yards. But Big Ben hasn't pulled out a game in the fourth quarter this season. If this game is close, will he be the Roethlisberger of old, pulling out Super Bowl XLIII in the final minute, or will it be the quarterback whose three fourth quarter interceptions since returning from injury have led directly to Pittsburgh's last two losses?
3. But Indianapolis hasn't stopped the pass much, either. Can the Colts improve?
For all we've talked about the Steelers' pass defense, the Colts rank 27th in the league in stopping opposing aerial attacks. At the end of October Indianapolis ranked dead last in total defense.
The Indianapolis press seemed to want to harp on the fact that because the offense was struggling under Andrew Luck, the Colts' defense was on the field too long, hence the ranking.
It should be mentioned last month the Colts collected nearly half of the sacks they have this season, nine of a total 19 on the season. The team that wins this game may very well be the team that most effectively blitzes.
How's this for a statistic? In its entire history, dating back to Baltimore (or for that matter Dallas as the 1952 Texans), the Colts' franchise has won only two games in Pittsburgh: in 2008 and 1968. Lifetime they are 2-14.
They have a legitimate chance this week, but the Steelers' pass rush, even if it does come from the secondary, and running game behind DeAngelo Williams gives Pittsburgh the edge.
Prediction: Steelers 28, Colts 21
— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson began contributing to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000. He has covered the Steelers, Pitt Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.