Steelers fight for their playoff lives against a Ravens team resting for the postseason
The Baltimore Ravens enter Week 17 with nothing to play for while the Pittsburgh Steelers need to win and get some help to make it into the playoffs. These two teams faced each other back in October with the Ravens winning 26-23 in overtime. It wasn’t one of Lamar Jackson’s best games with three interceptions and a total of 70 rushing yards. For the Steelers, Mason Rudolph, Devlin Hodges, and even Jaylen Samuels, all took turns at quarterback but Pittsburgh wasn’t able to capitalize on Jackson’s rare off day.
The Steelers (8-7) have not done themselves any favors with two straight losses. Last week, Pittsburgh went to MetLife Stadium and fell to the New York Jets 16-10. Once again, Hodges and Rudolph both had their chances to lead the offense, but the former struggled and the latter left with an injury. James Conner also suffered another injury and he's out for this must-win game. The defense has held five straight opponents to 20 points or fewer but the Steelers are just 3-2 in that stretch.
On the other side, Baltimore (13-2) extended its winning streak to 11 after a 31-15 victory over the Browns last Sunday. Jackson threw for 238 yards and ran for another 103 to further pad his stats as him being named NFL MVP is merely a foregone conclusion at this point. He won't play on Sunday, and neither will running back Mark Ingram, who suffered a calf injury last week. Tight end Mark Andrews (ankle) is another starter that could get Sunday off. With the AFC’s top seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs already secured, the Ravens have nothing to play for, other than ensure that a division rival stays home this postseason.
Pittsburgh at Baltimore
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 29 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Pittsburgh -2.5
Three Things to Watch
The most important intangible for this game is what needs to happen for Pittsburgh to grab the second wild-card spot in the AFC. The Steelers get in with a win over Baltimore and a loss or tie by Tennessee. There are other possibilities but for the sake of simplicity, Pittsburgh needs a W and has to hope Houston can beat the Titans. Both of these games are at 4:25 p.m. ET so you know there will be some scoreboard watching in Baltimore and Houston. As has already been mentioned, the Ravens have nothing to play for and are already dealing with some bumps and bruises to key players. Lamar Jackson won’t play and neither will several other starters. But can a depleted Steelers team take advantage?
2. Quarterback play
With Jackson sitting this one out, Robert Griffin III will get the call at quarterback for Baltimore and it'll be interesting to see how he looks. Griffin has thrown just 17 passes in six games with 12 completions, one touchdown and one interception in the limited snaps he has gotten this year backing up the NFL’s soon-to-be-official MVP. With so many teams potentially in the market for QBs this offseason, this could be considered an audition for RG3, who hasn’t started a game since 2016 when he was with Cleveland.
Pittsburgh also is digging deep into its QB depth chart with Hodges set to get another start and 2016 first-round pick and former Denver Bronco Paxton Lynch serving as the backup. Mason Rudolph was put on injured reserve after dislocating his left shoulder in last week’s loss to the Jets. Rudolph came on to replace an ineffective Hodges and threw a touchdown pass before getting hurt in the fourth quarter. The Steelers also signed J.T. Barrett to their practice squad with Lynch getting promoted to the active roster. But the focus will be on Hodges, who is 3-2 as the starter but has just one touchdown pass and six interceptions in his last two games, both losses.
3. Can either team run the ball?
Without Mark Ingram, the Ravens will turn to Gus Edwards and Justice Hill in the backfield. Edwards is averaging better than five yards per carry with two touchdowns. Hill, a fourth-round pick this year, has flashed his versatility in limited touches. Pittsburgh's defense has not been the issue for this team as the Steelers are 10th in the NFL against the run (102.0 ypg). Running the ball has been an issue for the offense, as Pittsburgh is ranked near the bottom of the league (90.4 ypg). To make matters worse, James Conner was ruled out on Friday afternoon because of the quadriceps injury he suffered last week, just the latest in what has been an injury-plagued campaign for the Pro Bowler. Conner’s absence means Benny Snell Jr., Jaylen Samuels, and Kerrith Whyte will handle the backfield work. The Steelers have to find a way to run the ball so Hodges doesn’t have to throw it 40 times. That's not a winning formula.
There's no guarantee that the Steelers win this game simply because the Ravens have nothing to play for and will be relying mostly on backups. Pittsburgh needs to get off to a fast start and I just don’t see Baltimore allowing it to happen at home. With so many injuries and the inconsistency on offense, I don’t think the Steelers can come up with enough points to beat the RG3-led Ravens.
Prediction: Ravens 20, Steelers 14
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.