This is a familiar place for the Buffalo Bills. Early December, still alive in the playoff race, needing to run the table and get some help to end a postseason drought that stretches back to the Music City Miracle. With three straight home games on tap and a season finale at the struggling Jets, it’s not an impossible task.
But the toughest of those games is the first, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have plenty to play for as well. Tied for first place in the AFC North with Baltimore, this isn’t a “must-win” for Pittsburgh because of a Christmas Even date with the Ravens still on tap. But a fourth straight win after a four-game losing skid would go a long way toward making the Steelers look like a true contender in the AFC again.
Another thing to consider: It’s not likely, but it is possible that these teams could meet again in Pittsburgh to open the playoffs. Even if everything falls the Bills’ way, they’d be no better than the No. 6 seed in the AFC. The winner of the AFC North will likely be the No 3 seed. Just about no one would pick the Bills in that game at Heinz Field, but can they take down the Steelers in Orchard Park?
Pittsburgh at Buffalo
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 11 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Steelers -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Is Tyrod Taylor the long-term answer at quarterback for the Bills?
Buffalo signed Taylor to a big extension before the season to reward him for earning the starting job in 2015, but it amounted to a big raise for this season and a team option after the season. In other words, the Bills can cut him loose and be off the hook if he doesn’t show progress toward being a franchise quarterback this season. With just four games left, the jury is still out. At times, Taylor looks like a quarterback a team can win with because he takes care of the ball (only 11 interceptions in 26 starts with Buffalo) and makes plays with his feet that no other quarterback can (more than 1,000 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in those 26 games). But he has shown little progress as a passer, which puts a lot of pressure on the rest of the team. If the running game bogs down, or the defense isn’t dominant — or both – Taylor hasn’t shown he can carry the offense. And isn’t that what you want from a franchise quarterback?
2. Which Steelers defense will show up?
Pittsburgh’s defense struggled badly for much of the season, but things have turned around the last three weeks. The Steelers have held three straight opponents to 310 yards or less, forced two turnovers in each of those games, and given up 29 total points after allowing 81 in the three games prior. The run defense — the most important factor since the Bills lead the NFL in rushing — also has been better, allowing an average of 60 yards per game over the last three. But the Steelers also have been gashed on the ground by the Dolphins, Cowboys and even Patriots this season. If they can hold up and force Taylor to beat them with his arm, history says he can’t do it. Even with the Bills’ top two receivers (Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods) expected to play together for the first time since Week 2, they are not explosive enough to keep up with Ben Roethlisberger and company if the running game isn’t going well.
3. Weather could be a factor
It’s Buffalo in December, so you’re never quite sure what you are going to get. Heading into the weekend, snow was expected Sunday afternoon, although nothing major by Western New York standards. The bigger issue at New Era Field is often wind, and there could be some of that, too. Winds of 10-15 mph are expected, which could affect the passing game. If there are even stronger gusts, it could ground the passing game at times. That hurts Pittsburgh a lot more than it does Buffalo. Throw in the “Road Roethlisberger” factor, and a snowy, windy day could be just what the Bills need to stay alive in the playoff race.
The Bills’ ability to run the ball and the fact that this game is likely to be played in less-than-ideal conditions in Buffalo was enough to make us think they could pull this one out. But the weather forecast isn’t horrible, and news broke Friday that Buffalo DT Kyle Williams could miss the game with a back injury. One player probably shouldn’t make a big difference, but anything that weakens the Bills’ front seven is bad with Le’Veon Bell coming to town. Without Williams, Buffalo will have trouble stopping Bell and forcing Ben Roethlisberger to throw much.