Unlike what Jim Mora Sr. once famously said in a postgame press conference, it’s never too early to start talking playoffs. And with these two teams, the ramifications are huge going into this one as both are sitting squarely on the wild-card bubble with the Steelers at 5-3-1 and the Chargers at 5-4. So yes, even though we are only at the Week 11 point of the season, the loser of this game could find themselves behind the eight-ball. In the AFC, the Titans lead the pack with an 8-2 mark, but there are 11 teams behind them with five or six wins.
Last week the Steelers nearly had a catastrophic Sunday, and in the end still took a shot to the ego. That’s because they came THISCLOSE to losing to the Detroit Lions, settling for a 16-16 tie at home. Pittsburgh better start figuring things out too because Mike Tomlin's team also happens to own the toughest remaining strength of schedule in the NFL.
The Chargers come in with smoke billowing out from under the hood, having lost three of their last four games, including last weekend’s home setback to the Minnesota Vikings, 27-20. After a 4-1 start, the Chargers have blown a gasket, cracked their radiator, and most of all, lost a spark plug. Yet, keep in mind they still find themselves in second place in the AFC West.
Sunday Night Football: Pittsburgh (5-3-1) at Los Angeles (5-4)
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 21 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Chargers -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Bolts are losing some electricity
It might be time to throw out the stat sheet. For all the praise and bluster about Chargers wunderkind quarterback Justin Herbert, things have hit a rut for this offense of late. They are still 10th in the NFL in total yards per game (370.2) and seventh in passing offense (270 ypg). But last Sunday, all Los Angeles could muster against Minneota's 27th-ranked defense (384 ypg allowed) was 253. Egad. In three of the last four games, Herbert has had a QB rating of sub-75.
2. Not going to let Rudolph play in any reindeer games
The Big ‘Berger is back. In a late development, Ben Roethlisberger has cleared COVID protocols and looks like he’ll be back under center for the Steelers.
Not to state the obvious here, but how much does Roethlisberger mean to the Steelers? There were tied by the lowly, winless Detroit Lions 16-16 last week without him. And it’s not that Mason Rudolph did a bad job, going 30-of-50 for 242 yards, but obviously Roethlisberger is still a difference-maker for this offense. On the positive side, Rudolph did not get sacked or even take any hits in those 50 dropbacks, so the O-line is trending up, which is good news for the not-so-mobile Roethlisberger. And get this; the O-line may not have to face defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, who is currently on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Edge rusher Joey Bosa was as well but he was activated on Saturday and barring a setback, he should be ready to play on Sunday night. The defense also will get linebacker Drue Tranquill back as well. So while neither defense will be at full strength due to injuries or the virus, it appears that the home team may have a slight leg up when it comes to depth.
3. Can Roethlisberger play defense?
One thing that had no bearing on whether Roethlisberger played or not was the fact that the Lions had a ton of success running the ball, pounding the Steelers for 229 yards. D'Andre Swift ran the ball 33 times for 130 yards himself. Godwin Igwebuike added a 42-yard touchdown jaunt and Jermar Jefferson hit paydirt on a 28-yard run of his own. Prior to that, the Steelers had been pretty good vs. the run, giving up just 109 yards per game. Granted, the Chargers are still going to lean on Herbert’s big arm, but Austin Ekeler should be licking his chops at the chance to get some chunks of yardage on the ground in this one. Oh, and on the flip side of that, remember that the Chargers are the worst team in the league in stopping the run (155 ypg). So Najee Harris, have yourself a day my man.
Depending on who suits up for this one will determine who wins. The Steelers are a bit of a mess. While it does look like Roethlisberger will return, defensive end T.J. Watt (hip), safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (COVID-19), cornerback Joe Haden (foot), and guard Kevin Dotson (ankle) have all been ruled out. So that's a handful of starters the visiting team will be down, so the Chargers look like the pick here by default, especially with Bosa in line to play. Yes, even with how crappy they’ve been playing lately, including relenting 31 points per game since Week 5.
Oh, and if it matters, the Chargers are a paltry 8-23 vs. the Steelers in all-time matchups. But then again, this isn't exactly the heavily-bearded Dan Fouts going up against Mean Joe Greene and that Steel Curtain defense, so that is one of those useless stats I like to throw out at the end for no real reason.
Prediction: Chargers 20, Steelers 17
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.