Playoff positioning is at stake Sunday afternoon when New Orleans hosts Pittsburgh, but the stakes are markedly different for the two teams. The Saints (12-2) have already won the NFC South and can clinch the top seed and home-field advantage throughout the postseason with a victory at home on Sunday. The Steelers (8-5-1) are coming off of a big victory of their own, but have Baltimore breathing down their necks in the AFC North.
New Orleans is back in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the first time since beating Atlanta on Thanksgiving night. The Saints went 2-1 on their three-game road swing, including Monday night's gritty 12-9 win in Carolina.
Pittsburgh beat New England 17-10 at home last week to snap a three-game losing streak. The Steelers can clinch the division title with a victory in New Orleans combined with a Ravens loss or tie against the Chargers out in Los Angeles on Saturday. Pittsburgh also can secure a playoff spot with a win and losses by both Indianapolis (at Giants) and Tennessee (vs. Redskins on Saturday).
Playoff implications aside, this game also carries plenty of intrigue because it pairs two of the league's top offenses. However, what many may not realize is that both defenses rank in the top 11 in terms of yards allowed per game as well. So don't be surprised if this doesn't develop into a high-scoring, back-and-forth affair.
Pittsburgh at New Orleans
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 23 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Saints reverse their offensive woes?
New Orleans' offense has struggled in the last three games. The Saints have failed to reach the end zone in the first half for three straight weeks. They have averaged just 16.7 points per game in that span. Drew Brees has tossed an interception in each of those games after only two in the prior 12.
Does the fact that those three contests were all on the road explain the struggles? Probably not considering that the offense had averaged 34.8 points over the first five road games. The Saints’ highest point total during the last three games was 28. During the five earlier road games, they scored 30 or more points on four different occasions.
The Saints are still waiting for a second dependable wide receiver to emerge. Michael Thomas leads the team with 109 receptions and 1,267 receiving yards. Running back Alvin Kamara is second to Thomas in both categories (77, 627) with Tre'Quan Smith, a rookie, the current No. 2 wideout in terms of production but way behind Thomas with just 24 catches for 386 yards. Thomas by himself is responsible for more than a third of the team's receiving yards (3,730). Even with Kamara and tight ends Benjamin Watson and Josh Hill (among others), someone needs to step up to take some of the burden off of Thomas.
Ted Ginn Jr., who has been on injured reserve since Oct. 19 after undergoing knee surgery, returned to practice this week and if he's cleared he's eligible to play on Sunday. His veteran presence could be just the boost New Orleans' offense needs as it gets ready for the playoffs.
2. Will the Steelers feel the absence of Le'Veon Bell this week?
James Conner has filled in commendably for Bell. Tenth in the NFL in rushing (909 yards) and tied for second with 12 rushing touchdowns, Conner was named to the Pro Bowl earlier this week. Unfortunately, he's also all but assured of missing a third straight game because of an ankle injury.
Two weeks ago, Pittsburgh managed just 40 rushing yards on 19 carries as the Steelers lost a tough one in overtime to the Raiders. Last week against New England, Jaylen Samuels, a rookie who had been utilized primarily as a tight end, gained 142 yards on 19 carries. If Pittsburgh can get that type of production from Samuel (or veteran Stevan Ridley) then the Steelers will be able to weather Conner's absence.
However, running the ball against New Orleans will be a tough task regardless of who gets the carries. New Orleans is No. 1 in the league against the run, giving up just 79.1 rushing yards per game. Ezekiel Elliott is the only player thus far who has been able to post more than 70 yards on the ground against the Saints. If established players like Elliott can't find much running room against New Orleans it seems unlikely that Samuels, who has a total of 42 rushing attempts this season, will be the one to buck this trend.
3. Which version of the Steelers will show up in the Superdome?
Pittsburgh has shown the potential to be a serious contender to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LIII. Because the AFC North and NFC South are playing each other this season, the Steelers and Saints have faced many of the same teams. While the frequency varies (play teams in your division twice), it should be pointed out that Pittsburgh is 6-1-1 while New Orleans is 7-1 against common opponents. In these games, the Steelers have more passing yards (2,386 vs. 2,057) and are not too far behind the Saints when it comes to points scored (242 vs. 250). For these reasons and others, Pittsburgh seems to match up well with New Orleans.
But on the other hand, these are the same Steelers who barely survived six turnovers in Week 1 to tie Cleveland and lost to both Kansas City and Baltimore at home in games where they couldn’t run the ball at all. More recently, Pittsburgh lost on the road to Denver and Oakland, a pair of teams that have a combined 9-19 record. So which Steelers team will show up on Sunday? The one that defeated New England last week or the one that has failed to show up against teams it should beat? If anything, motivation shouldn't be an issue on the road against the team with the best record in the NFL.
The Steelers currently hold a precarious half-game lead in the AFC North over Baltimore. They must win in New Orleans or else will have to rely on getting some help from other teams.
The Saints have a more comfortable situation. Even if they were to lose this game, they can still secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs by defeating Carolina next week. One more loss by the Rams also would hand home-field advantage to New Orleans.
This game will enthrall viewers as much as the Pittsburgh matchup with New England did last week. The Steelers will come ready to play and will give the Saints fits on both sides of the ball. But in the end, dome sweet dome will be the deciding factor.
Prediction: Saints 27, Steelers 24
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.