The Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t supposed to be in playoff contention this year. One team, the Bills, had embarked on what felt like their 50th rebuild in a reconstruction that never ends; they’ve made the postseason just once this century (2017). Meanwhile, the Steelers lost franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the season in Week 2 and began this year 1-4.
Yet here we are with three weeks left in the NFL regular season, and these two teams are in position to be the AFC Wild Cards. Both organizations have done it in an unconventional way with young quarterbacks (Josh Allen, Devlin Hodges) stepping up and delivering on offense.
Overall, it’s their defenses that have carried both teams to the precipice of postseason play. The Bills allow just 16.3 points per game, second-best in the NFL to their division rival New England Patriots. The Steelers counter that with their league-best 33 takeaways, creating a plus-12 turnover margin that’s given their wounded offense a chance at success.
A victory for both these teams is pivotal in closing the deal on the playoffs. The Bills need this game to shore up a spot with a road trip to the Patriots scheduled for next week. A loss here, and they’re potentially staring at a 9-6 record with no victories against teams with winning records on their schedule. A must-win game against the Jets in Week 17 would suddenly feel like it’s far from a guarantee.
The Steelers’ road is nearly as daunting. They finish up with a road game against those Jets before traveling to Baltimore to face the AFC’s likely top seed. The hope is that the Ravens will have everything locked up by then but if not? And if the Ravens choose not to rest Lamar Jackson? A loss here could send the Steelers on a road to 9-7, which might not be enough to get through depending on tiebreakers.
Both teams clearly need a victory to feel secure about their chances. But only one will get to breathe a little easier after Sunday night. The Steelers have to hope history is on their side, since they've won 10 of the last 11 matchups. In fact, Buffalo hasn't won in Pittsburgh since the 1993 playoffs.
Buffalo at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 15 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Steelers -1.5
Three Things To Watch
1. Who will be available for the Steelers on offense?
The constant rotation of players in and out of the Steelers' lineup has really hurt the offense in a post-Roethlisberger world. It’s hard enough to go through multiple quarterbacks, from Big Ben to Mason Rudolph to third-stringer Devlin “Duck” Hodges, who will start under center for the third straight game. Hodges earned the role after doing a better job of hanging onto the ball than Rudolph; he has just two interceptions this season to nine for Rudolph, who threw four in a November loss to the Browns).
Somehow, the Steelers have won seven of eight games despite their best offensive players (Roethlisberger, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner) sitting on the sidelines. Sadly, there’s no indication that any of them will be back at 100 percent for Sunday night. Smith-Schuster reinjured his knee in Thursday’s practice and is almost certainly out for the game. Conner, who practiced in full this week, is uncertain of how his shoulder problems will endure hard contact in game conditions.
That leaves a hodgepodge group of misfits led by wide receiver James Washington for Hodges to rely on. Washington had just the second 100-yard game for a Steelers receiver all season against the Browns two weeks ago and has the speed to get open for deep passes. His 18.0 yards per reception rank third in the AFC.
The question is who else will step up? Hodges nearly led the team in rushing last week with 34 yards. Jaylen Samuels has been nursing a groin injury and struggled to be effective during Conner’s absence. Tight end Vance McDonald, after a strong 2018, has been inconsistent this season and spent this week under the league’s concussion protocol. At this rate, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Steelers sign a man off the street before Sunday’s game, similar to how their in-state rival Philadelphia Eagles nearly suited up 40-year-old quarterback Josh McCown to play wide receiver after a flurry of injuries Monday night against the Giants.
That just won’t fly against this Bills defense. Minkah Fitzpatrick may honestly be the best offensive option for this Steelers team Sunday night. Fitzpatrick’s ability defensively to disrupt and cause a turnover is key. Without some help to set this offense up, they may be stuck on their own side of the field the entire night.
2. Can Josh Allen recover from a down week?
Allen has been a revelation this season for the Bills. With 17 touchdowns and just eight interceptions, he’s done a wonderful job of managing their offense while letting the playoff-caliber defense take care of the rest. It's a welcomed improvement after his 10-touchdown, 12-interception rookie campaign last year.
But the Ravens' top-five defense really flummoxed Allen during a 24-17 loss on Sunday. Allen was sacked a season-high six times, lost a fumble, threw for a season-low 146 yards, and completed just 43.6 percent of his passes. He started 1-for-7 and was unable to do much offensively until the 4th quarter. The Steelers’ defense is comparable, a unit that forced Lamar Jackson into three interceptions earlier this season. Jimmy Garropolo? He threw two picks of his own in what was the 49ers’ closest game during their 8-0 start.
How Allen handles this defense is key in what’s likely to be a low-scoring contest. He’s done a great job of bringing Devin Singletary into the fold, whose 258 rushing yards the last three games has finally pushed an aging Frank Gore back to the bench. But only Singletary won’t be enough. Receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley, both of whom were limited to less than 30 yards last week, have to get going. And Allen has to make sure he bounces back from what will almost certainly be one giveaway against the Steelers defense.
Here’s the good news for Bills fans: Allen hung in there last week and still steered an unlikely comeback effort in the fourth quarter. It may only take one solid offensive drive Sunday night to get the job done here.
3. A quick look at special teams
Quietly, kicker Chris Boswell has had one of his best seasons in the NFL for the Steelers. He has a 92.9 percent accuracy rate in what’s been an awful year for kickers; his 26 field goals made ranks tied for third in the NFL. More importantly, he’s perfect on extra points in a year where over half the league’s regular kickers have missed at least one — often at a crucial time in the game.
Buffalo’s Stephen Hauschka is no slouch either, though. After a rocky start, Hauschka has hit 10 of 11 field goals over the past four weeks, his only miss a 50-yarder against the Cowboys a few weeks ago. He’s hit on 26 of 28 extra points, and four of his six field goal misses this year have been from 50-plus, always risky business to begin with.
These two may be the most important people on the field with conditions at game time expected to be snowy and near freezing. Add in a 10-15 mph wind, typical for games at Heinz Field, and you’re looking at a low-scoring game where one blown kick either way makes the difference.
The last time the Bills won in Pittsburgh, Frank Reich filled in at quarterback for injured future NFL Hall of Famer Jim Kelly. Josh Allen wasn’t even born yet. Clearly, it’s time for a new chapter in Bills' history, and this defense is ready to make a long list of new memories for a franchise that’s finally getting its act together. Mike Tomlin may be the strongest Coach of the Year candidate out there, but his Steelers can only be put together with smoke and mirrors on offense for so long. A top-tier defense should expose weaknesses that will come back to bite them against one of the conference’s better teams.
Prediction: Buffalo 17, Pittsburgh 13
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.