Could this be an AFC Championship Game preview?
It's a matchup of AFC contenders on "Sunday Night Football" as the Steelers host the Chargers. These two teams last met in San Diego back in 2015 with the Steelers picking up a 24-20 victory. Pittsburgh has actually won nine of the last 11 meetings in this series. The Chargers are coming off a solid win over the Cardinals, while the Steelers lost a tough one in Denver against the Broncos.
Los Angeles (8-3) bounced back nicely after a head-scratching loss to the Broncos, beating Arizona 45-10. It was a costly win for the Chargers, though, as Melvin Gordon left with a knee injury that may keep him out a few weeks. That puts even more pressure on Philip Rivers, who had only one incompletion in last week's victory. The defense has held six of the last seven opponents to 20 points or fewer, and Joey Bosa is getting better and better on an improving defensive front. The Chargers' kicking game hasn't been much of an issue as of late, either.
Pittsburgh (7-3-1) saw its six-game winning streak snapped last time out, and the schedule doesn't get any easier for the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger had some glossy numbers passing the ball against Denver, but the turnover issue reared its ugly head in the form of an end zone interception along with a fumble by James Conner. There's no doubting how good this defense is, though. The 24 points allowed to the Broncos were the most for the Steelers since Week 4, when they gave up 26 to the Ravens. This is a unit on a mission to help hold serve at home in Pittsburgh.
Los Angeles at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 2 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Steelers -3
Three Things to Watch
I like to look and see if there are any situational plays or angles for these NFL matchups. Los Angeles is on the road for the first time in a few weeks, but the Chargers had a stretch in late October of four straight away from home. The Chargers are hosting the Bengals next week, so there won't be any looking ahead here. They alternate road and home contests the rest of the season. I'd be more concerned about Pittsburgh if their home tilt against the Patriots were next, but the Steelers have a road trip to Oakland next week, so all the focus will be here. They've been home twice over the past month or so. It looks like there are no real edges either way here.
2. Re-charging the backfield
Melvin Gordon doesn't figure to play in this one, and that's a big loss for Los Angeles. Gordon has accounted for more than 1,200 yards of offense and 13 touchdowns. The number one benefactor is Austin Ekeler, who has been solid in relief. Ekeler is averaging almost six yards per carry with one touchdown and 18 first downs on the season. He's even been a factor catching passes with 32 receptions on 39 targets with 354 yards and three touchdowns. The other player who comes into focus in the backfield is Justin Jackson. Jackson is a rookie out of Northwestern who was drafted in the seventh round. He had 57 yards on seven carries in garbage time last week against the Cardinals.
The Steelers' run defense has sprung a few leaks the last two weeks after a solid stretch of seven straight games allowing 100 yards or fewer on the ground. The Jaguars picked up 179 rushing yards, while Denver ran for a little more than five yards per carry. It'll be interesting to see if the Chargers continue to run the ball as much as they normally do, or if they turn Rivers loose a bit more.
3. Keep the turnovers in check
Turnovers have become a bit of an issue the past two weeks with the Steelers, who have coughed it up seven times while picking up just one on defense. There is way too much firepower on Pittsburgh's side for the Steelers to be loose with the football. Ben Roethlisberger has 12 interceptions and an interception percentage of 2.5 per pass attempt. James Conner has just two fumbles lost on the season, but they happened to come at the worst possible times. Before this recent stretch of bad luck, the team had just two turnovers over a four-week span. On the other side, you have the Chargers, who have just five turnovers over their last seven games. Over that span, they've also forced mistakes in all of the games but one, so you know they'll be hungry to extend the Steelers' recent run of bad luck.
Both of these teams are playing some really good football and will be huge factors in the AFC playoffs. I think a matchup like this will come down to field position and who makes the biggest mistake. As of late, it's been Pittsburgh making mistakes, but now the Steelers are home, where they will play a whole lot better. The loss of Melvin Gordon will be felt on the Los Angeles side. Austin Ekeler is not Gordon, and I think that is the difference. Give me the home team by a slim margin as the Steelers get back on track.
Prediction: Steelers 21, Chargers 17
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.