Pittsburgh Steelers (-2, 54 o/u) at Atlanta Falcons
This weekend’s game between the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5, 4-3 away) at the Atlanta Falcons (5-8, 3-3 home) has playoff ramifications of all sorts.
Last weekend, the Steelers moved half a game back of division-leading Cincinnati in the AFC North by thumping the Bengals, 42-21, and demolishing the spread as three-point dogs. Pittsburgh’s stars were just that in what amounted to a must-win for the Steelers. Running back Le’Veon Bell (who is second in the league in rushing) had 235 yards from scrimmage and scored three touchdowns, while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 350 yards and three TDs of his own.
With a week 17 rematch against the Bengals still on the schedule, Pittsburgh now controls its own fate. All the Steelers have to do is keep winning and they will earn their first division title since 2010.
“We have a great opportunity in front of us, so I’m going to embrace it,” Bell said. “This is the part of the year where things get a little tight, they get more exciting. Everybody in the locker room is excited about this last couple of weeks.”
Roethlisberger has been enamored with the second-year back Bell this season.
“As long as he stays healthy, we’ll keep feeding him,” Roethlisberger said. “I’ve said for many, many weeks now that he’s one of the best all-around backs in the game. I think every week he continues to prove that.”
As for the Falcons, the squad is currently tied with New Orleans in the NFC South despite losing, 43-37, at Green Bay last week. It’s highly likely the NFC South winner will have a losing record. At 5-8 on the year, the best the Falcons or Saints can do is finish at .500. But due to the current playoff format, the division winner will earn, not only a playoff berth, but a home game against a Wild Card team that will undoubtedly have a better record.
Atlanta’s offense has been much improved in recent weeks and looks a lot like the potent force that led the Falcons to 12 wins just two years ago. Against the Packers, quarterback Matt Ryan passed for 375 yards and four touchdowns, while Julio Jones caught 11 passes for 259 yards and a score. Atlanta head coach Mike Smith praised the tandem in spite of the loss to the Packers.
“When they’re in sync, it really is very difficult to slow those guys down,” said Smith. “Julio is an outstanding wide receiver. In my mind he’s the best in the NFL. In the last few weeks, you’re not going to get anyone who can put games together back to back like that. Of course for a receiver to have a big game, the quarterback has to be able to distribute the ball and Matt has done a very good job.”
With the defense still struggling to keep points of the board – and the high-scoring Steelers coming to town – the Falcons will need another big day out of Ryan and Jones (who now leads the NFL in receiving yards).
On paper, these teams are evenly matched, which makes a pick that much harder. With both offenses in gear, the only number that stands out is the over (54), but even with that, it’s still a coin-flip at best.
(Photo credit: flickr user SteelCityHobbies (flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo has been cropped.)
Let's have fun and keep it civil.