I think the NFL clearly pegged Week 15 as a showdown week across the league before the schedule softens up in the last two weeks heading into the holidays and postseason. You can see it right away with the battle on Thursday night between the Chiefs and Chargers, and the week ends with Panthers-Saints, which should have been a much bigger game than it’s turned out to be in the NFC South.
But the two biggest games of Week 15 intended to be Patriots-Steelers and Eagles-Rams. Unfortunately, the Pennsylvania teams, who entered the season as Super Bowl contenders, have both disappointed and are in serious danger of missing the playoffs entirely. Philadelphia hasn’t been right since September, and will now have to make due with Nick Foles at quarterback. That worked great last year, but I’d expect the Rams to bounce back at home and put the Eagles out of their misery at 6-8 this time.
The Steelers are a whole different story. Every year we have the same talking points, because nothing ever really changes with this team. Can they ever get back to developing a great defense again, especially in the secondary? (Nope). Can they avoid losing the small games to teams they’re expected to beat? (Nope). Can they beat the Patriots to avoid having to go to New England in January? That one’s on their plate tomorrow, but the inexplicable three-game losing streak heading into this one makes even a win nowhere near as valuable as it should have been.
Remember, when these teams met in Week 15 last year with the Jesse James TD overturned, it was for the No. 1 seed. Now, even a Pittsburgh win is unlikely to give the Steelers homefield over the Patriots. It might not even help them to anything more than the No. 4 seed. The best thing it could do is help the Steelers make the playoffs, since that is in serious doubt with a trip to New Orleans up next and a favorable schedule for Baltimore. The second-best thing it could do is actually make the Patriots a No. 3 seed and not get a first-round bye for the ninth year in a row. That would still require Houston and the AFC West teams to finish strong, which isn’t a guarantee. The only other good thing it could do is give the Steelers some confidence they can beat the Patriots, which may still be required in January if they were the 4 and 3 seeds and both made it to the AFC Championship Game (a la Indy-NE in 2006). But that’s a ways off, and as this last week has shown, no one is a safe bet to do anything this year. These teams are coming off embarrassing losses to the Dolphins and Raiders after all.
As for the matchup itself, I’m not feeling Pittsburgh, a 3-point home underdog. We know the defense always struggles with this offense, but in the last three weeks, they’re barely even covering the other team’s top receiving threat (Emmanuel Sanders, Keenan Allen, Jared Cook). Now you bring the Patriots to town with Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon, and the Steelers definitely have their hands full. Don’t discount the running game and James White as a receiver too. Brady has also played better in the three games since the bye than he was earlier this season.
The 2018 Steelers are essentially a passing offense and nothing more. I think you’d have to go back to 2002 to find the last time the Steelers were so built around the pass with a suspect defense, a shoddy running game and terrible special teams (especially the kicker). But even that team finished 10-5-1 and made the playoffs because they came through on defense in the red zone when they had to. Last week, the Steelers had a fourth down to win the game and failed to stop Derek Carr in Oakland. They had an 8-minute drive against the Chargers with a 23-7 lead and Sean Davis turned an interception in the end zone into a touchdown for Allen after dislodging the ball with a hit on his own teammate. That was the play of the game and hurt more than any officiating blunder did. I think the Steelers hold on for the win if that pick went their way. Then the week before against Denver, that was about a comedy of errors by the OFF/ST in a game they should have scored way more than 17 points. So it’s been a frustrating three weeks after a pretty solid 7-2-1 start.
Ben Roethlisberger looked fine after the rib injury last week, so I’m not really worried about that part. James Conner possibly being out isn’t good since they may end up running for ~30 yards again, but it has to be a huge Roethlisberger game either way. I just don’t see how you beat the Patriots when you’re that one-dimensional of a team, but it’s a dimension they better at least utilize properly this week. That means no punting on fourth-and-short in NE territory. No settling for long field goals to try to get Chris Boswell’s confidence back when he’s been terrible and is on the verge of getting cut. You need touchdowns in this game and you need to limit Brady’s possessions.
Do I trust Mike Tomlin to understand this? Of course not. He punted on 4th-and-1 with a 24-19 lead last year with 2:16 left when the Steelers might have put the game away. Do I expect the Steelers to make any changes if they lose five or six in a row and miss the playoffs? Of course not, even though it’s the same argument as Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, and the Packers fired him already. Tomlin should go too if they show they can’t beat the Patriots even when NE hasn’t looked this vulnerable since 2013 or 2005. Oh yeah, the Steelers lost to those New England teams as well.
Final: Patriots 30, Steelers 24
NFL Week 15 Predictions
That was a bad beat on Thursday as Chiefs and the under was the right call all night until the last 4 seconds.
I think the Colts figure out the Cowboys at home, but it might be lower scoring than expected. Hate trusting the Giants, but they have been playing better since the bye. Titans can be very unpredictable, so I’d stay away from putting money on that game. I really like Seattle in SF.