Powerhouse offense meets shutdown defense
Dec. 18, 2015
A classic matchup awaits at Heinz Field.
The franchise that brought the NFL the Steel Curtain instead has become an offensive machine. And the team that once featured the Orange Crush has revitalized its powerful defense, if not the nickname.
When the Steelers host the Broncos on Sunday in the only game of Week 15 matching teams with winning records, the league's most potent offense in recent weeks faces off with a D that has been the NFL's stingiest.
The Broncos are allowing a league-low 4.3 yards per play, while the Steelers are averaging an NFL-best 6.4 yards per play.
Denver's 44 sacks lead the league. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is averaging 332 yards passing, tops in the NFL.
Add in that Denver hasn't lost in Pittsburgh since 1997 and that the Steelers have won nine straight games in December. Or that the Broncos, even with Peyton Manning still sidelined — but somewhat closer to returning while Brock Osweiler gets his fifth career start — can clinch a playoff berth with a victory and the AFC West with a win and at Chiefs loss at Baltimore.
Meanwhile, the Steelers are in a tight race for an AFC wild card and still have an outside chance at catching Cincinnati in the AFC North.
"Every game down the stretch is going to be a big game. We all know it," says Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who began his career in Pittsburgh. "It's playoff football right now. We have to handle business. Obviously, we dropped an egg versus Oakland (15-12 loss) and we had an opportunity to be first place in the AFC. We dropped an egg, like I said, so what can we do about it? We can't do anything. We can't carry that luggage. We can only move forward. It's on to Pittsburgh."
The action began Thursday night with the Rams' 31-23 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-23 in what could be the franchise's final game in St. Louis.
Tavon Austin scored twice, and Todd Gurley topped 1,000 yards rushing for the season for the Rams. Fans chanted "Keep Our Rams! Keep Our Rams!" and carried signs, one of them reading "We Don't Need Kroenke, We Just Want our Rams." Owner Stan Kroenke wants to move the team back to Los Angeles.
Jameis Winston threw two touchdown passes in a big fourth quarter and finished with a career-best 363 yards passing for Tampa Bay (6-8).
New York Jets (8-5) at Dallas (4-9), Saturday
The Jets probably need to win out to grab a wild card. They have won three straight with a solid defense and surprisingly strong offense led by Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing to Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, and Chris Ivory's tackle-breaking runs. New York hasn't won four in a row since 2010.
Cowboys RB Darren McFadden rushed for a career-high 171 yards and two TDs against the Jets with Oakland in 2011.
Carolina (13-0) at New York Giants (6-7)
Back in 1998, the 13-0 Broncos came to the Meadowlands to play a losing Giants team — and were beaten.
The Panthers could secure home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a win and a Cardinals loss. But Carolina will be without running back Jonathan Stewart, who has been on a strong, uh, run recently.
Carolina leads the NFL with 21 interceptions and 33 takeaways. Safety Kurt Coleman has interceptions in each of his last five games.
The Giants are in a three-way tie atop the mediocre NFC East, but face a tougher schedule than does either Washington or Philadelphia.
Key matchup: Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., against Panthers cornerback Josh Norman.
Arizona (11-2) at Philadelphia (6-7)
Then again, the Eagles have no pushover party this weekend.
Arizona takes the NFC West with a win or a Seattle loss, and can get a first-round bye with a victory and a Green Bay defeat.
Key matchup here could be Cardinals star receiver Larry Fitzgerald against a team that never slows him down. He has 47 catches for 802 yards and 11 TDs in seven games vs. Philadelphia.
Cincinnati (10-3) at San Francisco (4-9)
Although QB Andy Dalton is sidelined by a broken right thumb, the Bengals are favored. They will own the AFC North crown if the Steelers lose to Denver no matter how they fare here. They get a playoff spot simply by winning, or of the Jets or Chiefs lose.
San Francisco, which is 11-3 in the all-time series, including two Super Bowl wins, has a .786 winning percentage against Cincinnati, the highest by any Bengals opponent. But eight of 49ers' last nine wins in the series were by seven or fewer points, and this is hardly a vintage 49ers outfit.
Tennessee (3-10 at New England (11-2)
As they Patriots get healthy, they also get more injuries. Rob Gronkowski is back, Julian Edelman might be close, but not top running back LeGarrette Blount is out.
Hardly seems to matter to Tom Brady. New England will clinch a first-round bye with a win and a Denver loss. The Patriots have won five in a row against Tennessee.
Titans rookie QB Marcus Mariota became the first NFL player this season to pass for a TD, run for a TD and catch a TD pass. He is the first to score TDs of at least 40 yards passing, rushing and receiving in the same season since Walter Payton in 1983.
Green Bay (9-4) at Oakland (6-7)
The Raiders haven't won this matchup since 1987. Green Bay has taken the last six meetings, including three straight by at least 30 points.
A win puts the Packers into a franchise-record seventh straight playoff berth. They also get in if Tampa Bay and Washington both lose, or Tampa Bay and the Giants both fall.
Oakland comes off what it hopes was a signature comeback win at Denver, and star safety Charles Woodson is second in the NFL with eight takeaways. He won a Super Bowl with Green Bay.
Cleveland (3-10) at Seattle (8-5)
Seattle gets into the postseason if a variety of things happen, such as: Win and Tampa Bay and Giants lose; win and Tampa Bay and Washington lose; win and Tampa Bay and Atlanta lose and Minnesota loses and Green Bay wins.
The Seahawks have won six of seven and outscored their past two opponents 73-13. Russell Wilson has at least three TD passes and zero interceptions in four straight games, tied for the longest streak in NFL history. He's posted a 138.5 or higher passer rating in four straight games, the only QB to do that since at least 1960.
The Browns had a season-high nine sacks last week, the most by any team this season. That was the most sacks by Cleveland since having nine in 1993 against New Orleans.
Chicago (5-8) at Minnesota (8-5)
For the Vikings to secure a playoff berth, quite a bit must happen, all including a Minnesota win and Tampa Bay loss to start. They have won three in a row at home against the Bears.
Injuries forced the Vikings to start six rookies at Arizona last week, the most in franchise history.
One Bear who excels against Minnesota is WR Alshon Jeffery, who has 39 catches for 602 yards and five TDs, including 10 catches for 116 yards and a TD on Nov. 1.
Houston (6-7) at Indianapolis (6-7)
Not exactly a spotlight matchup for the AFC South lead: two losing teams using backup quarterbacks.
Texans star defensive end J.J. Watt, part of four of the franchise's 13 defeats in as many trips to Indy, ignores the past.
"We are playing the 2015 Indianapolis Colts, not any other team, not any other year," Watt said. "That's the past."
Watt needs 1½ sacks for his third 15-sack season, but will play a second straight game with a broken left hand.
The Colts had their NFL record 16-game winning streak against one division broken with a 51-16 loss last week at Jacksonville.
Buffalo (6-7) at Washington (6-7)
A loss could eliminate Buffalo in the AFC race and extend its non-playoffs drought to 16 seasons. The Bills already have lost to the Giants and Eagles of the weak NFC East.
Washington has won six straight at home and completes its home schedule Sunday. In those past six home games, Kirk Cousins has thrown for 11 TDs and no interceptions and run for three scores.
Kansas City (8-5) at Baltimore (4-9)
A reunion between Ravens coach John Harbaugh and Chiefs coach Andy Reid; Harbaugh worked for Reid 1998-2007 with the Eagles.
Kansas City is second NFL team to win seven straight after a five-game slide, and first in 45 years. The Chiefs are scoring 29.1 points per game and allowing an average of 12 during this win streak and have the inside track for an AFC wild-card spot.
Injury-plagued Baltimore had eight losses by eight points or fewer before falling 35-6 to Seattle last Sunday.
Detroit (4-9) at New Orleans (5-8), Monday night
Another reunion of sorts: Detroit's Jim Caldwell and New Orleans' Sean Payton faced each other in the Super Bowl six seasons ago in Miami, when Caldwell coached Indianapolis and Payton won with the Saints.
Detroit DE Ezekiel Ansah has 11 1/2 sacks, four forced fumbles and two fumble returns in his past 10 games and has a sack in each of the past four games. Saints QB Drew Brees has won four of five meetings with Detroit, including playoffs.
Atlanta (6-7) at Jacksonville (5-8)
While the Falcons have been flopping with six consecutive losses, Jacksonville is a game behind the leaders of the awful AFC South. The Jaguars have developed quite an offense with Blake Bortles throwing to Julius Thomas, Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns; if Hurns gets 137 yards on catches, he will join Robinson in the 1,000-yard club.
Atlanta must win at least two of the final three games to avoid becoming the first team in NFL history to finish with a losing record after starting 5-0.
Miami (5-8) at San Diego (3-10)
In what could be the final NFL game at Qualcomm Stadium if the Chargers are allowed to move to Los Angeles, it's definitely the last home contest for receiver Malcom Floyd, who is retiring.
The Dolphins are 4-5 under interim coach Dan Campbell.
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