It's a strange week for Steelers fans. Along with the 24-hour news cycle on the ankle health of Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey, there's a deep but realistic possibility the Steelers can lock up a playoff berth by the end of the early games today.
We're going to post some sleeper players and things to watch for in each game that has playoff significance for Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh needs losses from Cincinnati (vs. Houston), New York Jets (vs. Kansas City), and Tennessee (vs. New Orleans) to clinch a playoff berth in the simplest scenario.
Two other scenarios involve a Cincinnati loss, losses by Oakland (at Green Bay) and Denver (vs. Chicago) and either a Tennessee loss or a Jets loss.
Lots of losses. None of this is as implausible as Indianapolis and something called Dan Orlovsky traveling to Baltimore to beat the Ravens - a team that is 7-2 in Week 15-17 since 2008. Their only two losses came at the hands of the Steelers.
Let's dig into the games of interest:
1. Kansas City at New York Jets
Sleeper: Chiefs Defense
Kansas City's defense has been playing at a high level the last few weeks. It's certainly possible to entertain the notion of another big defensive performance. The Jets offense has been inconsistent, at best, the last few weeks, and weird as this sounds, the Chiefs still have a chance at the playoffs. They trail Denver and Oakland by two games in the AFC West.
2. Houston at Cincinnati
Sleeper: T.J. Yates
Watching Houston's 17-10 win over Atlanta last week, I was really surprised, because it didn't appear much had changed with the Texans. Yates looked well above and beyond what one would rationally expect from someone in that kind of a situation. All he needs to do is simply protect the ball this week, and lean on Houston's vastly underrated defense (watch out, AFC), and they can easily leave Paul Brown Stadium with a win.
3. New Orleans at Tennessee
Sleeper: Saints Defense
I figure this to be the clearest win on the slate this week. The Saints are red hot, and the Titans, despite doing an excellent job with what they had this season, just don't have the horses to keep up with New Orleans' bevy of thoroughbreds.
The Saints defense has been their weakness this year, but I except defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to ride the momentum New Orleans has built the last few weeks, and blow up the talent-shallow Titans offense.
4. Chicago at Denver
Sleeper: QB Caleb Hanie
Bet you thought I was gonna talk about Denver's quarterback. I won't. I am, however, going to write about someone we may come back to regret when it's all said and done. Chicago's losses to Oakland and Kansas City this year keep those teams competing for a playoff spot, and the longer those teams compete, the longer it takes for the Steelers to clinch a playoff berth - and give Roethlisberger the rest he desperately needs.
Hanie is the main reason behind the Bears' recent swoon. He looked flat-out abysmal against Kansas City, and as daunting as Steelers fans' reliance on such poor quarterbacks this week (Hanie and KC's Tyler Palko) is, it's hard to imagine him playing worse than he did last week. Chicago can win if Hanie simply doesn't make them lose. Seems simple, but that will be Chicago's game plan this week.
5. Oakland at Green Bay
Sleeper: P Shane Lechler
It's hard to envision an Oakland win without using phrases like "Packers' bus explodes" or "outbreak of cholera," but a punter who can pin teams deep in their territory for an aggressive defensive front seven can be a considerable advantage, especially in cold games. Lechler is quite simply the best punter most NFL fans have ever seen, and while Green Bay has match-up advantages at every position, he could negate the Packers offense by keeping them away from the short field.
6. Indianapolis at Baltimore
Sleeper: QB Dan Orlovsky
We'll add this one in here to pay homage to the phrase "Any Given Sunday." Anyone in my generation remembers the pre-90s Colts as the doormats of the league. I wasn't aware the NFL Draft had a fluctuating order of selection until I was 10. I just assumed the Colts got to pick first every year. Not only are they those Jack-Trudeau-led Colts I used to completely destroy in Tecmo Bowl, they're even worse. I'm really not sure there is a way the Ravens lose this game (including the aforementioned vehicle explosion and pandemic scenarios), except if Orlovsky simply forgets that there's no way they can win. The Us Against The World mentality is powerful. Orlovsky clearly won't be with the team next year, he's auditioning for jobs elsewhere more than he's playing to keep the Colts from going winless.
Perhaps Colts coach Jim Caldwell becomes animated (or resuscitated) and channels his inner Herb Brooks.
"Great moments... are born from great opportunity. And that's what you have here, (today), boys. That's what you've earned here (today). One game. If we played 'em ten times, they might win nine (probably more like 10). But not this game. Not (today). (today), we (run) with them. Tonight, we stay with them. And we shut them down because we can! Tonight, WE are the greatest (football) team in the world. You were born to be (football) players. Every one of you. And you were meant to be here (today). This is your time. Their time is done. It's over. I'm sick and tired of hearing about what a great (football) team the (Ravens) have. Screw 'em. This is your time. Now go out there and take it."