The Pittsburgh Steelers picked up a pair of important victories in Week 9. The first came at approximately 3:30 EST on Sunday, when Jacksonville Jaguars’ receiver Jaydon Mickens scored on a game-sealing punt return against the Cincinnati Bengals. The second came 45 minutes later, when Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans ran out the clock to preserve a narrow 27-24 win over the Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers (6-2) watched the games from the comfort of home, luxuriating in what’s currently the second-largest divisional lead in the NFL.
Pittsburgh has built a lead that, given the issues befalling Cincinnati and Baltimore, looks insurmountable. The Bengals have felt the full brunt of their most recent free-agency exodus, while Joe Flacco’s retrograde performance to this point has made Ben Roethlisberger’s struggles look downright trivial by comparison. More telling than their rivals’ misfortunes, though, is the cakewalk that’s Pittsburgh’s second-half schedule—including games against the hapless Colts and Browns; nationally-televised matchups versus the Packers and Texans (sans Aaron Rodgers and DeShaun Watson); home games against Baltimore and New England, the latter of whom looks nothing like its usual, impenetrable self. In other words, it’s not difficult to imagine the Steelers storming into the AFC Playoffs with a 13-3 record and the top seed.
Of course, this is a fallacy, an unforgivable lapse in judgment that fails to consider the general chaos that has characterized the 2017 NFL season to this point. While it’s true that the presumed heavyweights (Steelers, Patriots, Seahawks, Chiefs) are still in contention, so too are the perennial bottom-dwellers (Rams, Jaguars) and the former divisional afterthoughts (Bills, Eagles, Saints, Vikings). The New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, both considered trendy Super Bowl front-runners, are currently on pace to secure top-8 picks in the 2018 NFL Draft, while Atlanta and Oakland have looked every bit as average as their current records indicate.
So before you lock in any plans for the Wildcard Round, it might be prudent to take the remainder of the NFL season one week at a time. On to the Colts, Pittsburgh’s Week 10 opponent:
Neatest Matchup: Pittsburgh’s front seven vs. Indianapolis’ offensive line
This is normally the part where I dissect whatever matchup I deem to be the most neat. But I’m going to digress for a second to discuss Andrew Luck, who would have provided the neatest matchup had the Colts not actively tried to murder him.
Luck, who underwent surgery in January to repair his torn labrum—an injury he sustained in 2015—experienced tenderness and inflammation in his shoulder after attempting to throw some passes in practice a few weeks ago. The Colts, sitting at 3-6, wisely shut him down for the season.
The fact that Luck experienced this setback shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. After drafting him first overall in the 2012 NFL Draft, the Colts proceeded to stick Luck behind an offensive line full of wraiths and subsequently wished him the best. Nonetheless, Luck established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, a generational talent capable of single-handedly keeping the Colts in playoff contention in spite of themselves. For example, Luck’s performance in the Wildcard Playoffs against Kansas City a few years ago is one of the greatest postseason quarterback showings ever. Luck also kept both Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson gainfully employed, which is nothing short of a miracle in and of itself.
The gross mismanagement of Luck’s shoulder injury by the front office (draft better linemen, you guys) and the coaching staff (maybe don’t shoot your franchise player full of cortisone each game just so he can lift his arm above his head) is negligent at best and borderline criminal at worst. With any luck (pun intended), Luck can escape his contract next off-season.
Excuse that tangent, but I’m going somewhere with this. Remember how I said the Colts’ offensive line has the collective blocking acumen of a ghost? Well, this mesh-like group of CFL castoffs has allowed a league-high 36 sacks, further underscoring the fact that Luck’s transition to the IR was a prudent move. Pittsburgh’s defense, meanwhile, is near the top of the league in sacks, which would present a whole host of issues to the Colts even if the Steelers didn’t expect Stephon Tuitt to return to the lineup (spoiler: they do). Compounding Indianapolis’ offensive line issue is Jacoby Brissett’s innate and frustrating tendency to hang onto the football like Lord Sauron’s ring. Pittsburgh should have an absolute field day against this undermanned Colts outfit.
The Second-Neatest Matchup: Antonio Brown vs. everyone
If you thought the Colts’ offensive line was bad, wait ‘til you get a load of their secondary. Something called Matthias Farley is slotted in as the starting strong safety. Flanking him is Darius Butler, whose previous experiences against the Steelers have almost certainly led to paralyzing night terrors. At cornerback, the Colts are set to start Rashaan Melvin and Pierre Desir in place of the injured Vontae Davis, who was among the last remaining beacons of hope in this group (rookie safety Malik Hooker, the other beacon of hope, was lost for the season earlier this year). Statistically, the Colts are ranked 31st in the NFL in pass defense, ahead of only the New England Patriots, a team that I am convinced is playing poorly intentionally so as to bolster Tom Brady’s MVP case.
And speaking of Brady, it’s not like the Colts have faced a murder’s row of fearsome passers. The likes of Brian Hoyer (353 yards; two touchdowns), Blake Bortles (330 yards, one touchdown) and Carson Palmer’s skeleton (332 yards, one touchdown) have made easy work of the Indianapolis secondary. If Ben Roethlisberger struggles against this Colts pass defense, then we can go ahead and move that retirement ticker all the way up to 10.
In 2014, the Steelers-Colts matchup inexplicably emerged as a soon-to-be annual tradition. Since then, Antonio Brown has firmly established himself as the Colts’ daddy. If you’re a fan of the Colts, look away, because these statistics are going to upset you. In his past three meetings against the Colts, Brown has amassed 342 yards and 27 catches and he’s scored eight total touchdowns. Brown now gets to face that same team minus their best safety and best cornerback. Woof.
An important storyline: Secondary rebound
Matthew Stafford threw for a whole bunch of yards against the Steelers—423 of them, to be exact, in Week 8. Detroit’s offense moved up and down the field with relative ease, making five trips inside Pittsburgh’s red-zone. These five trips yielded just nine points, which speaks to the robustness of Pittsburgh’s defense under pressure.
Nevertheless, the Steelers—entering that Week-8 matchup having allowed an average of 160 yards per game to the opposition—surrendered a quarter-mile of passing yardage. Not great!
Fortunately, Indianapolis’ passing attack is among the worst in the NFL, so it’s a fine week to recover.
The random things:
- T.Y. Hilton, despite the futility of his offense, is second in the league with 702 receiving yards. Remarkably, Hilton has accrued this lofty figure on just 34 catches, which puts him comfortably in first place in yards-per-catch among players with 20 or more receptions.
- Brown, who didn’t play football last weekend, still leads the league with 835 yards. And to think some people didn’t want the Steelers to re-sign Brown to a contract extension last off-season.
- Mike Tomlin is 6-4 coming out of the bye-week in the regular season, but he’s 0-3 in his past three post-bye week contests. Yikes!
Prediction: Steelers 35, Colts 13
Yeah, yeah, the Steelers are on the road against a bad team. We’ve all seen this movie. But the Colts are awful. Pittsburgh has yet to truly hit its stride, but even a Steelers team operating at 80-percent capacity should have no issues with this Colts team.
The Steelers are currently 10-point road favorites, which is the kind of spread you’ll rarely see beyond the confines of college football. Considering Pittsburgh’s notorious road issues, betting on them to cover is a bit of a ballsy move. The O/U is in the ballpark of 43 and going over this week feels safe.