This is starting to sound like a broken record, but at 4-4 this is a crucial week for the playoff fortunes of the Pittsburgh Steelers. This week is even more critical when across the gridiron looms the 4-3 Oakland Raiders, currently the 5th seed in the AFC. A win against their 1970s rival, will give each team a tiebreaker over the other. Also with the top three teams in the conference undefeated, the most favorable draw may just be the No. 5 seed. At this point, the odds favor the winner of the much-maligned AFC South earning the fourth seed.
Even though there is half a season to play, Cincy's lead of four games may be insurmountable to overcome. The Steelers are still not going to concede the division, but a berth in the Wild Card is the most realistic goal.
Buckle down, a great rivalry from decades ago is reborn at Heinz Field on Sunday. Echoes of the Snake, Mean Joe, Atkinson and Franco will be channeled by names like Big Ben, Heyward, Amari and Mack.
Key Matchup #1
QB Ben Roethlisberger vs QB Derek Carr
Either Ben was having a hard time of shaking off the rust last week against Cincinnati or he's still struggling to deal with lingering pain from the knee injury that sideline him for four games. I suspect the latter.
Roethlisberger opened up the Cincinnati affair with a brilliant touchdown drive. After that, he struggled mightily. His three interceptions thwarted scoring opportunities and were the biggest contributor in the Steelers losing the game.
Ben still remains with a completion rate above 70% and is not the kind of quarterback to fold after a bad outing. With a crucial matchup against a key Wildcard competitor, #7 will most likely break out his best Stella impression and get his groove back.
On the opposite side of the veteran quarterback is a second-year player doing his best to avoid the sophomore jinx. Derek Carr is proving his worth as the 36th overall selection in the 2014 draft.
It may be a surprise to see that Carr is among the NFL's finest throwers statistically in 2015. The second-year starter from Fresno ranks fifth with 15 TDs and sixth with a QBR of 105.7. Last week vs the Jets, Carr threw for 333 yards and four touchdowns passes.
Carr has only thrown three interceptions on the season, while Ben was picked-off that many times last week alone. The quarterback that is the most accurate and mistake free will lead his team to victory, not the one with the most yards in the air. This could go either way.
Key Matchup #2
WR Antonio Brown and WR Martavis Bryant vs CB DJ Hayden and CB David Amerson
Brown and Bryant haven't broken out as a tandem in the same contest yet this year. This could be the game. While a majority of the blame last week seems to be pointing in Roethlisberger's direction, his receivers committed some key drops. They need to do everything to help their QB going forward.
Brown seems rejuvenated since Ben came back. Brown's 718 yards ranks him among the leaders of the league, but he only has three TDs on the year. Bryant's three matches Brown, but he hasn't connected with Ben since his return. They both need to break free this week.
Amerson and Hayden both have five pass defenses on the year, but are susceptible to getting beaten deep. Bryant's penchant for getting separation and Brown's ability to make plays in traffic may be a tough task for this duo.
Key Matchup #3
LT Alejandro Villanueva vs RDE Khalil Mack
Villanueva faces another daunting task this week against another of the best pass rushers in the NFL. The Army Ranger will need to use all 6'9" and 320 of his pounds to contain the havoc-wreaking defender.
At 6'3 and 250 lbs, Mack may be a half-of-a-foot shorter than the man charged with the responsibility to stop him, but his explosive burst allows him the blow by lineman to get to the quarterback. Mack has four sacks on the season and is quickly becoming one of the league's most devastating defenders. He is hampered by a hamstring injury, but should be good to go on Sunday.
Al's ability to stifle Mack will be a key factor in determining a Steeler victory, giving his quarterback time to pass the ball and to keep him free from injury.
Key Matchup #4
ROLB Jarvis Jones or ROLB James Harrison vs LT Donald Penn
Defenders have not gotten to Carr very often in 2015, only getting sacked 10 times on the year. Penn is a big reason why. The protector of Carr's blindside not only weighs in at 305 lbs, but is agile enough to keep pass rushers away from his QB.
Jones isn't the only man Penn will be responsible to slow down on Sunday, but he is the player that is finally coming into his own and beginning to fulfill his prophecy as a valuable defensive resource. Jarvis has collected 1.5 sacks and 19 tackles, but seems to be swarming around ball carriers a whole lot more as of late.
His platoon-mate has not slowed down at all and remains a vital cog in the resurgence of the defense. Harrison can still make big plays at 37. Deebo has 23 tackles and two sacks this year.
Rattling Carr into mistakes is paramount to win on Sunday and getting by Penn is where it starts
Key Matchup #5
The Steeler Corners vs WR Amari Cooper and WR Michael Crabtree
A huge reason why the Raiders are tasting success this year is due to the rookie Cooper and the veteran Crabtree. They could be called the C+C Touchdown Factory. Crabtree (483 yards and 3 TDs) is finding success on the other side of the bay, while Cooper (565 yards and 3 TDs) has had no problem transitioning his dominance from college to the pros. These guys are giving good separation and hauling-in a lot of balls that Derek Carr sends their way.
Ross Cockrell, Antwon Blake and William Gay have been giving up less big plays than they had earlier in the season and are banding together as one and playing solid. However, the Steelers remain #26 in the league against the pass and will need to pull out all of the stops to silence C and C.
Other Matchups To Watch:
RB Deangelo Williams vs LB Curtis Lofton
KR Jacoby Jones vs Decline
ILB Lawrence Timmons vs Latavius Murray
HC Mike Tomlin vs The Game Clock