8:20 PM EST, NBC – Line: Steelers -3.5, Over/Under: 52
A potential Playoff Preview is on tap tonight from Heinz Field, as the Pittsburgh Steelers look to bounce back against the Los Angeles Chargers in a matchup featuring a pair of veteran Quarterbacks aging like a fine wine. After you get past the line of favorites to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LIII, you’ll find the Chargers (8-3, 2nd in AFC West) lurking on the fringes, trailing the Kansas City Chiefs by a single game in the AFC West. Los Angeles has quietly established themselves as one of the more dangerous teams in the league this season, ranking in the Top-10 in both Total Offense (413.1 Y/G, 5th Overall) and Defense (334.8 Y/G, 9th Overall), as well as Points Scored (27.9 P/G, 7th Overall) and Points Allowed (19.9 P/G, 4th Overall). Anthony Lynn’s charges initially got off to a slow start, dropping two out of their first three contests to begin the campaign, though have since rounded into form, winning seven out of their last eight outings, including six in a row at one point. When last we saw them, they were busy dismantling the rebuilding Arizona Cardinals in a 45-10 romp that featured some historic highs, along with a potential crucial low. Starting with the former, Philip Rivers (69.5%, 3,119 YDS, 8.28 NY/A, 26 TD, 6 INT, 74.6 QBR) played out of his mind, setting a pair of NFL Records, including the highest Completion Percentage in a single contest (28-of-29, 96.6%), and completing his first Twenty-Five Passing Attempts on his way 259 Yards and Three Touchdowns. At the age of Thirty-Seven, the veteran Quarterback has been playing some of the best football of his distinguished career, posting career-bests in a slew of categories including Completion Percentage (69.5%), Touchdown Percentage (7.6%), Interception Percentage (1.7%), Yards per Attempt (9.1), Net Yards per Attempt (8.28), and Passer Rating (115.7). Well on his way to his eighth Pro Bowl nod, this guy frequently gets relegated to the background when discussing the stellar crop of Quarterbacks that were selected in the 2004 Draft Class, but his consistently prolific play should not be overlooked. Unfortunately, it’s likely that the Chargers will be forced to rely upon him Rivers more so, given Pro Bowl Tailback Melvin Gordon (153 CAR, 802 YDS, 5.2 Y/C, 9 TD) suffered a Grade Two MCL Sprain in his Right Knee during that aforementioned victory over the Cardinals. While this Offense is among the most balanced in the league and littered with talented weapons, Gordon is arguably the most significant, for the youngster is among the most versatile at his position, factoring very heavily into the Passing Game; Gordon has hauled in Forty-Four Receptions on Sixty Targets (second-most on the team) for 453 Yards and Four Touchdowns, burning opposing Linebackers, who simply can’t manage to cover him coming out of the Backfield. Initially slated to miss the next three outings, Lynn has since changed course and proclaimed him out indefinitely, which is a bad omen at this stage of the season. Thankfully, Rivers has done an excellent job of distributing the football, with five different targets reeling in at least twenty Receptions, with seven different players receiving a Touchdown. The vertical Passing Game has been a huge component of their success, with Rivers pushing the football downfield without remorse to any number of plus-sized Receivers; Los Angeles averages a healthy 8.17 Net Yards per Attempt (4th Overall), with the likes of Mike Williams (24 REC, 419 YDS, 17.5 Y/R, 7 TD) and Tyrell Williams (28 REC, 519 YDS, 18.5 Y/R, 5 TD) each averaging well over 17.0 Yards per Catch. Today’s trip to Pittsburgh begins a crucial stretch for this team, who over the final five games of the season, will not only travel across the country to battle the Steelers, but will be traveling to both Kansas City and Denver with revenge on their collective minds, with a meeting with the Baltimore Ravens, who are fighting for their Postseason Lives, on the docket as well.
Meanwhile, the Steelers (7-3-1, 1st in AFC North) also know a little something about catching fire after getting off to a slow start, for they managed to overcome a disappointing 1-2-1 beginning to the term, by winning six games in a row. However, that wave of momentum came to a screeching halt when Pittsburgh traveled to Mile High last weekend, as a potential comeback was thrown away on the final drive of a 17-24 defeat. Trailing by seven points from their own 44-Yard Line with just 4:26 left to play in the contest, the visitors marched down the field al the way to the Broncos’ 2-Yard Line, before Ben Roethlisberger (41-of-56, 1 TD, 2 INT) tossed an errant pass right over the Line of Scrimmage that was intercepted by Defensive Tackle Shelby Harris. Though it appeared that there was a great deal of miscommunication between Roethlisberger and his intended Receiver, Antonio Brown (9 REC, 67 YDS), the outcome of it all means that Mike Tomlin’s charges let a golden opportunity to advance themselves in the competitive AFC slip right through their proverbial fingers. As a result, they’re looking at a potential Wild Card as opposed to a First Round Bye, which is always welcome in the Playoffs. Despite moving the football up and down the field (527 YDS), this was one of those games where all the yardage was negated by Turnovers, with the visiting side committing four of them, with Roethlisberger tossing a pair of Interceptions, while the team also lost a pair of fumbles, one of which was attributed to James Conner (17 Touches, 95 YDS). Much has been made of the young Tailback, who has overachieved in replacing his Pro Bowl teammate Le’Veon Bell, who has missed the entirety of the campaign due to lingering dissatisfaction over his current contract. While he’s certainly performed well in his stead, Conner has struggled in recently weeks, drawing more than a few critics in averaging just 47.7 Rushing Yards over the past three games after a four-game stretch in which he rung up 118.5 Yards per Game. They’ll need him to recapture his mojo quickly, for as is the case with their opponent tonight, the final five games of the term will in all likelihood go a long way towards deciding where this team ends up in the Playoffs; after hosting the Chargers, the Steelers will also meet the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints in successive weeks, with the latter taking place in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. And it’s with that said, that this current run is shaping up to be the Big Ben Show, as Roethlisberger has carried the Offense on his broad shoulders throughout the season. Perhaps he’s simply trying to remain on par with Rivers, his fellow Draft Classmate, for after an Offseason in which he openly pondered the possibility of retiring, he looks like a Quarterback with plenty of quality football left in him; the two-time Super Bowl Champion has attempted more passes than any other player in the league (472), putting him on pace to shatter his career-high of 608, completing 66.1% of his Passes for 3,664 Yards on 7.29 Net Yards per Attempt, with Twenty-Four Touchdowns and Twelve Interceptions, all the while posting a QBR of 70.6. Brown (71 REC, 874 YDS, 12.3 Y/R, 11 TD), who had previously accumulated more receiving yards over a five-year span than any other player in NFL History, continues to be a vital part of the Passing Game, though it appears that he may have fallen down the pecking order a bit, for his fellow Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (77 REC, 1,055 YDS, 13.7 Y/R, 4 TD) has been nothing short of a sophomore sensation thus far, reeling in Twenty-Four Receptions on Thirty-Two Targets for 383 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns over the past three games, including a ridiculous 97-Yard bomb in last weekend’s loss to the Broncos.