One day later than planned due to the extreme weather that engulfed the Buffalo area on Sunday the Steelers will hopefully play the Bills in the last of the AFC Wild Card Games that will see the winner join #1 seed Baltimore and the two Wild Card winners so far Houston and Kansas City in the Divisional Round.
Buffalo (11-6) come into the playoff on a hot streak, having to essentially play knockout football since they were 6-6 and looking like they needed to win all their games just to get into the postseason. The fact that they are the #2 seed is down to the fact that they rounded off that stretch of five wins by beating the Dolphins to seal the AFC East title. Pittsburgh (10-7) endured a three-game losing streak before winning their final three games, capped by a 17-10 victory at Baltimore, who rested many of their starters with the AFC’s top seed already clinched.
The paths that both of these sides took to get to this point contain plenty of symmetry. From losing key players to injury for stretches to putting together season-ending winning streaks despite low playoff odds. Both teams also fired their offensive coordinators at midseason, becoming the first playoff teams to have an in-season coordinator change since the 2012 Ravens. The Steelers are looking for the team’s first playoff win since 2016, while the Bills are 13-2 in home playoff games since 1970.
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Unlike some of the matchups in this year’s playoffs these teams have not yet met this season, but they will have played each other every year since 2019. Bills quarterback Josh Allen is 3-1 against the Steelers, but the more salient point is that the Steelers offence has generally struggled against the Bills defence. If they have trouble scoring points this time around then it could well be game over considering this fact as Pittsburgh have allowed at least 36 points in 4 straight playoff games – no other team has even allowed 29 points in 4 straight playoff games in NFL history.
Pittsburgh have struggled on offence this year, using three different quarterbacks and they have been outgained by 643 yards, the worst among this year’s playoff field. Since 1970, playoff teams outgained by at least 500 yards on the season are 1-5 in the playoffs, and that one win came in a game between two of those teams (1986 Jets vs. Chiefs), so someone had to win.
The Steelers have flaws and they know that but they are hard to beat, they had nine wins in one-score games during the regular season, which led the NFL and is the most in a single season in franchise history. As for the Bills they specialise in beating themselves at times and the fact that they were 6-6 at one point in the season was down to that factor.
The Bills had an inconsistent start to their season in which their injury-depleted defence had difficulty holding leads, their offence hit a rut and their special teams cost them two wins. They appeared to find their identity when they made the switch at offensive coordinator and started winning close games. After starting the season 2-6 in games decided by seven or fewer points, Buffalo finished 6-6 in such contests. Where Buffalo made their final push was on defence. After allowing 37 points to the Eagles in Week 12 before their bye, Buffalo came out and allowed 22 points or fewer in their final five games.
In past years, the Bills have gotten off to a fast start and then faded when the playoffs came around and if they win this it looks as though they will be pitted against their post season nemesis, the Chiefs, which will be the only time it will be in Orchard Park rather than Arrowhead.
Since the NFL expanded the playoffs, this is the third time that Buffalo is the #2 seed and hosting the #7 seed. The Bills won each of those games but did allow the only two covers by #7 seeds, winning each game by 3 points despite being favoured by 7 and 13.5 points in those games. Once again they are favoured by a large margin with Star Sports making the Bills -10.5 favourites at 21-20, with the Money Line seeing them as short as 1-5.
If the weather continues to play a part in this game it will suit the Steelers who have reverted to their roots and being a team that relies primarily on their running game and defence to keep themselves competitive. Surely their best chance of keeping this game close is to ride their dynamic running back duo of Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren using Harris to hammer the ball between the tackles and Warren as a change-of-pace option out of the backfield. That will allow the Steelers to shorten the game and dictate the tempo which with Mason Rudolph at quarterback is an ideal scenario. In their final two games of the regular season, the Pittsburgh run game averaged 124.5 rushing yards when running between the tackles.
The Steelers will have opportunities against the Bills front, too. Buffalo has allowed an average of 4.6 yards on rushes between the tackles this season, which ranks 30th in the league. Over the last three games Harris has averaged 25.7 touches and 111 yards and he will be set for a massive workload if the Steelers can keep this game close. If they fall behind then Warren will enter the equation and game plan more. Backing Harris to go over his rushing yards line of +61.5 yards at 10-11 with Star Sports looks a very sensible play on the evidence presented this season so far.
Looking at the Steelers quarterback situation, it has to be said that Mason Rudolph has done everything that has been asked of him but he has faced two poor defences in Cincinnati and Seattle and a Baltimore team that was playing at half-throttle with plenty of second-string players in the lineup. He faces a much tougher task here as only five quarterbacks threw multiple touchdown passes against Buffalo this season with only Jalen Hurts throwing more than two. His efficiency metrics have been boosted by some long touchdown passes, all of 70 yards plus, and in the expected weather conditions it will be hard to complete lots of deep throws here.
The main element in the game for Rudolph will be to not turn the ball over and with the Steelers likely to want to keep things tight the outlook for their main wide receivers George Pickens and Diontae Johnson isn’t bright. After two huge games with 195 and 131 yards receiving in Rudolph’s first two starts, Pickens was shut out in the rain against the Ravens. Johnson had a better game in that match-up with Baltimore but the weather, game plan, quarterback play, and the Bills defence don’t favour them here. The Steelers offensive mindset in this game is going to be moving the ball a little bit at a time and just trying to pick up first downs and keep the clock moving. They want to control field position and not give Buffalo any easy points.
Since Week 13 the Bills have looked so much better on offence winning five straight games including victories over the playoff-bound Chiefs, Cowboys, and Dolphins. Buffalo has actually won six of their last seven games dating back to their change in offensive coordinator. The whole offence has looked more balanced with a little more emphasis on the run game and here they face a Steelers defence without their main playmaker in T.J. Watt. Since Watt’s rookie season in 2017, the Steelers are 1-10 without him, including a 38-3 loss at Buffalo in 2022.
The Bills have been more than happy to adapt their offence to the situation since Joe Brady took over as offensive coordinator being content to give QB Josh Allen plenty of licence when the situation calls for it and to play with a more conservative approach on other occasions. That has served to limit the mistakes that the Bills were making whereby their opponents were hanging around in games and waiting for miscues to happen and capitalising. Here they play a team that is without their best defensive player in inclement weather against a team that has a less than inspiring quarterback.
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Allen whilst he can win a game on his own can also lose one on his own but since the Bills reduced the number of passes that he was making in a game they have more than discovered the winning thread. The ground game could be vital here and while the Steelers’ run defence isn’t awful, it’s not outstanding and the loss of Watt makes life a lot easier. Expect to see plenty of Allen and running back James Cook as the Bills look to establish themselves in the game. Allen rushed for 30.8 yards per game after 47.6 and 44.9 yards per game the previous two seasons, but Allen added a career-high 15 rushing touchdowns to his production. Allen is an 8-11 chance with Star Sports to score a TD and given his usage and strength in goal line situations it’s easy to see that happening. Cook hasn’t been quite as prolific in the run game of late as he was during his hot streak between Weeks 11-15 when he posted games of 102, 100, 141, and 221 yards with four touchdowns but he’s in a great position to bounce back to his best here. Cook’s rushing yards are pitched at +64.5 (10-11) with Star Sports and that looks a fair play.
The Bills will be happy to lean heavily on their run game if it’s working well but unlike the Steelers they have the passing ability (if the weather allows) of Allen to fall back on. They look as though they will be without WR Gabe Davis who often comes to life in the playoffs and that may well force them to use more two tight end sets and utilise both Dalton Kincaid and Dawson Knox with the former having two of his best games with Knox also in the lineup in the past two weeks catching 4-of-7 targets for 87 yards in Week 17, and 7-of-8 targets for 84 yards against the Dolphins in the game that sealed the #2 seed.
If the weather is still a factor then it will be short middle of the field passes that will be most effective where receivers can generate yards after the catch. Stefon Diggs has always been Allen’s main target but they have used Khalil Shakir more and more in recent weeks and if Davis is ruled out his part in this game could be even more significant. After Davis left the game on Sunday, Shakir caught all five of his targets for 59 yards. Shakir also plays primarily in the slot (67.2% of snaps), where Pittsburgh have allowed 9.5 yards per target (30th) to receivers.
Overall when you look at this game the Bills are pretty much stronger in every category but they can self-destruct at times although that side of their game has been kept in check of late. The Steelers want this game to be a grind and are just hoping the Bills make some mistakes that allow them to take control or at the very least get this game into a situation late where Buffalo starts feeling the pressure and may cost themselves a win. The weather and how bad it will be creates the unknown narrative here but if the Steelers are close in the 4th quarter remember this Buffalo team has already blown four leads in the final quarter. Only the Chargers (5) had more this season but let’s hope the Bills win to set up that showdown with the Chiefs but this time on their own turf.
BACK Khalil Shakir over +34.5 receiving yards 1pt at 10/11 (⭐
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BACK James Cook over +64.5 rushing yards 1pt at 10/11 (⭐
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BACK Najee Harris over +61.5 rushing yards 1pt at 10/11 (⭐
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