Pittsburgh comes into New Orleans with the NFL’s 4th-ranked offence and 9th-best defence. The Saints are 7th and 11th respectively. If Mike Tomlin’s squad edges Sean Payton’s slightly on both sides of the ball, why is New Orleans playing for home field advantage in the NFC with a 12-2 record while Pittsburgh desperately clings to first in the AFC North at 8-5-1?
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One key factor is balance. Pittsburgh’s offence relies almost entirely on Ben Roethlisberger’s arm. Their running game ranks 30th overall. New Orleans ranks eighth in rushing and 13th in the air.
It’s the other side of the ball that offers the Steelers hope in this crucial matchup. That’s where the Saints are unbalanced, boasting the league’s best run resistance but trying to hide the 29th-rated passing defence. It hasn’t hurt them yet but those numbers play right into Roethlisberger’s hands. He’s more than ready to open an early present if the Saints secondary is in a giving mood.
Pittsburgh tailback James Conner picked the right week to sit out with an ankle injury although his shot at a 1,000-yard rushing campaign may fall 91 yards short if he isn’t back for the final week. Jay Samuel faces the Saints’ front seven in his place. Starting receiver and kick return specialist Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster is knocked up too but telling any reporter who’ll listen that he’s good to go.
The Saints are healthy. With the game under the dome, weather won’t be a factor. On its face, this one promises to be a wide-open affair.
Roethlisberger is threatening 5,000 yards passing. He comes into the game on 4,462 with 30 touchdown passes but also 15 interceptions. Turnovers are another problem for Pittsburgh. Drew Brees has thrown for 800 fewer yards but one more TD and just five INTs. Big Ben is the Steelers’ strongest asset but also their greatest weakness.
The two clubs have met only three times since Brees came to the Mississippi Delta from San Diego in 2006. He lost the game in his first season but won the next two. The most recent meeting, in 2014, was the barnburner everyone expects in this one, with the Saints edging it 35-32.
Neither team brings much momentum into the game. The Saints have won two since suffering their second defeat to Dallas to end November. Pittsburgh ended a three-game losing streak in stunning fashion, knocking off the suddenly vulnerable New England Patriots 17-10 at Heinz Field. Both need to build on those meagre foundations with the playoffs looming.
The LINE has the Saints at -6.5. The TOTAL invites punters to bet the Over at 52.5. Both teams run hot streaks Against The Spread and with the Under on artificial turf. In addition, the Saints favour the Under in their last four games after surrendering 14 points or less while Pittsburgh is 4-0-1 ATS after covering or beating the Line the previous week, 4-1-1 after their most recent Straight Up wins.
Desperation is on the Steelers’ side. They have much more to lose. The problem is when they go for it, they crap out too often. Look for turnovers to kill their hopes in this one. Take New Orleans. Give the points.
Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.