Sunday Night Football this week will feature a matchup with immediate playoff implications as the Buffalo Bills travel to the Pittsburgh Steelers. With a win, Buffalo clinches a playoff spot. With a loss though, Pittsburgh would move from the #2 wild card and replace Buffalo at the #1 spot. If the Titans were to win earlier in the day, Buffalo would actually go all the way from the top wild card to the outside looking in. So, both teams will be extremely motivated on Sunday night.
As far as current form goes, the Steelers have the edge, having won three straight games. And the switch to Duck Hodges at quarterback has been part of the reason why. Pittsburgh was losing to Cincinnati three weeks ago at halftime and benched Mason Rudolph for the Duck. Hodges then connected with James Washington for a 79-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, and that was all the Steelers would need to seal a 16-10 victory.
Steelers Offense vs. Bills Defense
The Steelers don’t ask Duck to do much on offense. While he only played one half against the Bengals, Hodges attempted just 11 passes and completed five of them for 118 yards. And as mentioned earlier, 79 of those 118 yards were on one pass.
In Duck’s next game, he improved on his accuracy going 14-21. He also once again impressively had over 10 yards per attempt, throwing for 212 yards with 1 TD to 1 INT. His favorite target was once again James Washington, who caught a pass of 44 yards and caught four balls for 111 yards. Last week Hodges again had great yards per attempt of 8.0 going 16-19 for 152 yards and a TD. His passer rating was the best of his young career at 117.5 and his QBR was 68.4.
The biggest question is can Hodges continue to rely on one or two big plays? I’m not sure I’m buying it just yet. His last two games were against two bottom four pass defenses, and the success against the Browns came almost entirely on one play. This week Hodges will face by far his toughest test, going against the Bills #5 rated pass defense.
On the defensive line, the Bills are middle of the pack in adjusted sack rate at 14th overall. They also rank 13th overall in adjusted line yards. Buffalo doesn’t exactly struggle against the run, but they are again middle of the pack in rush defense. So, look for the Steelers to continue to pound the rock as they have the entire season.
The Steelers run game has been dominated by rookie Benny Snell the past three weeks. But Pittsburgh expects to get James Connor back for this game, which would be a nice upgrade that allows them to rotate backs and stay fresh. But after facing the Cardinals, Bengals, and Browns twice the past four weeks, will the Steelers be ready for the Bills #5 rated defense?
Bills Offense vs. Steelers Defense
The Bills were on top of the world after their Thanksgiving Day beatdown at Dallas. But it all came crashing down last week hosting the Ravens. Buffalo is far from the first team to get embarrassed by Baltimore, but with that said, Josh Allen could not have played much worse than he did last week.
Allen had his worst game of the season in yards per attempt with a paltry 3.7. His accuracy was also abysmal, completing just 43.6% of his passes. In addition, Allen had his lowest rushing total of the year with just nine yards. In his defense though, the wind played a major factor in the passing game, and Allen did avoid throwing an interception.
It won’t get much easier this week though, as Pittsburgh features the #3 overall defense and #4 pass defense. The Steelers also get after the quarterback, which was a major problem for Buffalo last week as Allen was sacked a season-high six times. On the defensive line, Pittsburgh ranks 2nd overall in adjusted sack rate. Comparatively, Baltimore ranks 16th in that category.
It could be another long night for Allen if he gets a similar performance from his offensive line. And that seems likely, as the Bills offensive line ranks 25th overall in adjusted sack rate. This could get ugly if Allen is forced to drop back and pass the majority of the game.
Getting the running game going will be imperative if Buffalo is to have any success on offense. Luckily for Bills fans, the running game is the one area where Buffalo’s O-line excels, ranking 9th in adjusted line yards. The Bills have featured rookie Devin Singletary lately, and he appears to be a steal of a third-round pick. Singletary is averaging an incredible 5.6 yards per carry and has chipped in 26 receptions in the passing game.
Unfortunately for Buffalo, the Steelers don’t slack when it comes to the running game. Overall, Pittsburgh ranks 4th in rushing defense. Per adjusted line yards, the Steelers aren’t quite as impressive though, ranking 12th overall and 30th in power success rate.
In a game that should play out like a slugfest, special teams may be the deciding factor. Pittsburgh looks to have a clear edge here, ranking #5 in special teams per Football Outsiders, compared to the Bills at #22.
The Spread and Total
The look-ahead line on this game had the Bills as a 1-point road favorite, which seems laughable after seeing all the edges the Steelers seem to have. The look-ahead spread was an overreaction to Buffalo’s impressive victory at Dallas.
After their humbling effort against the Ravens, this line opened at -1 or pick’em depending where you look. It was initially bet up to Steelers -2, but has come back down to Steelers -1. What’s surprising is that despite heavy action on the Bills, with 75% of the bets and 79% of the money on Buffalo, the line has not budged off the -1.
The total opened at 37 points, which is about as low as you’ll ever see a total open at. It’s been bet down to 36.5 at Pinnacle but is holding steady at 37 pretty much everywhere else. With two top five defenses going at it and less than potent offenses on the other side of the ball, the under may be the play here, especially if it were to go above the key number of 37.
By Kyle Johansen