Kevin Gorman: Steelers' best bet is to beat Saints
The Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints have more in common this season than their records suggest, even if they are at opposite ends of the NFL’s postseason picture.
Where the Steelers (8-5-1) are fighting for their playoff lives, the Saints (12-2) have the NFL’s best record and already clinched the NFC South division title. A victory over the Steelers would lock up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs for New Orleans. The Steelers could clinch the AFC North title with the combination of win over the Saints and a Baltimore Ravens loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, but a loss could force the Steelers into fighting for a wild card.
Not to get ahead of ourselves.
To avoid panic, let’s rewind. The similarities in schedules should give the Steelers hope against the Saints as they share victories over six common opponents. Both have beaten Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Baltimore, Atlanta, Cincinnati and Carolina. New Orleans also lost to the Buccaneers once, whereas the Steelers tied the Browns and lost to the Ravens.
Both had long winning streaks that included blowouts: The Steelers won six consecutive games, with a 41-17 victory over the Falcons and a 52-21 victory over the Panthers, and the Saints won 10 straight and beat the Bengals, 51-14, and Eagles, 48-7, along the way.
Both have played Los Angeles teams in games that could have playoff seeding implications: The Steelers lost to the Chargers by three, and the Saints beat the Rams by 10, which gives New Orleans a head-to-head advantage in NFC playoff positioning.
Both teams are coming off close victories as the Steelers defeated New England, 17-10, on Sunday at Heinz Field, and the Saints beat Carolina, 12-9, on Monday Night Football in Charlotte.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin talked about the tale of the tape, acknowledging that they have “a lot of common opponents to glean information from” and plenty of games to study leading into Week 15.
“I think that’s probably why these games are so tight at the end of the year, why you may be surprised sometimes by the score,” Tomlin said. “You may have been surprised by Monday night’s score. You may have been surprised by our Sunday evening score. But the reality is, there’s a lot of video out there, and preparation is an element of it. Both sides get an opportunity to prepare. From that standpoint, the playing field is very level. These are big, exciting games.”
When it comes to the outcome against the common opponents, the Steelers have an edge — thanks to more decisive victories against the Browns, Ravens, Falcons and Panthers. The difference is, the Steelers lost to all four AFC West opponents whereas the Saints beat three of four NFC East teams (losing only to Dallas).
Having an extra day to prepare should help the Steelers, but playing the game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome gives the Saints home-field advantage. Both have future Hall of Fame quarterbacks as well as coaches who have won a Super Bowl. This should be another playoff-atmosphere game in what promises to be a string of them for the Steelers.
But the stakes are higher for the Steelers.
They are holding onto a half-game lead in the AFC North over Baltimore, which plays Saturday night at the Chargers. Surely, the Steelers will have a keen interest in that one, even if Tomlin is preoccupied with the Saints.
“I didn’t know (the Ravens) played Saturday night until you just told me,” Tomlin said, “so that tells you where I am at.”
If Baltimore beats the Chargers and Browns and the Steelers lose to the Saints, the Ravens would win the division title. That would be something, given that John Harbaugh was ready to face the firing squad after losing at home to the Steelers on Nov. 4. Now, he has the Ravens two wins away from winning the AFC North.
Then again, Tomlin was supposedly on the hot seat after losing at Oakland. Now, after beating the Patriots, he also is two wins away from winning the AFC North. The Steelers can clinch the division with a win over the Saints coupled with a Ravens loss. But a loss at New Orleans would create a wild scenario for the season finale, where the Steelers would need to beat the Bengals at Heinz Field and count on a Ravens loss to the Browns in Baltimore.
Why leave it to chance?
The Steelers know where their playoff hopes rest: They need to be better than the NFL’s best.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at email@example.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.