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Steelers

Much at stake for Steelers in showdown with Saints juggernaut

Joe Rutter
| Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018, 7:30 p.m.
The Steelers’ Mike Hilton celebrates after the Patriots’ last chance in the fourth quarter Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers’ Mike Hilton celebrates after the Patriots’ last chance in the fourth quarter Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018 at Heinz Field.

Mike Tomlin offered a succinct explanation for why the Pittsburgh Steelers elected to receive the kickoff after winning the coin toss Sunday against New England.

“We didn’t want to give it to Brady,” Tomlin said.

The strategy aimed at keeping Tom Brady on the sideline worked as the Steelers pieced together a methodical 11-play, 75-yard drive that consumed 6 minutes, 20 seconds and resulted in a touchdown and 7-0 lead.

The Steelers never trailed in the game en route to snapping a three-game losing streak with a 17-10 win.

Might Tomlin consider the same tactic this Sunday when the Steelers (8-5-1) face the New Orleans Saints (12-2), the NFC’s top seed?

After all, if the goal was to keep Brady off the field as long as possible, shouldn’t that philosophy hold true for Drew Brees considering the Steelers follow a matchup against the NFL’s No. 4 career passing yardage leader with one against the all-time best?

“We’ll see,” Tomlin said at his Tuesday press conference.

Brees, who turns 40 in January, has shown no signs of slowing down in his 18th season as he leads the NFL with a 116.8 passer rating. He has thrown 31 touchdown passes against five interceptions and pushed his career passing totals to beyond 74,000 yards.

But Brees, like Brady — or any quarterback, for that matter — can’t do anything but watch helplessly when his defense is on the field. In the Saints’ case, that happens less frequently than for anyone else.

The Saints, in compiling the most wins in the NFL, lead the league in time of possession, holding the ball for more than 32 minutes each game. Despite a scoring dip in the past three weeks, they average 32.8 points, the second-highest production in the NFL.

At his disposal, Brees has Michael Thomas, whose 109 receptions lead the NFL. Thomas has 1,267 receiving yards, and running back Alvin Kamara has caught 77 passes for 627 yards. The tandem of Kamara and Mark Ingram has combined for 1,462 yards rushing despite Ingram sitting out the first four games of the season.

After playing three consecutive road games, in which they totaled just 50 points, the Saints return to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where scoring hasn’t been an issue. The Saints are averaging 38 points when playing in front of the home crowd and have scored fewer than 31 just once in six tries.

“I look at what they are capable of and forget how they played,” Tomlin said just hours after the Saints beat the Carolina Panthers, 12-9. “They are capable of being dominant regardless of venue. We happen to be playing them at home. We understand that.”

Brees is particularly comfortable in his Cajun environment. At home, he has thrown 20 touchdown passes versus one interception, is averaging 9.4 yards per attempt and has a 137.2 rating. In eight road games, he has 11 touchdown passes, four interceptions, a 6.7 average per attempt and a 98.0 rating.

“We are playing a really good football team in their venue. We don’t run away from that,” Tomlin said. “We understand what time of year it is, and if you have the intentions that we have, you need forks in the road such as this.”

This particular fork could determine whether the Steelers win a third consecutive division title and advance to the postseason for the fifth year in a row or whether they may need help in Week 17 in order to avoid a premature end to their season.

The clearest path to the playoffs for the Steelers is winning their division. For the second week in a row, the picture will become clearer before the Steelers step onto the field Sunday. The Baltimore Ravens, who trail by one-half game in the AFC North, play Saturday night at the Los Angeles Chargers.

The Steelers will know Sunday afternoon whether a win over the Saints will sew up a division title or merely keep them percentage points ahead of the Ravens heading into Week 17.

“We can’t afford to have any mishaps, man, unless somebody is going to cover us on the back end,” guard Ramon Foster said. “We have to be fully focused in what we are doing. It can’t be a one-shot (deal). We have to be on top of everything.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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