If I was Chris Berman, I think this would start something like this: “Man, I know that everyone can’t wait for Saturday. The Steelers and the Rams, bitter rivals for decades, will face off in a rematch of Super Bowl XIV. Hopefully no one is mugged in the parking lot, hopefully the lights don’t go out so riots don’t occur, and wow, it’s raining! This reminds me of Hurricane Katrina! Oh the humanity.”
Seriously, how does that clown still have a job?
About 96 hours after returning to Pittsburgh from their Monday night loss in San Francisco, the Steelers will take the field and attempt to summon up the energy and interest to play the 2-12 St. Louis Rams on Christmas Eve. Should we care? Well, there are a lot of reasons not to care – the lingering stench of Monday night, the Christmas hustle and bustle, the fact they are playing a bad team and its 3rd string QB, and the list could go on. All of this notwithstanding, however, there are a lot of reasons to watch tomorrow afternoon. Here’s a list of some of those things:
1. A bye is still possible. With the Houston Texans finally crashing to Earth and succumbing to their rash of injuries, a bye still remains a real possibility for the Steelers. Simply, the Steelers need to win Saturday and in Week 17 in Cleveland and hope that the Baltimore Ravens lose one of their final two games. There’s little reason to think the Ravens won’t roll Cleveland at home this week, but they face a potentially tough game in Cincinnati in Week 17 against a team that may be playing for a playoff berth. So while a 5-seed and a trip to Denver remains the most likely playoff scenario, there is still a good bit left to be decided, and a first-round bye and a home game in the playoffs is still on the table, even if it’s a bit further away than it was before Monday night.
2. The final hurrah? Barring a home game in the playoffs, it is very likely that a number of Steelers will be playing their final game in Heinz Field on Saturday. The Steelers have some age in certain spots and will be tight against the salary cap this offseason with some key free agents (Mike Wallace, that’s you) to sign. Some guys who may be playing their last game on Saturday (Bryant McFadden, Chris Kemoeatu) won’t be missed. Others, however, are players who have left a massive imprint on the Steelers’ franchise. Hines Ward enters Sunday with 991 receptions, and the conventional wisdom is that the Steelers will feed him early and often to get him to 1,000. Ward will almost certainly not be back next season, having fallen to 5th on the depth chart at WR and possessing a cap hit of over $4 million for 2012 and 2013 if active. Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke are out for the season on IR, and I’d be very surprised if either doesn’t retire this offseason. James Farrior is still a useful player, at least against the run, but has lost a step and will be 37 when next season starts. Whether he returns may depend on whether the Steelers think Stevenson Sylvester can assume a starting role in 2012. Other longtime Steelers who may or may not return in 2012 include Max Starks, Larry Foote, and Mewelde Moore.
3. Who you won’t see on Saturday. With a likely first-round playoff game taking place in two weeks and a game against a team that the Steelers should be able to handle even at less than full strength, the Steelers will likely rest anyone who has any injuries of consequence. Ben Roethlisberger is officially a game-time decision with his high-ankle sprain, but I’d be surprised if he plays on Saturday. Maurkice Pouncey will miss his 2nd straight game with his high-ankle sprain, and LaMarr Woodley will miss Saturday to rest his balky hamstring. Emmanuel Sanders and Mewelde Moore also are likely to miss the game. James Harrison will return from his one-game suspension. Harrison and Woodley have played ONE series together this year since Week 4, and having each healthy and ready for the playoffs should make a huge difference.
4. How dangerous is St. Louis? Last week and last night saw a number of bottom feeders rise up and issue damaging losses to playoff-bound teams. Indy has taken down both Tennessee and Houston, the Chiefs beat the Packers, the Redskins knocked off the Giants, and Carolina rolled in Houston. Can the Rams do this to the Steelers? Not likely, no. Despite their road struggles this year, the Steelers have been excellent at home, winning 5 games by double-digit margins and posting a 6-1 record. The Rams will be playing with Kellen Clemens, a guy who had attempted 33 passes since 2007 prior to last week at QB. The Rams have scored only 166 points in 14 games, an anemic 11.9 points per game and 26 points fewer than any other NFL team. St. Louis also ranks dead last in rushing defense in the NFL, so look for a steady diet of Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman on Saturday. Anything can happen on “any given Sunday,” but barring a rash of turnovers and special teams gaffes, it’s hard to see the Rams as a team that can join the list of those pulling major upsets.
5. The Steelers don’t play the Rams very often. The Steelers play NFC West teams only once every four years, and the Rams have not played in Pittsburgh since 2003 when hometown product Marc Bulger gashed the Steelers for 375 yards on a really gross rainy day at Heinz Field.
The Rams won’t be back until 2019, so if you need to cross off watching a Steelers/Rams game at Heinz Field from your bucket list, tomorrow is your day.
6. Predictions for Saturday. Charlie Batch at QB should aid the efforts of the Steelers of getting Hines Ward to 1,000 receptions, as Batch lacks the arm strength
to play QB in the arena league, let alone the NFL to throw the deep vertical routes to Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown that are the staple of the Steelers’ offense. Rashard Mendenhall needs 226 yards over the final two weeks to get to 1,000, and the Steelers play two of the worst run defenses in the NFL the final two weeks…expect him to be fed early and often. The Steelers will play a conservative, ball-control game and will grind this out after a slow start. Steelers 23-10.