Here is a look at some of the Week 12 games that ultimately could impact the Steelers over the final weeks of this 2015 regular season:
SUNDAY AFTERNOON** ST. LOUIS (4-6) at CINCINNATI (8-2)
Rams are 3rd in NFC West
Bengals are 1st in AFC North
SKINNY: The Bengals have won the last two games in this series. This is another AFC Central Division reunion, what with Jeff Fisher having coached the Tennessee Titans back in the day when the Titans, Jaguars, Browns, Steelers, Ravens, and Bengals all shared the same division … Rams RB Todd Gurley has rushed for 766 yards (109.4 per game) & 6 TDs in past 7 (1st 7 starts). Aims for 6th in row with rush TD. Since Week 4, leads NFL with 766 rush yards & 6 rush TDs. Leads NFL with 4 rushes for 45 yards … Bengals QB Andy Dalton (2,738) needs 262 pass yards to join Peyton Manning as only players in NFL history to pass for 3,000 yards in each of 1st 5 NFL seasons…RB Jeremy Hill has 6 TDs (5 rush, 1 rec.) in past 7. Has 8 total TDs & needs 2 to become 1st player in Bengals history with 10 TDs in each of 1st 2 seasons to begin career.
IMPACT ON THE STEELERS: Back-to-back losses by the Bengals could be taken to indicate the Steelers are back in the hunt for the AFC North Division title, but that's not necessarily the reality. The tiebreakers for teams within the same division go: head-to-head; division record; record in games against common opponents; conference record. The Steelers' record in games within the division is 1-2 compared to the Bengals' 3-0, and the Bengals' three remaining games against AFC North foes are at Cleveland, vs. Pittsburgh, and vs. Baltimore, while the Steelers' are at Cincinnati, at Baltimore, and at Cleveland. What's likely more significant to the Steelers right now than the Bengals record is how that team is playing as it heads into December. And maybe this is all a happy coincidence, but both the Steelers and Ravens had quarterbacks sustain knee injuries in games against the Rams this season. The Steelers visit Cincinnati on Dec. 20 for a 1 p.m. game at Paul Brown Stadium. Go, Rams. Just for yucks.
NEW ORLEANS (4-6) at HOUSTON (5-5)
Saints are 4th in NFC South
Texans are tied-for-1st in AFC South
SKINNY: There have been only three games in this all-time series, and the Saints hold a 2-1 lead … QB Drew Brees passed for 370 yards & 3 TDs in last meeting. Has 1,574 yards, 13 TDs, 3 INTs & 112.1 rating in past 5 vs. AFC. Since joining NO in 2006, leads NFL with 46,657 yards & 336 TDs … Texans QB Brian Hoyer has 2 TD passes in 5 of past 6. Won only career start vs. Saints (9/14/14 with Cle) & passed for 204 yards with 1 TD vs. 0 INTs…In past 3 home starts, Texans RB Alfred Blue is averaging 101 scrimmage yards per game & has 2 TDs (1 rush, 1 rec.).
IMPACT ON THE STEELERS: It doesn't seem all that likely for two playoff teams to come out of the AFC South, what with a 5-5 record currently good enough to be tied-for-first, and so the whole Texans or Colts situation figures to come down to which of the teams gets into the playoffs, most likely as the No. 4 seed in the AFC, which is where the No. 5 seed in the playoffs would play in the Wild Card Round. It could seem like a no-brainer right now to view the Texans with Brian Hoyer at quarterback as an easier out than the Colts with Andrew Luck at quarterback, but that remains to be seen over the final six weeks of the season. Always root for the NFC team in an inter-conference matchup. Geaux, New Orleans.
TAMPA BAY (5-5) at INDIANAPOLIS (5-5)
Buccaneers are 3rd in NFC South
Colts are tied-for-1st in AFC South
SKINNY: The Buccaneers are seeking their third win in a row and are coming off a rout of the Eagles in Philadelphia … Tampa Bay QB Jameis Winston tied NFL rookie record with 5 pass TDs last week. Is 1 of 2 rookies in NFL history to throw 5 TDs & 0 INTs in game. RB Doug Martin rushed for 235 yards last week, 2nd career 200-yard game. Last week, TB became 1st road team in NFL history with QB with 5 pass TDs (Winston) & 200-yard rusher (Martin) … Colts QB Matt Hasselbeck is 3-0 as starter with Colts & has passed for 708 yards with 5 TDs vs. 2 INTs for 91.9 rating. Aims for 3rd in row with 2 TDs. 3rd QB in SB era to win 3 consecutive. starts at age 40 …RB Frank Gore had 80 scrimmage yards vs. Atlanta & aims for 9th in row with 75 scrimmage yards. Gore (14,770) needs 42 scrimmage yards to surpass HOFer Jim Brown (14,811) for No. 23 all-time.
IMPACT ON THE STEELERS: This represents the other half of the Texans or Colts conundrum as it pertains to the winner of the AFC South Division and the likely No. 4 seed in the playoffs. The Colts have a 3-0 record within the division, and their remaining schedule: at Pittsburgh, at Jacksonville, vs. Houston, at Miami, and vs. Tennessee. Same situation here as in Saints-Texans. Go, NFC.
SAN DIEGO (2-8) at JACKSONVILLE (4-6)**
Chargers are 4th in AFC West
Jaguars are 3rd in AFC South
SKINNY: San Diego QB Philip Rivers has won 4 in row vs. Jaguars by completing 95 of 122 (77.9 pct.) for 1,290 yards with 10 TDs vs. 2 INTs for 131.2 rating. Has 3 TDs in 3 of past 4 vs. Jax. In past 3 games on the road, Rivers has passed for 1,050 yards with 6 TDs vs. 1 INT for 102.3 rating … In past 6, Jaguars QB Blake Bortles has passed for 1,627 yards with 14 TDs vs. 9 INTs. Has 2 TDs in 5 of past 6. Made 1st career start vs. SD in last meeting & completed 29 of 37 (78.4 pct.) for 254 yards & 1 TD. Since entering NFL in 2014, averages 7.3 yards per rush (87 att., 631 yards), highest among QBs during span. RB T.J. Yeldon leads AFC & ranks 2nd amongst NFL rookies with 585 rush yards. Aims for 7th in row with 60 scrimmage yards.
IMPACT ON THE STEELERS: The Chargers are eliminated from the playoff hunt in all ways except the mathematical, and at this point that seems inevitable. The only real issue here seems to be whether Jacksonville can come from way back in the pack to overtake either the Colts or Texans to win the AFC South. At this juncture, that seems unlikely, because Jacksonville is one-game behind the Colts and Texans in the standings and already has lost the first game in each of those home-and-home series. The Jaguars remaining schedule: at Tennessee, vs. Indianapolis, vs. Atlanta, at New Orleans, and at Houston. Go, Chargers. Thin the herd.
BUFFALO (5-5) at KANSAS CITY (5-5)
Bills are tied-for-2nd in AFC East
Chiefs are 2nd in AFC West
SKINNY: The Chiefs have won three of the past five meetings with Buffalo, and they are looking for a fifth straight win after starting 1-4 … Bills QB Tyrod Taylor (100.9) is on pace to join HOFer Jim Kelly (101.2 in 1990) as only Bills QBs with 100 rating in single season. Has won 4 of past 6 starts & passed for 1,232 yards with 7 TDs vs. 1 INT for 100 rating & 160 rushing yards…In past 5, RB LeSean McCoy is averaging 119.8 scrimmage yards per game (464 rush, 135 rec. 599 total) & has 3 rush TDs. Aims for 5th in row with 100 scrimmage yards … Chiefs QB Alex Smith is 3-0 vs. Bills & has completed 54 of 82 (65.9 pct.) for 604 yards with 3 TDs vs. 0 INTs for 99.8 rating. In past 7, has completed 145 of 226 (64.2 pct.) for 1,702 yards with 6 TDs vs. 0 INTs for 95.8 rating. Since 2011, ranks 2nd in NFL in INT pct. (1.3 pct.). In past 4, RB Charcandrick West is averaging 119 scrimmage yards per game & has 4 total TDs (3 rush, 1 rec.), but he injured a hamstring last week against the Chargers, and there is pessimism about his availability for this game.
IMPACT ON THE STEELERS: It seems highly unlikely that a team quarterbacked by Alex Smith and without RB Jamaal Charles is going to be able to extend its current four-game winning streak much farther. According to the standings going into this weekend, the Chiefs are the No. 6 seed in the AFC, while the Bills are on the outside-looking-in as the No. 8 seed. With these two teams, it would appear that their respective playoff fates will be decided on the field. Buffalo's remaining schedule: vs. Houston, at Philadelphia, at Washington, vs. Dallas, and vs. the New York Jets. For Kansas City, it's: at Oakland, vs. San Diego, at Baltimore, vs. Cleveland, and vs. Oakland. Neither team appears in position to win a division title, barring a complete collapse by Denver that could open the door for Kansas City, and so the teams will be thrown into the Wild Card pool along with the Steelers. Forced to choose, root for the Bills, because Kansas City holds the head-to-head advantage over the Steelers by virtue of the victory in Arrowhead Stadium on Oct. 25.
MIAMI (4-6) at N.Y. JETS (5-5)**
Dolphins are 4th in AFC East
Jets are tied-for-2nd in AFC East
SKINNY: The last time these division foes met – on Oct. 5 – the Dolphins were being coached by Joe Philbin. Now it's Dan Campbell, who'll be looking to snap a streak that has had Miami lose three of its past four to the Jets … Miami QB Ryan Tannehill has 2 TDs in 7 of past 9, incl. 2 last week vs. Dal. Has passed for 250 yards in 4 of past 5 on road. In past 6, RB Lamar Miller is averaging 112.8 scrimmage yards per game & has 7 total TDs (5 rush, 2 rec.). Has TD in 5 of past 6 games … In past 3 vs. own division, Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick has passed for 706 yards with 5 TDs vs. 3 INTs. Has 2 TD passes in 7 of past 10. RB Chris Ivory (679) needs 121 rush yards for 3rd consecutive 800-yard season. Rushed for 166 yards on 29 att. with TD in last meeting vs. Miami.
IMPACT ON THE STEELERS: The Dolphins are on the periphery of the playoff picture right now as the No. 12 seed in the AFC, and their remaining schedule isn't exactly favorable even though it's packed with home games: vs. Baltimore, vs. the New York Giants, at San Diego, vs. Indianapolis, and vs. New England. The Jets enter the weekend as the AFC's No. 9 seed, and their remaining schedule: at the New York Giants, vs. Tennessee, at Dallas, vs. New England, and at Buffalo. Neither the Dolphins nor the Jets are loaded with playoff-chase-experienced veteran players, because the Jets last qualified for the postseason in 2010; Miami last made the playoffs in 2008 as a division champion. Go, Dolphins. More herd thinning, please.
OAKLAND (4-6) at TENNESSEE (2-8)
Raiders are 3rd in AFC West
Titans are 4th in AFC South
SKINNY: Oakland QB Derek Carr (5) needs 1 more 300-yard passing game to join Rich Gannon (10 in 2002) & Carson Palmer (6 in 2012) as only Raiders with 6 in season. Has 300 yards in 3 of past 4. Has 2 TDs in 7 of past 9. RB Latavius Murray (1,406) needs 94 scrimmage yards to reach 1,500 career. Has 75 scrimmage yards in 4 of past 5. WR Amari Cooper (No. 4 overall) leads NFL rookies in rec. (51) & rec. yards (736) … Tennessee QB Marcus Mariota leads NFL rookies in rating (96.1) & has club rookie record 13 TD passes. Has 2 TD passes in 4 of 8 career games. 1st rookie in NFL history to have 2 games with 4 TDs & 0 INTs. LB Brian Orakpo has 6 sacks in past 6, incl. 1 last week vs. Jax. Aims for 5th in row with sack. Has 6 sacks in 2 career meetings. Since entering NFL in 2011, DT Jurrell Casey ranks 3rd amongst AFC DTs with 26 sacks.
IMPACT ON THE STEELERS: This comes down to whether your preference is for there to be some separation among the AFC playoff hopefuls, or whether the preference is to keep as many teams as possible in the hunt to keep them interested in winning the future games on their schedule, possibly against teams closer to the Steelers in the overall standings. Neither of these teams is on a particular roll, with the Titans looking to snap a two-game losing streak, while the Raiders come in as losers of three straight. Oakland has two games remaining with the Chiefs, and it's best for the Steelers if the Chiefs lose both. Go, Raiders.
NEW ENGLAND (10-0) at DENVER (8-2)
Patriots are 1st in AFC East
Broncos are 1st in AFC West
SKINNY: Patriots are 10-0 for 2nd time (2007). 2nd team in NFL history with 10 wins in 13 consecutive. seasons (1983-98 49ers, 16). QB Tom Brady has won 5 of past 6 starts vs. Den (incl. playoffs) & has passed for 1,860 yards with 17 TDs vs. 2 INTs for 111.1 rating. TE Rob Gronkowski has 34 catches for 428 yards & 5 TDs. Has 14 TDs in past 16 overall (incl. playoffs). Since 2010, leads NFL with 62 TD rec. DE CHANDLER JONES ranks 2nd in NFL with 10.5 sacks … Denver snapped a two-game losing streak last week with its victory in Chicago. Last week, QB Brock Osweiler passed for 250 yards with 2 TDs vs. 0 INTs for 127.1 rating. 1st SB-era QB to make 1st NFL start & win on his birthday. LB Von Miller has 5 sacks in past 7. Has 4 sacks in past 3 meetings. LB DeMarcus Ware has 6.5 sacks in past 7.
IMPACT ON THE STEELERS: The Patriots have clinched the AFC's top seed in the playoffs in all ways except the mathematical, and only a rash of injuries to significant players – such as Brady and Gronkowski – stands in the way of them doing it for the fourth time since 2010. The Steelers get a chance to see the Broncos first-hand on Dec. 20 at Heinz Field, and maybe Peyton Manning is back at quarterback by then. Instead of rooting for one team or the other to win this game, my choice would be to have Ware and Miller spending a lot of time chasing Brady around the floor of Sports Authority Field.