PITTSBURGH — And so it comes down to this, Week 17 of the 2019 season. The Steelers need a win over the Ravens, coupled with a Titans loss to the Texans to get into the playoffs. There are many other scenarios that'll allow the Steelers to punch their ticket, but the one I just explained is the easiest and most likely.
1. I think the biggest story this week is about someone who won't even suit up for the regular season finale that will determine the Steelers playoff fate. Ben Roethlisberger ended his silence by tweeting on Christmas day that he's "more determined than ever" to come back and play in 2020 despite national reports. Yes, I understand we're all thinking about the Ravens, but this is good news regarding the future. I've also been told by a source close to the Roethlisberger situation that "he'll be just fine" when next season rolls around. As much as I, personally, can't wait to see what happens on Sunday in Baltimore, how can I not think about Ben back at the helm, to go along with this defense?
2. I think we should talk about the QB of the “now,” and that’s Duck Hodges for the regular season finale. He was declared the starter by Mike Tomlin after Mason Rudolph was placed on Injured Reserve and done for the season. Duck has struggled, obviously, over the last couple games to the tune of 1 touchdown to 6 interceptions. Were they bad throws? Yes. But not all of them. Last week we talked about the game plan that didn’t exactly set him up for success. I was talking to a colleague after the loss to the Jets and was curious if they believed the coaching staff was preaching to “not turn it over” so much it impacted the decision-making of the quarterbacks? Duck and Rudolph. As I believe, they agreed. The best part of Duck’s ability to succeed when thrown out there was his confidence. I’m not saying he’s shook, but he definitely didn’t look like the guy that won against the Chargers, Bengals, Browns and Cardinals. Hopefully Duck regains the confidence and makes the necessary plays when called upon.
3. I think T.J. Watt being voted as the 2019 Steelers MVP is a precursor to more honors for the best outside linebacker in the NFL. We’ve all seen it. Game in and game out, Watt’s been brilliant. And he has to put up a performance Sunday that’s better than anything he’s done this season if the Steelers have a chance. Completely not fair for him, but that’s what the situation calls and I’d expect him to be as motivated as ever to help the team get to the playoffs and solidify his resume for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
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4. I think injuries, especially James Conner's recent setback, are incredibly frustrating. Conner had missed five out of the last six games before injuring his quad against the Jets only nine plays into the game. The Steelers running back has done everything possible to remain healthy, but unfortunately hasn't had the best of luck since getting into the NFL. It's unlikely he'll play in Week 17, but perhaps that will allow more clarity for the coaching staff on how to proceed without him.
5. I think JuJu Smith-Schuster taking the blame for the loss in the Meadowlands is a bit much. On one hand it’s commendable, because, well, he couldn’t come down with the catch at the end of the game. That said, he should’ve and would’ve ended up in the end zone, but I find it a little ingenuine. This was his first game back from the knee injury and all the while was out there on social media “living it up” while trying to get back to health. When asked last Friday what he needs to do to from that point on to be able to play Sunday, he responded, “Don’t go out. Don’t go out and party, don’t go out dancing. Just stay home and make sure my knee is good.” He finished with 2 catches for 22 yards on 4 targets. I’m not saying what JuJu has done off the field has anything to do with it, but for a team that’s dealt with so much in 2018, which he saw first hand, the Steelers #1 wide receiver’s top priority, in my opinion, should be helping this team get into the playoffs. For one reason or another that hasn’t happened.
6. I think I've said this just about every week in this article, but Mike Tomlin doesn't get the credit he deserves for keeping this team in the mix for a playoff spot. Outside of their Week 1 blowout in Foxboro, the Steelers have 6 losses by an average of 4.8 points without their future Hall of Fame quarterback. To me, it shows just how razor thin winning and losing in the NFL can be. If the Steelers get into the playoffs, Tomlin is your coach of the year.
7. I think the Ravens sitting Lamar Jackson, Mark Ingram and others is significant, but let’s not gloss over the talent that’ll play for Baltimore in this one Sunday afternoon. Robert Griffin III will make his first NFL start since 2016 when he took the snaps for the Cleveland Browns, against the Steelers. RG3 is looking to prove he can once again lead a team as a capable starter, so this is a big, motivating game for him. Don’t ever discount a motivated individual when people say ‘you can’t’ do something.
8. I think Mason Rudolph hasn't been dealt the best cards since being thrust into his first NFL action this season. From being knocked unconscious against the Ravens back on October 6th, to being hit in the head with his own helmet, swung by the Browns Myles Garrett, to losing his job the very next week, to regaining his spot on the field in Week 16, to then getting hurt again a couple quarters later. Oh, and also being called a racist by Garrett, too. This was Rudolph's first, full season playing after being a healthy scratch his entire rookie season and many forget that fact. I don't know what his future holds, with the Steelers or elsewhere, but he's been through plenty and I'm not sure it's fair to judge what he's able to do as a starting quarterback in the NFL with the cards dealt in his maiden voyage.
9. I think Randy Fichtner needs to have the game of his life when it comes to calling plays for the Steelers offense Sunday afternoon in Baltimore. Why? Well, they've gone 19 games without posting 30 points. This is the second longest streak in the NFL, behind the Jaguars 27-game stretch. 30 points is a bunch, but how about scoring 2 touchdowns in the same game. Something the Steelers have done only twice since Devlin Hodges made his first NFL start, in Week 6 against the Chargers.
10. I think the Week 17 schedule doesn’t exactly do the Steelers any favors. For starters, their game against the Ravens was flexed to a 4:25pm start, the same as the Titans and Texans, which would add to the drama, because those two teams are fighting for the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoff picture. However, the Chiefs play at 1:00 pm and if they win, Houston will be locked in as the No. 4 seed and Houston would then literally have nothing to play for and could rest their starters. The Steelers need the Texans to beat the Titans and, of course, win their own game.
11. I think no matter what happens, it’ll be an intriguing Week 17 for the Steelers and the NFL. There’s a reason this sport is the most popular in the country, and it’s because of the storylines, the drama, everything it brings throughout the year. The chips are stacked against the Steelers to get back into the playoffs after missing out last season, but I’ll leave you with this: They haven’t lost a Week 17 game since 2007. That’s a string of 11 straight victories on the final Sunday of the regular season. Yeah, Ben Roethlisberger won’t be there, but there’s hope, and for this team, as constructed, that’s all you can truly ask for.
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