As the playoff race looms ever-closer, The 33rd Team is taking a look each week at teams on the playoff bubble. Each week across the rest of the regular season, we'll identify one team on the playoff bubble whose chances are trending up, and one whose playoff hopes are dwindling.
Trending Up: Pittsburgh Steelers
3 Things to Watch:
- Ben Rothlisberger
- Defensive pressure
- The Mike Tomlin effect
The Steelers are coming off the most narrow of victory possible, beating the Baltimore Ravens 20-19. This victory brings the Steelers record to 6-5-1 and puts them right in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt, currently at position number 8. With 12 teams having records above .500, the AFC playoff picture can change significantly over the coming weeks.
In light of recent news forecasting, this being the last season of Ben Rothlisberger's career, the time is now for the sure-fire Hall of Famer to finagle their way into a playoff spot. Although some may believe that Rothlisberger should have hung up the cleats a couple of years ago, his fourth-quarter performance on Sunday proved that there is still some magic left on Big Ben’s clock.
In the fourth quarter, Rothlisberger was 9 of 10 passing for 129 yards resulting in 2 TDs and a perfect passing rating of 158.3. This was Big Ben’s best passing-rated game (73.8) since week five against the Broncos, and just the fourth time on the year he has eclipsed the 70 or better threshold, per PFF. With four of the next five games being against AFC opponents including the Titans, Chiefs, Browns, and Ravens, the Steelers have an opportunity to solidify a playoff spot and secure a 4-2 division record on the season.
Every year many anticipate it will be the last year of the Steelers’ sustained success. And every year we are collectively reminded that Mike Tomlin is one of the best coaches in the NFL. In Tomlin’s 14-year head coaching career (all with Steelers), he has made the playoffs nine times and has never had a team finish with a record under .500, per Pro Football Reference.
On the season, the Steelers are PFF’s top-graded AFC team in terms of pass-rush grade and run defense and lead the league with sacks with 48 on the year, 7 of which came against the Ravens. On Sunday, the Steelers pass rushers accounted for a league-best 34 total pressures (sacks+hits+hurries), and a pass rush win percentage of 87.8 %, which was a complete 26% higher than the second-best team (Buccaneers).
The recipe for success for the Steelers comes down to trusting that Tomlin will put the team in the best position to win, Big Ben leaving it all on the field in his final season, and the second coming of the Steel Curtain creating problems for the opponents QB.
Remaining Steelers Opponents: @ MIN, vs. TEN, @ KC, vs. CLE, @ BAL
Trending Down: Minnesota Vikings
3 Things to Watch:
- How do the Vikings respond after losing to the Lions
- Alexander Mattison and the Vikings’ run game
- The potential return of Patrick Peterson and Eric Kendricks
The Vikings have had a rollercoaster 2021 season. Every game the Vikings have played in has been decided by 8 points or less with the exception of the Vikings’ Week 3 win over the Seattle Seahawks. However, the close loss the Vikings suffered in Week 13 may have been the most demoralizing one this season, as Minnesota lost at the buzzer to the Detroit Lions who did not have a single win on the season prior to this past week.
To make matters worse, the Vikings outscored the Lions 21-6 in the second half, but it still wasn’t good enough as the Minnesota defense gave up a huge drive at the end of the game that ultimately lost them this one. This game was the epitome of the Vikings this season: an inconsistent team that shows flashes of being a potential playoff team.
These types of losses are starting to build up for the Vikings, especially with how close each game has been this year for them. It’ll be interesting to see how the Vikings respond heading into what looks like a must-win game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday Night Football.
Another issue that arose for the Vikings in their loss to the Detroit Lions was their inability to run the ball well against one of the worst rush defenses in the league. Part of this had to do with star back Dalvin Cook being out, though Alexander Mattison is very much a capable running back. Mattison only had 90 yards on 22 carries (4.1 Y/C), and the Vikings only totaled 27 carries for 100 yards on the day. Sure, the Vikings had to throw the ball a lot in this one, but they still struggled to run the ball at certain junctures in this one. Minnesota also had an important two-point conversion run fail earlier in the fourth quarter.
Another issue that has risen for the Vikings is injuries to important players on the defensive side of the ball. Both Eric Kendricks and Patrick Peterson missed the game against the Lions, and it showed. Jared Goff threw for nearly 300 yards against the Vikings, and Minnesota could have really used Peterson on the last play of the game where Cameron Dantzler was beat easily to the end zone by rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown.
Facing explosive players like Diontae Johnson and Najee Harris in Week 14, the Vikings will need all the help they can get to keep their playoff hopes alive. They have lost two games in a row that have put a serious dent in their playoff chances.
Remaining Vikings Opponents: vs. PIT, @ CHI, vs. LAR, @ GB, vs. CHI
Written by Brian Friedland and Bryan Filker