MNF Preview: Pittsburgh-San Francisco

The Steelers’ trip to San Francisco takes on heightened importance in light of Sunday’s games. Baltimore’s loss gives Pittsburgh the inside track to the AFC North title and because the Steelers beat New England earlier this season, they hold the tiebreaker and also have inside track to the AFC’s #1 seed. With their remaining games against St. Louis and Cleveland it’s safe to say that it all comes down to tonight for Mike Tomlin’s team.

San Francisco’s game is no less critical. They still have the drop on New Orleans for the #2 seed in the NFC, meaning a first-round bye and home game before a presumed trip to Green Bay for the NFC Championship Game. The Niners are also officially alive for the #1 spot in the NFC bracket. They aren’t going to catch the Packers, but with Green Bay’s perfect season now out the window, I’m sure they’d like to get the top seed clinched ASAP and start resting people, and that’s what happens if the Niners can’t take care of business at home.

It’s stating the obvious to say this game is about defense, with the teams ranking 1-2 in the league in points allowed. Which offense has the better chance to get things going? San Francisco’s strength is stopping the run, but Pittsburgh has become a pass-first offense in recent years, the Niner pass rush isn’t great and if Ben Roethlisberger is healthy, he can make some plays to Mike Wallace and Hines Ward.

Roethlisberger isn’t the only key player whose status is in doubt. San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis looks unlikely to play as of this morning, and Steeler linebacker James Harrison is suspended for his helmet-to-helmet shot on Cleveland’s Colt McCoy last Thursday.

The biggest edge San Francisco has coming in is generating turnovers. Their (+21) ratio is easily the best in NFL, while Pittsburgh’s (-7) is one of the worst. But how much would the absence of a playmaker like Willis affect that? If Big Ben is healthy, I like the Steelers to finangle a win here, as I believe Frisco’s loss to Arizona last week is the sign that they’re coming down to earth.