The Pittsburgh Steelers are the biggest underdogs of the NFL’s Super Wild Card Weekend, with the Buffalo Bills considered 10-point favorites heading into their playoff game on Sunday.
The lopsided point spread is reasonable because the Steelers (10-7) are the AFC’s No. 7 seed and will be without their best player by far in NFL sack leader T.J. Watt, who has an MCL sprain and will not return unless the team mounts a deep postseason run.
But this matchup at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park is interesting anyway. (CBS agrees, putting its lead broadcast team of Jim Nantz, Tony Romo and Tracy Wolfson on the call.)
The No. 2-seeded Bills (11-6) won their final five games after a bye week, claiming the AFC East title and re-establishing themselves as Super Bowl contenders, which had been expected going into the season.
Also, the Steelers, despite being extreme long shots to make a deep run, were a different team during their 3-0 finish to the regular season to claim an NFL playoff spot.
Here are three subplots to set the table for kickoff:
Bills Offense Is Uneven, but Seems to Be Fixed
Buffalo started with a 6-6 record, but even as they languished in the season’s first few months, a look under the hood did not reveal devastating problems.
Throughout their mediocre start, the Bills had one of the more efficient offenses in the league by both yards per play and success rate. Quarterback Josh Allen’s favorite target, Stefon Diggs, produced at an elite level, and while the defense was up and down, it was basically fine overall. The Bills lost close games because of situational errors and special teams’ disasters.
In their five-game win streak since the beginning of December, the Bills morphed into what they always had a chance to be this season. From Week 14 through Week 18, Buffalo was third in rushing success rate on offense (44.4%) behind running back James Cook and ninth in passing success rate (43.4%) behind Allen, good for fourth in the overall success rate rankings.
If the Bills made one notable change after their bye week, which also came two games after Sean McDermott fired offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, it was to let Allen use his cannon for a right arm to greater effect.
During those five weeks, the Bills’ average depth of target was a league-high 10.1 yards. Allen threw an average of an interception per week, but he was a short-yardage menace as a runner. In the Week 18 finale against the Miami Dolphins, he connected on a series of critical deep balls.
The Bills’ 3.9 yards per carry in the run game from Weeks 14 through 18 was a shade below the league average, but they stayed ahead of the sticks with a 44.4% run success rate (again third in the league), and that allowed the offense to keep churning.
Special teams have remained an overall weakness, but the Bills showed a flicker of life at the end of the season, too: Deonte Harty’s 96-yard punt return in the fourth quarter against the Dolphins turned the game and helped secure a home playoff appearance for his team.
Pittsburgh’s Offense Might Finally Have Something
The Steelers had one of the league’s more incapable offenses for most of the season.
Season-opening quarterback Kenny Pickett was a flop before he got injured, and backup Mitchell Trubisky was just as bad. Other than doing a great job with avoiding turnovers – 16 on the season, tied for the second fewest in the NFL – the offense excelled with little.
Running back Najee Harris underperformed, backup Jaylen Warren was a star, but struggled to even get half the touches, and receivers Diontae Johnson and George Pickens showed flashes, but had frequent unproductive games.
The team’s pass blocking was not sharp. For the season, the Steelers are 25th in success rate at 36.1%, clocking in well below the league average in both rushing and passing efficiency. They famously did not post 400 or more yards in a game until the week after head coach Mike Tomlin fired offensive coordinator Matt Canada on Nov. 21, breaking a season-long drought.
Third-stringer Mason Rudolph took over as the starting QB with three games remaining, and the Steelers won all of them. While the offense wasn’t outstanding, it became solid in a way it almost never has been in the past few years.
The Steelers bumped up to 17th in success rate over just the final three weeks, and their game against the Baltimore Ravens was played in a driving rain. Most critically, the Steelers’ game plans found ways to get pass catchers open for Rudolph to hit with well-timed, decisive passes.
Pittsburgh’s targets posted an open rate of 89.4% in the last three games – second in the league (for the season, its offense is just 28th at 75.3). Pickens and Johnson have had a series of long touchdown catches, and Harris has played the best stretch of games since the Steelers drafted him in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Nobody will confuse the Rudolph-led Steelers with the 2007 New England Patriots, but the unit has demonstrated proof of life, and that gives the Steelers a bit of credibility heading into the NFL wild-card game.
Pittsburgh’s Biggest Problem Might Be Who Isn’t on the Field
Watt, who could win his second NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award, is Pittsburgh’s most crucial player. His 19.0 sacks gave him the league high for the third time in four years, as he continued to be a disrupter as an edge rusher, a presence against the run, even a coverage-dropper who turned one game with a heady interception that set up a comeback victory.
Since the Steelers drafted Watt in the 2017 first round, the Steelers are 1-10 without him. The franchise, though, has built depth at the position, not just with Watt’s pass-rushing partner Alex Highsmith (7.0 sacks), but with backup Markus Golden (4.0) and rookie Nick Herbig (3.0, including a sack-fumble in limited snaps).
But what does the defense excel at if Watt isn’t playing? It’s not clear.
A 7.1% sack rate was one of the league’s best (10th), but Watt’s takedowns were the driving reason. And Buffalo actually has a more consistent team-wide rush anyway, coming in third in the league with an 8.2% sack rate on opposing drop backs.
The Steelers and Bills are each between ninth and 12th in rushing success rate allowed. Put another way: Relative to the Bills, there isn’t a decided defensive front advantage for the Steelers even when Watt is playing. Now he isn’t.
The Steelers could get good news in the likely return of former All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who’s been injured often and has made none of the splashy plays on the back end that he became known for in past seasons.
Without Watt, the Steelers may have no choice but for Fitzpatrick to pull one off on Sunday. It’s difficult to envision the upset happening if the Steelers don’t force a turnover or three.