Inches away from applying a vice-grip hold on the top seed and home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs, the Pittsburgh Steelers must regroup from their first loss in two months when they visit the Houston Texans on Christmas. Pittsburgh still has the inside track for a first-round bye and an outside at the No. 1 seed but cannot afford a slip-up.
The Steelers had an apparent go-ahead touchdown overturned in the final minute of last week’s 27-24 loss to New England that dropped them behind New England in the chase for AFC supremacy. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, it has a soft closing schedule featuring the punchless Texans and winless Cleveland, even though superstar wide receiver Antonio Brown is sidelined with a calf injury. “He’s such a great player, and to me, they have other great players,” Houston coach Bill O‘Brien said of Brown, who leads the league in catches and receiving yards. “So, do they have guys that can make up for the loss of Antonio Brown? Yes. They’re a very explosive team, but he’s a great player. There’s no doubt about it.” Explosive is hardly the word to describe the skidding Texans, who have dropped six of their last seven games and are averaging 13 points during their four-game losing streak.
TV: 4:30 p.m. ET, NBC. LINE: Steelers -9. O/U: 45
ABOUT THE STEELERS (11-3): Despite last week’s injury to Brown, one of the team’s league-high eight Pro Bowl selections, Pittsburgh appeared on its way to its ninth straight win before an overturned touchdown and Ben Roethlisberger’s last-second interception in the end zone. Roethlisberger, who has thrown multiple touchdown passes in six straight games, still has plenty of options with talented rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant, who combined for 10 catches last week. He also has the NFL’s leading rusher in Le‘Veon Bell, a dual threat who has rumbled for 1,222 yards and eight scores while hauling in 80 passes for two more TDs. The defense is not scaring anyone, but cornerback Joe Haden is poised to return after missing five games due to a fractured fibula.
ABOUT THE TEXANS (4-10): Houston’s season unraveled following an injury to rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson, who had injected life into the offense after replacing Tom Savage, who opened the season as a starter. Savage suffered a concussion in a loss at San Francisco in Week 14, leaving the Texans to go with third-stringer T.J. Yates, who was a woeful 12 of 31 for 128 yards in last week’s mauling in Jacksonville and showed he wasn’t the answer when pressed into service down the stretch in the 2015 season. The one bright spot on offense is wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who has 92 receptions and leads the NFL with 12 touchdown catches. Former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney joined Hopkins on the Pro Bowl squad after posting a career-high nine sacks.
1. The Steelers will clinch a first-round bye with a win and a loss or tie by Jacksonville at San Francisco.
2. Hopkins needs eight receptions to join Andre Johnson as the only wideouts in franchise history with multiple 100-catch seasons.
3. Bell, who also leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage, is one of four running backs to have 80 catches in multiple season.
PREDICTION: Steelers 27, Texans 13