If you were to think of the three most successful AFC teams of the past decade-plus, odds are you'd probably think of the New England Patriots, the Indianapolis Colts, and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Those three teams have combined to be the AFC's Super Bowl representative in 11 of the last 14 seasons, and on Sunday the Colts and Steelers will meet in an important December matchup.
Both teams are 6-5 this season and both teams have seen their backup quarterback get extensive action. Steelers starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been injured a couple of times this season, paving the way for backups Michael Vick and Landry Jones to play instead at times. Colts starter Andrew Luck has also been injured multiple times and will again be out this Sunday as Matt Hasselbeck makes his fifth start of the year.
Speaking of Matt Hasselbeck, there will be a rare feat happening on Sunday: two quarterbacks starting against each other ten years after starting against each other in the Super Bowl. On February 5, 2006 (following the 2005 season), the Seattle Seahawks and the Pittsburgh Steelers faced off in the Super Bowl (let's not get into how the Steelers made it there...). The starting quarterbacks for each team? Matt Hasselbeck for the Seahawks and Ben Roethlisberger for the Steelers. Now, a decade later, they're starting against each other once again. That's an odd tidbit that doesn't mean anything going into this game, but it's interesting nonetheless.
Hasselbeck's team lost that game, but the Colts haven't had much success against the Steelers either. They are 6-20 all-time against Pittsburgh when you include an 0-5 playoff record (including two very painful losses). On the road, they are just 2-10, and in 2008 they notched their first win in Pittsburgh in 40 years. That 2008 game was a memorable one in which Peyton Manning and the Colts made a comeback to win (a much-needed win in that season, to be sure), but that was also the last time the Colts beat the Steelers. They lost to Pittsburgh in the dismal 2011 season (though Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis did their best to earn a win) and then they lost to the Steelers last year in blowout fashion. The Steelers won 51-34 in Pittsburgh last year, and while Andrew Luck managed to keep the team in the game entering the fourth quarter, but Ben Roethlisberger stole the show that day by turning in one of the finest quarterbacking performances in league history, completing 40-of-49 passes for 522 yards and six touchdowns without a pick.
This year, the Colts again will face a tough Steelers offense on the road, and this time both teams could use the win. The Colts lead the AFC South by a half of a game and a win would keep them there, but with three of their final four games against the division this game isn't as crucial. Where this game could end up being important, however, is if the Colts fail to win their division, as this would be a crucial game from the standpoint of the wild card. That's what the Steelers are fighting for, as the Bengals have a big lead in the AFC North division. The Steelers are going to need a good final month of the season to make the playoffs, and this conference game on Sunday Night Football will be a big one for them as well.
Matchup to Watch: Colts Offense vs. Steelers Defense
The Colts' offensive line this year has, for all intents and purposes, been totally fine. They haven't been great, but they have done the job that was expected of them (and, if we're basing it on preseason expectations, they have far exceeded them). But on Sunday, the Colts will have a lot of changes up front, and that's not a good thing for their offensive line. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo will miss his second straight game, meaning that right tackle Joe Reitz will again start at left tackle. Rookie Denzelle Good, then, will likely get a second straight start at right tackle, playing in his second career NFL game. That's tough enough (as we saw at times last week), but right guard Hugh Thornton will be out as well with an elbow injury. So the Colts will have three new starting offensive linemen from their normal starting lineup that has been working out well, and if it's Lance Louis starting at right guard (the other option would be Todd Herremans), then the Colts would have a completely different starting offensive line combination at each spot for this game than they did entering week one. Anyway, you get the idea: there's a lot of shuffling up front for Indianapolis, and while the unit had been playing well, that's about to be severely tested this week. The Colts have had trouble running the football in recent weeks, and there's not a ton of reason for optimism that it will change this week. That could leave Hasselbeck to throw often again, in which case the Colts would need to protect him. His quick release helps, but that only goes so far. If the Colts hope to win this game on the road, they're going to have to get solid play out of their offensive line. It doesn't have to be great, but they need to be able to have at least some success running the football and they need to give Matt Hasselbeck enough time to throw. If this unit can't do that, it could be a long night for the Colts' offense.
Matchup to Watch: Colts Defense vs. Steelers Offense
As has already been mentioned, the Steelers boast a very dangerous passing offense. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, despite missing significant time due to injuries, has completed 66.5% of his passes for 2,343 yards (8.8 yards per attempt), 11 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions for a 93.9 passer rating. In fact, Roethlisberger ranks first in the league in passing yards per game (335), showing that when he has played, he has been very good. At the wide receiver position, things start with Antonio Brown, but they also have other playmakers. Brown is second in the league in receptions (85) and yards (1,192) this year, also catching five touchdowns. Martavis Bryant has caught 27 passes for 509 yards and five scores, while Markus Wheaton has caught 25 passes for 474 yards and two touchdowns. Perhaps the most significant mismatch, however, comes in the area of big plays. Those three receivers have 30 plays of 20+ yards this year, while the Steelers have 42 passing plays of at least 20 yards this season (8th-most in the league). They lead the league by a wide margin in 40+ yard passing plays with 17. The Colts, meanwhile, rank dead last in the league (well, technically they're tied with the New Orleans Saints) in 20+ yard passing plays allowed, giving up 47 this year. So what you have in this matchup is an offense very good at producing big plays through the air against a defense that gives a lot of them up. That's not a good sign for the Colts. So the key to the game for their defense is easy to say but a lot harder to do: stop the big passing plays, put pressure on Ben Roethlisberger, and get good play from your corners. That's it! It's as simple as that! In all seriousness, though, the Colts will need to limit the big plays. That will require their corners and their secondary stepping up and playing good coverage, but it will also require their pass rush to be able to get to Roethlisberger and not leave their corners in coverage for a long time. Again, it's very hard to do, but the Colts have to be able to do limit the explosive plays on Sunday against this Steelers offense.
Why the Colts Will Win
The plays are there to be had against this Steelers defense, and if the offense capitalizes on them they'll be able to put up some points. The Colts have played (relatively) turnover free football recently, and if that trend continues this Sunday, the Colts will either be finishing drives with points or making the Steelers offense drive the length of the field. Either way, that's not a bad situation to be in. Furthermore, the Colts' defense has been playing well in recent weeks, and in the second half of last week's win over the Buccaneers the pass rush finally started to heat up. If they keep that going this week and pressure Ben Roethlisberger, that would be huge. And if the trio of Vontae Davis, Greg Toler, and Darius Butler plays like we've seen them play at times in the past (maybe we haven't seen them be as consistently good as some may like, but they've had their moments for sure), they might be able to do just enough to slow the Steelers down enough to give them a chance to win.
Why the Colts Won't Win
I'll just keep this rather simple: Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers' passing offense could have a field day against this Colts secondary - again. The Steelers have three receivers who can be dangerous, explosive playmakers, led by arguably the league's best receiver. Add to that one of the league's best quarterbacks against a Colts defense that has given up a ton of big plays this year and struggles to rush the pass rusher and it's pretty much a nightmare matchup. And while last year the Colts could hold out hope that Andrew Luck and the offense would be able to put up enough points to win a shootout, that's likely not a realistic possibility with Matt Hasselbeck under center. He's played well, to be sure, but he's likely not going to lead the Colts to a win in a shootout.
It wouldn't surprise me at all to see the Colts keep the game close in the second half, but I just think the Steelers and their offense pose too great of a challenge to this Colts' defense, so I think Pittsburgh will pull away in the fourth quarter. I think Matt Hasselbeck and company will be able to make some plays against the Steelers secondary, but I think the Steelers will be able to have even more success in the passing game, which ultimately could wind up being the difference. On the road, against one of the league's best passing offenses, with a suspect secondary/pass rush and a backup quarterback, I'm not taking the Colts in this one.