Seattle Seahawks have a slight edge over Pittsburgh Steelers

Expect a dogfight for the wildcard berth Sunday afternoon as the Pittsburgh Steelers travel to CenturyLink Field to take on the Seattle Seahawks. The game starts at 4:25 p.m. Eastern on CBS.

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman before an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015, in Seattle. The Cardinals won 39-32. A key matchup Sunday, Nov. 29 will be Sherman and Steeler receiver Antonio Brown.

Seattle vs. Pittsburgh was once a popular preseason pick for Super Bowl 50.

The Seahawks were coming off a brutal Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots but looked poised to make another run with their young nucleus on defense intact. And the Steelers took the AFC North title and were looking like the best offense in the league before losing a tough game to the Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional Round. All things considered, these two teams came into this season as bona fide Super Bowl contenders.

But the 2015-2016 season has not gone according to expectations for either club.

The Steelers have injuries to blame, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missing five starts this season due to injuries. The team has struggled offensively in his absence, going 2-2 while scoring 5 points less per game. When Roethlisberger has played, the Steelers offense comes alive, and their 4-2 record, with loses coming only to New England and Cincinnati, is proof that Big Ben is who makes the offense potent.

That being said, it does help that Roethlisberger is throwing to one of the most dynamic receivers in the league in Antonio Brown. Yet, Brown’s production without the Steelers' starting quarterback is a testament to what Roethlisberger brings. In games without Roethlisberger, Brown averaged 4.3 catches and 58.8 yards per game, scoring no touchdowns in those four games. With Big Ben, Brown is one of the most productive players in the league, averaging 10.3 catches and 151.0 yards, scoring 5 times in six games. Roethlisberger and Brown share a chemistry that is among the best in the NFL.

The constant for the Steelers on offense is their run game, which has been productive all season despite unpredictability at the running back position. Le’Veon Bell has been among the best in the league the last several years, but his recent season-ending injury and his early season suspension has limited him to only six games. Fortunately, Pittsburgh went out and signed De’Angelo Williams in the offseason, and he has been very effective in Bell’s absence. The two running backs share almost identical stats, with Bell rushing for 556 yards on 4.9 yards per carry, and Williams going for 534 yards and 5.0 yards per carry. The Steelers miss Bell’s pass-catching ability, but should be thankful they have Williams who is a capable backup.

The 5-5 Seahawks can also be thankful for their back-up running back, Thomas Rawls, who has filled in for a banged up Marshawn Lynch whenever called upon. Lynch has struggled all season with injuries, and his latest setback will cost him 3-4 weeks of game time. This may end up being good in the long run, however as Thomas Rawls has averaged 6.0 yards per carry to Lynch’s 3.8 yards. Rawls is a destructive runner, and has become a fan favorite for his refusal to willingly go out of bounds to avoid contact.

“I never run out of bounds,” Rawls told the Seattle Times. “It’s just my makeup. It’s just my whole mentality. I think I would feel less of a person if I just ran out of bounds.”

Seattle Times writer Jayson Jenks went on to confirm that on all 107 carries Rawls has had this season, the back never willingly stepped out of bounds. In fact, whenever possible, Rawls avoids the sideline and tries to go straight into another player to gain more yards.

Seattle head coach Pete Carroll summed it up when he told the Times, “He makes somebody miss to find somebody to hit.”

The premier matchup of this Sunday afternoon contest will be All-Pro Richard Sherman against his counterpart Antonio Brown. Sherman will follow Brown around the field all game in hopes that he can stop Brown from generating big plays in the open field.

Sherman, who has been dominant over the last two seasons, struggled through the first half of this season, allowing opposing quarterbacks a 100.3 quarterback rating, 15.3 yards per catch and a 66.7 percent completion percentage when thrown to as of only a few weeks ago. Things changed when he matched up against Dez Byrant in Week 9, though. According to Pro Football Focus, Sherman had his best player grade of the season that week and since then has been on-top of his game. The winner of this key matchup will likely go far in deciding the outcome of the game.

Both the Seahawks and Steelers find themselves in a position where dropping games could substantially impact their post-season hopes. Seattle will have the benefit of their raucous home field, but Pittsburgh is difficult to knock off their game when Big Ben is healthy. Expect a very tight affair, but one that ends up going in Seattle’s favor as they pound the Steelers and control the clock with Rawls.

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