We're almost to the end, ladies and gentlemen. After the next three weekends, 20 teams will be packing up their gear and heading out to the golf course. The Packers' opponent this week, the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers, are on the verge of being one of those 20 teams who will be playing golf instead of football in mid-January.
Much like the NFL season, I'm almost to the end of my second-to-last semester of college. One exam and one lab report remain before I can return home from Madison to spend the holidays with my family and friends. In light of the fact that I've been working my tail off this week, is there any better way to take a break from drudging through old lectures and experiment data than to put together a quick analysis of factors that will impact Sunday's game? I think not, so here we go.
1. Desperation Factor
Had the Jaguars beaten the Colts last night, the Steelers' playoff hopes would be all but gone. However, Peyton Manning and Dallas Clark beat the Jags' pass defense like a drum, winning 35-31 and staying perfect at 14-0. My point here is that the Jaguars' loss keeps the Steelers a thin ray of hope alive, and I think this causes problems for the Pack this week. As we all know, the Steelers have lost five straight, and much of that collapse can be attributed tor injuries on defense, especially to All-World Safety Troy Polamalu and DE Aaron Smith. However, they have continued to be competitive, losing only one of those five games by more than a touchdown.
This brings me to the desperation factor. If the Steelers feel like they're done, the Packers will win this game. However, if they feel like they have something to prove against one of the better teams in the NFC and come out fired up and urgent to get a win and keep their glimmer of hope for the playoffs alive, this will be a very entertaining game.
2. Field Conditions
The Pack just played on one of the crappier pieces of turf in the NFL at Soldier Field. Now they go to arguably the worst one, at Heinz Field. Mercifully, this game is not taking place the same weekend as a home game for the University of Pittsburgh Panthers, who also play at Heinz Field. Nonetheless, that patch of grass has a reputation of being among the worst in the league, and it often wreaks havoc with the running and kicking games. There is a reason only two field goals over 50 yards have ever been kicked there (51-Pat McAfee, WVU vs. Pitt, 2006; 50-Jeff Reed). With Mason Crosby's kicking issues over the last few games, I expect to see more 4th-down attempts than usual from Mike McCarthy, especially between the 30 and 40-yard lines. Look for the field conditions to play a factor in the game, especially if the snow that they're calling for early in the morning waits around until after 4:00 PM EST.
3. Special Teams Play
Let's put it out there. Both of these teams have bad special teams units. And I don't mean bad as in Ben Affleck is a bad actor, I mean Keanu Reeves in "Dracula" bad (REALLY? BYOU-DAPEST?). These teams rank 30th and 32nd in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. I have a hunch that one team will either make an unexpectedly brilliant play or (more likely) a boneheaded move, causing a huge momentum swing in one direction or the other.
Look for an entertaining game at the Condiment Bowl in Pittsburgh (hey, that sounds like a great idea for a new college bowl game!), hopefully resulting in a solid win for the Green and Gold. For those of you suffering through final exams as I am, good luck, and may your trips home for the holidays be swift and uneventful. In any case, I wish you all a safe and enjoyable holiday season.