Matt McGloin will take over as the starter, as one of three QBs in the AFC playoffs (the six teams are already determined, even with one week left to play in the regular season) who were backups for the majority of the season. The other two are Houston’s Tom Savage (who relieved Brock Osweiler due to his poor performance) and Miami’s Matt Moore (who replaced the injured Ryan Tannehill).
This dearth of top quarterbacks – or even average quarterbacks – in the AFC playoff field certainly seems to clear the way for yet another Super Bowl run for the Patriots. But neither fans nor the Pats should overlook the team currently locked into the No. 3 seed – the AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
2016 has been Ben Roethlisberger’s lowest-graded season in a long time
This might seem like an odd point to lead with, but the fact is that Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger has had a below-average season compared to his usual standards. He is currently 19th in PFF’s quarterback rankings with a grade of 79.9.
This is a QB who hasn’t earned a grade lower than 86.9 in any of the four previous seasons, ranking in the top five of the NFL in three of those four years.
Ben Roethlisberger’s PFF grades
Season: Grade | Rank
2015: 93.5 | 3
2014: 90.2 | 3
2013: 86.9 | 8
2012: 91.5 | 5
So why is this a positive sign for the Steelers? They have earned a 10-5 record and division title despite their quarterback not having a year at his usual level. If anything, this team is one that is better than its record, and given the excellent supporting cast around him (more on that in a bit), it’s not unreasonable to expect Roethlisberger to improve his play during the postseason.
Some positive regression towards his normal level of play – for example, he led the NFL in deep adjusted completion rate at 50.7 percent last season, but is just 11th so far this year at 43.0 percent – is a possibility. Moreover, since Week 11 against Dallas, Roethlisberger has played at an average or above-average level in every game except for one: a 27-20 road win over Buffalo in which Roethlisberger threw zero touchdowns and three interceptions.
The offensive line has developed into one of the best in the league
The Steelers rank third behind only the Packers and Raiders in PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency metric, which records how often an offensive line yields pressure on its quarterback while weighting sacks more heavily. On the season they have allowed only 12 sacks, the third lowest total in the league, and they rank second in PFF pass-block grades and seventh in run-blocking.
There isn’t a weak link on this unit, with none of the five starters earning a grade below 80.
That is a positive no matter the opponent, but is extra significant when considering that the Patriots have a pass rush that ranks sixth-lowest in the league this year. It is very likely that in a playoff matchup between these two teams – which would likely only take place in the AFC championship game – Roethlisberger would consistently have a clean pocket from which to throw.
Antonio Brown might still be the league’s best wide receiver
Brown “only” has 106 catches and 1,284 receiving yards this year, down from last year’s 136-catch, 1,834-yard regular-season output. But any talk of a down year has been greatly exaggerated. That is still the highest catch total in the league, and he is currently third in PFF’s wide receiver grades behind only Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans and Atlanta’s Julio Jones.
Moreover, Brown’s catch-and-reach for the game-winning TD against Baltimore on Christmas Day won the division for the Steelers, and had he not made the play, there’s a good chance the clock would have run out and they’d have lost the game. Brown is one of, if not the best, wide receivers in the game right now, and he’s very dangerous to the Patriots and any other defense he goes up against.
Le’Veon Bell might still be the league’s best running back
This has been the Year of Ezekiel Elliott, and rightfully so, given that the rookie No. 4 overall pick leads the NFL in rushing attempts (322) and yards (1,631) and is third in TDs with three, while being a driving factor toward Dallas earning the league’s best record. He is also third in PFF’s running back grades, just a couple of decimal points behind the league-leading Bell.
Only Arizona’s David Johnson has broken more total tackles than Bell’s 61 (tied for second with Buffalo’s LeSean McCoy), and his 3.0 yards after contact per rush is fourth in the NFL. Bell is also second among running backs in receiving yards (the Steelers split him out wide or line him up as a slot receiver on 16 percent of his snaps, so he isn’t limited to being a pass-catcher out of the backfield) and hasn’t allowed a sack in pass protection, making him a true all-around back. Had it not been for his suspension to start the season, we might be talking about Bell as the clear-cut No. 1 running back in the league this season.
The defense is fine
Nobody is going to make an argument for the Steelers having one of the league’s top stop units, but Pittsburgh’s defense grades out right around league average. The team currently ranks 17th in run-defense, 19th in pass-rush and ninth in coverage grades. That’s not great, but it isn’t bad, either, and for a team with an offense as prolific as Pittsburgh’s, that’s enough to make a run in the playoffs.
Their playoff path, as it stands now, is a relatively clear one
With one week left to play, the exact AFC playoff matchups aren’t yet set, even though the six teams have all clinched postseason berths. But going off of the current standings, the Steelers have found themselves in a favorable position.
They would draw an opening-round home game against the Dolphins, who are being led by the aforementioned Matt Moore at quarterback. If they won, they would go on the road to play the Raiders and the aforementioned Matt McGloin. That’s two games against teams with backup QBs before a likely AFC title game matchup with the Patriots and Tom Brady (assuming they weren’t upset in Round 2) – and given the ability they have all over that offense, and the possibility of an uptick in play from Ben Roethlisberger, that makes the Steelers a serious Super Bowl contender.