The (12-2) New Orleans Saints will have an opportunity to clinch home-field advantage throughout the entire length of next month’s 2018 NFL playoffs when they return home this upcoming Sunday afternoon to face top AFC Playoff contenders the (8-5-1) Pittsburgh Steelers. Kickoff is at 3:25 P.M. Central time and will be broadcast nationally by CBS.
The Saints can clinch the #1 overall seed in the playoffs by beating the Steelers, or with a loss by either the current #2 seed Los Angeles Rams or the current #3 seed and NFC North Division-leading Chicago Bears. They’ve already clinched their 2nd consecutive NFC South Division Championship with two regular season games still remaining.
New Orleans leads the All-Time series between the two teams by one game (8-7), and won the last game played against them at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh in 2014, a 35-32 Saints victory.
The Steelers have only won once in New Orleans in nearly 30 years, a hard-fought 9-6 victory in the 1990 season led by then-Steelers legendary head coach Chuck Noll over Saints head coach Jim Mora and the “Dome Patrol” defense. The Steelers are (4-5) all-time in games played in the Crescent City. They come into this contest having lost their past two on the road against weaker opponents (the Broncos and Raiders) and nearly lost in Jacksonville to the lowly Jaguars the week before that.
The Steelers had actually lost three straight games until their season-saving 17-10 win last week over New England, and now will be looking to make a final stretch run to win the AFC North Division title. They currently have a half-game lead over the (8-6) Baltimore Ravens with 2 games remaining.
And so, it’s with all of that in mind this morning, that Big Easy Magazine presents our 5 Bold Predictions for this Sunday afternoon’s contest as the Saints attempt to win their 13th game of the 2018 NFL Season and secure the #1 Playoff seed and home-field advantage against the AFC rival Pittsburgh Steelers.
As usual, we’ll start first at #5, and work our way down to #1…
#5. The Saints Offensive Slump Continues Against the Steelers Top-Rated Pass Rush
You don’t necessarily have to be a Saints fan to know that New Orleans has undergone a slump of sorts with regard to their offensive attack. During their past three games, they have only averaged 16.7 points per contest, as opposed to the whopping 37.2 points per game they averaged during their earlier 10-game winning streak.
Things won’t get all that easier for the Saints in this contest, as their offensive line will struggle yet again against a very physical Steelers defensive pass rush that’s one of the league’s best at getting to the quarterback. The Steelers defense has 46 sacks this season, which currently ranks them 3rd in the League.
Pittsburgh will be led up front by nose tackle Javon Hargrave (6.5 sacks) and defensive end Cameron Heyward ( 6 sacks), whom older Saints fans know as the son of late former 1990’s running back Craig “Ironhead” Heyward. They’ll be further boosted by the presence of sensational linebacker T.J. Watt, who leads them in sacks (11) and causes havoc and destruction pretty much everywhere that he lines up. Just last week, it was Watt who made life miserable for Patriots QB Tom Brady, who he chased all game long; he got three quarterback hurries and a sack against while going after the League’s former MVP.
Brees and company won’t fare any better against the rejuvenated “Steel Curtain” defense in this contest; the dominant Steelers Front Seven will tally six quarterback “pressures”, three quarterback “hits”, and three sacks.
#4. The Saints Secondary Takes a Step Back Against the Steelers WR Dynamic Duo
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) December 4, 2018
Since getting burned badly in their season-opening loss at home to the Buccaneers back in Week #1, the Saints defensive secondary has blossomed into one of New Orleans’ biggest strengths on that side of the ball, as evidenced by the two big turnovers they came up with in last week’s win over the Panthers at Charlotte.
However, they might not have faced a challenge yet quite like the one they’ll get this Sunday against Steelers WR’s Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, who combined have to be the most talented pair of wide receivers together on one team that the Saints have matched up against this year. Brown is considered one of the very best if not the best wide receivers in the entire NFL and his a league-high 13 receiving touchdowns are certainly a testament to that very fact. Brown’ has 90 receptions for 1,112 yards, but shockingly those numbers are 2nd on the team behind Smith-Schuster — who has become a superstar in his own right and leads the Steelers high-powered passing attack with 95 catches for 1,274 yards and six touchdowns.
Both players will be the reason why the Saints secondary will take a slight step back in their overall performance this season; as both will go over 100-plus yards receiving and a TD reception each as the Steelers accumulate nearly 400 yards worth of passing yardage.
#3. Alvin Kamara Lets the World Know What He Thinks About the Pro Bowl “Snub”
For those Saints fans who might have missed it, Saints 2nd-year superstar running back Alvin Kamara was among one of the biggest names to be “snubbed” for an invitation to the Pro Bowl, the League’s annual all-star contest that is played every year the week before the Super Bowl. Kamara has followed up his unforgettable 2017 NFL Rookie of the Year campaign with 860 rushing yards, 627 receiving yards and 16 total touchdowns through 14 games this year, which certainly would seem to qualify as being worthy of Pro Bowl deliberation.
But he finished behind other similarly-talented running backs within the NFC such as Todd Gurley (Rams), Saquon Barkley (Giants), and Ezekiel Elliott (Cowboys), which means that Kamara wasn’t actually snubbed at all.
Nevertheless, you can bet that the sensational young star will use the perceived slight as a great source of motivation, and that will translate into increased production on the playing field. The former University of Tennessee star will gain over 100 yards rushing and will add another 86 yards receiving in the air; with most of it coming on a eye-popping 65-yard-catch-and-run early in the 4th quarter.
#2. Saints Head Coach Sean Payton and Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin Have a Fiery Exchange After a Marcus Davenport Sack of Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger
As noted above: the Steelers passing attack will exceed well over 400 plus passing yards in this contest which will be led by the wily year 15th-year veteran Pittsburgh quarterback “Big” Ben Roethlisberger, who has thrown for 4,462 yards this season, which currently ranks him 2nd only to Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The Steelers are one of just four teams in the NFL that averages over 400 yards worth of passing offense per game.
Part of that success is because Roethlisberger has only been hit 57 times this season, which ranks him 2nd in the NFL behind Brees. Roethlisberger’s large size and his notable capability to extend plays often make it even harder for opposing defenses to prepare for him, and knowing this, Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen decides to blitz Roethlisberger at almost every opportunity. Allen does so in spite of the fact that the Steelers offense has been very good in pass protection; allowing just 20 sacks – the 4th fewest given up by an NFL defense in 2018. But the Saints defensive Front Seven has tallied 28 sacks in their past six games, and are hell-bent on stopping Roethlisberger by any means necessary.
Unfortunately, the exuberance of Saints’ rookie defensive end Marcus Davenport on one of the four sacks that the Saints will get in this contest draws a flag for unnecessary roughness; and in the heat of the moment an irate Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin will come out halfway onto the field from the Steelers sidelines to let the referees know of his displeasure.
But by doing so, it prompts Saints head coach Sean Payton to run halfway out onto the field and right to the very same spot from the Saints sidelines, where the two men (and friends otherwise) share a fiery exchange of words before having to be separated.
#1. The Saints Are Down 6 Points With Only Five Minutes Remaining When…
When Kamara, whom we told you above will be playing with a chip on his shoulder after getting snubbed for selection to the Pro Bowl, takes a screen pass out in the left flat and males a sensational escape from no less than three Steelers defenders who are unable to tackle him, and sprints down the sidelines in front of a jubilant Saints bench for a breath-taking 65-yard-catch-and-run.
After trailing 26-20, that miraculously gives the Saints a 27-26 lead with slightly less than five minutes on the game clock, and the Steelers get the ball back with plenty of time to go on a drive of their own and with every intention of taking back the lead. The Steelers are hoping to score a touchdown and win the game outright at the end, as they look to avoid relying on embattled 5th-year kicker Chris Boswell — who many consider lucky to still have a job by this point.
Boswell has missed seven field goal attempts from a variety of distances, and his 61 percent average on field goal attempts (11 out of 18) is the worst in the entire NFL.
Knowing this, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin tries to eat up as much clock as he can by pounding the football down the field with the running game, and they move well into Boswell’s range but elect to continually run the ball until the 2-Minute Warning. Tomlin then is eventually faced with a dilemma when the Steelers arrive at a 4th Down-and-7 at the Saints 37-yard line, with slightly over a minute remaining.
Should he go for it, or allow Boswell to try the game-winning field goal attempt?
Chris Boswell slips on the game-tying FG attempt and the Raiders win it pic.twitter.com/44XGn20Xrh
— The Ledge (@TheLedgeSports) December 10, 2018
As most Saints fans are aware: the Saints have been on the receiving end of some good fortune this season when it comes to opposing kickers, who have notably missed both field goal and extra point attempts that have led directly to Saints victories this year against Cleveland and Baltimore.
Amazingly, opposing kickers have missed six field goals (13 of 19) against the Saints this year, which is actually the 2nd worst rate (68.4 percent) in the league. After agonizing over the decision, Tomlin says the heck with it and sends Boswell out onto the field for the game-winning attempt from 54 yards out; while a sold-out Superdome crowd holds its collective breath.
As the ball is snapped, the kick appears to have the distance, but the ball passes just ever-so-slightly to the outside of the right upright of the goal post, narrowly missing within INCHES — as the Saints escape with the 1-point win and victory #13 on the season, and secure home-field advantage throughout the NFL Playoffs…
FINAL SCORE: SAINTS 27, STEELERS 26
Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium. He is the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. You can view the rest of his Saints coverage and several feature articles here.