It's Must-Win Time for the Steelers This Sunday

(Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

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Week 15 of the NFL season has arrived and we're officially getting down to crunch time.  The Pittsburgh Steelers sit in last place of the AFC North with a 6-6-1 record, yet they are still firmly "in the hunt" for a playoff spot in the AFC.  With a difficult last three games of the season, this week against the Tennessee Titans seems like a clear "must-win" game for Pittsburgh if they want any hope of playing into the postseason.  Lucky for them, this is the perfect matchup for them to get their record above .500.

I've talked a lot this year about this team's struggles and that is pretty evident in their 6-6-1 record.  The tie came against the then-winless Detroit Lions, summing up their rocky season pretty well.  And yet, the Steelers still are in the playoff hunt.  Wins in their last four games this season are crucial for a playoff berth but unfortunately for the Steelers, they come against four difficult opponents.  After this week's game against the Titans, they face the Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens.  The games against the Chiefs and the Ravens are on the road in two very tough environments for opposing team's to succeed.  That's what makes a win this week so vital.

Injury Concerns 

The Titans come into this matchup with a 9-4 record, good enough for the AFC South division lead.  They are a well-rounded team, but are hampered by injuries.  Derrick Henry, one of the league's best running backs, is on Injured Reserve, as is star wide receiver A.J. Brown.  Titan linebacker, and former Steeler, Bud Dupree was just designated for return from the Injured Reserve list, but it remains to be seen if he'll suit up Sunday.  

As a result of all of these injuries, the Titans of late haven't looked like the team they were at the beginning of the season.  There have been a slew of lesser-known running backs and wide receivers getting significant playing time for them over the past few weeks and it shows.  They defeated the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars last week 20-0, but preceding that game were two losses to the New England Patriots and, surprisingly, the Houston Texans.  This Titans team is stumbling to the finish line, giving the Steelers a prime opportunity to capitalize.

The Steelers don't come into this game without their own injury concerns, however.  As of now, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, linebacker T.J. Watt, and cornerback Joe Haden are listed as questionable, just to name a few.  Roethlisberger has played through lingering injuries all season, and with his career coming to a close, I can't imagine him missing one of his last chances to play in front of his home fans.  There is optimism that Watt will be able to play this week after leaving last Thursday's game early with a groin injury.  On the other hand, Haden has yet to practice this week, so it looks as if he is in line to miss his fifth consecutive game.

Reasons for Optimism

Even with the injury uncertainties, I still think this is an extremely winnable game for the Steelers.  While their play has been very volatile this season, this is the perfect get-right spot for them heading into their brutal stretch of games to end the season.  On paper, it looks like a great matchup but there are other factors in play that also give me hope.  

The Steelers have always fared better playing in front of their home crowd and this season is no different, with their last home loss coming in Week 3.  As I mentioned earlier, this will most likely be Roethlisberger's penultimate home game, after reports came out last week that he had private discussions with teammates that this would be his final season.  There's no doubt in my mind that Big Ben will be at the top of his game and his teammates will be fired up as a result of the occasion.  Lastly, coach Mike Tomlin has had success as a home underdog, winning his last five games with that designation.

Everything seems to be trending in the Steelers' favor for this game and I'm optimistic they will come out of Week 15 with a win.  If they want any hopes of making the playoffs, they have to win this game.  While a playoff berth may still be a longshot, who knows how the rest of the season will play out with COVID-19 cases on the rise again and players/coaches missing games all across the league.  

While playoffs are on the minds of many at this time of the year, the team still has to take it one week at a time, and that starts with a victory Sunday in a "must-win" spot against a team that, in its current state, is not as good as its record reflects.