One of the highlights of the Week 16 NFL schedule is the showdown between the New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers. Kickoff is set for 4:25 EST on Sunday, December 23, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. A majority of the country will be able to watch the game on CBS.
Based on the Week 16 NFL odds, the Saints are favored by 5.5 points at home. The over/under for the game is set at 53.5 points.
The Saints survived a scare from the Panthers on Monday night, winning 12-9. That was the last of a three-game road swing for New Orleans and perhaps the last road game they’ll play this season. At 12-2, the Saints are officially one win away from clinching home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
That gives them two chances to lock the top seed in the NFC, taking off some of the pressure to win this week. Of course, with a win over the Steelers on Sunday, the Saints could take it easy in Week 17 and then enjoy a bye the first week of the playoffs, which doesn’t sound so bad.
Meanwhile, the Steelers are still fighting just to earn a spot in the playoffs. Pittsburgh pulled off a huge home win over Tom Brady and the Patriots last week. But all that win did was snap their three-game losing streak and keep them a half a game ahead of the Ravens atop the AFC North standings. There is still a lot of work ahead of them with two weeks left in the season.
Of course, if the Steelers win their two remaining games, they will secure the division title and a home playoff game. Also, a win this week combined with a Baltimore loss on Saturday would clinch the division for Pittsburgh. Finally, a win on Sunday combined with losses by both the Titans and Colts would assure the Steelers one of the six playoff spots in the AFC. In any event, there is a lot of pressure on the Steelers to come away with a road win on Sunday.
The Steelers showed last week what they’re capable of doing in a state of desperation, and I expect them to be equally desperate this week. That may not be enough to win given how dominant the Saints have been at home most of the season. But I think Pittsburgh will at least put themselves in a position to win this game, so I’ll lean toward the Steelers to beat the spread.
The biggest reason why I was a little reluctant to bet against the Saints is their defense. Over their last six games, the Saints are giving up just over 12 points per game. That unit is coming on strong and peaking at the right time of year. In fact, one could argue that the New Orleans defense has outshined the offense in recent weeks.
That being said, the Cowboys are the only team the Saints have played during that stretch that currently has a winning record. The Pittsburgh offense will provide the biggest test the New Orleans defense has faced since they yielded 35 points to the Rams, albeit in a win. To be fair, turnovers remain a problem for Ben Roethlisberger and company. Big Ben has thrown eight picks in the last five weeks. But turnovers aside, the Pittsburgh offense can be lethal against just about any defense in the league.
The Steelers are hoping to get a boost this week with the return of running back James Conner. In his absence, rookie Jaylen Samuels had a breakout game last week against the Patriots. Samuels is actually a more versatile player, like a very, very poor man’s Le’Veon Bell, giving them another potential playmaker. Both Conner and Samuels could get touches with Pittsburgh finding a way to play to each player’s unique strengths. If the Steelers can get both backs involved, it’ll put more pressure on the New Orleans cornerbacks to match up with Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster in one-on-one situations.
Meanwhile, the New Orleans offense is going through a little bit of a slump, at least by their standards. The Saints are averaging less than 17 points per game in their last three games. Also, Drew Brees is averaging a paltry 175 yards passing over his last four games. Opposing teams are starting to figure out that the Saints don’t have an outside threat aside from Michael Thomas. Rookie Tre’Quan Smith has flashed at times, but he’s not yet a consistent threat.
The Pittsburgh defense also deserves credit for the way they handled Brady and the Patriots. In fairness, facing the Saints on the road is a different type of challenge for them. But the Pittsburgh pass rush is quite formidable, averaging better than three sacks per game. Even for an offensive line that has kept Brees on his feet most of the season, the Saints will be challenged to win at the line of scrimmage.
Ultimately, I see this game being tight and competitive all the way to the end. Even if Brees and the New Orleans offense get back on track, Roethlisberger and the Steelers are capable of matching them score for score. I know the Saints are much better at home, but the Steelers need this game more. I think we’re destined to see a field goal game, which means the Steelers will at least beat the spread.