By CHUCK POLLOCK, Sun Senior Sports Columnist
So, after 17 games this season, for the Bills versus Steelers, seemingly comes down to injury reports and the weather forecast.
Last Sunday, with playoff seeding at stake, Buffalo went down to Miami and rallied for a 21-14 victory over the Dolphins that handed the Bills (11-6) the AFC’s No. 2 seed and earned them a home game Sunday afternoon against seventh-seeded Pittsburgh (10-7) at Highmark Stadium (1 o’clock CBS-TV 95.7 FM, 100.1 FM, 550 AM).
Last year’s opening-round 27-10 loss to the Bengals in Orchard Park, notwithstanding, Buffalo, thanks to its five-game, regular season-ending win streak that gave them a fourth consecutive division title are pretty much where they hoped to be seeding-wise short of the bye awarded to top-seed Baltimore..
A January playoff game in Western New York’s challenging winter weather seemed the ultimate home-field advantage.
But, be careful what you wish for.
TO THE BILLS’ advantage, the cold temperatures — upper teens and lower 20s with wind-chills down to 5 degrees — and the possibility of 1-3 inches or more of lake-effect snow during the game seem daunting, though that’s not as punitive for a cold-weather team such as Pittsburgh.
But where the Steelers get a break is that winds are expected to gust as high as 40-45 mph, which could create havoc if the snow emerges.
The Steelers, down to their third-string quarterback, have become even more run-oriented than usual. Running back Najee Harris, the last three games — all Pittsburgh victories — has averaged 104 yards over that span and scored four touchdowns.
But QB Mason Rudolph, though averaging only 24 passes per game over the last three, has thrown for three touchdowns, no interceptions and an impressive 118 passer rating.
Over that span, the Steelers have averaged 27 points per game.
After quitting on starter Kenny Pickett and backup QB Mitchell Trubisky, coach Mike Tomlin opted for Rudolph who was the right choice at the right time and it’s likely the Steelers wouldn’t be here without his inspired performance in contrast to his two predecessors.
One reason is, Pittsburgh focused on the running game and used Rudolph’s passing skills only sparingly.
That, combined with a solid defense, produced a win streak that was good enough to snatch a playoff berth.
BUFFALO, meanwhile, could find its major weapon compromised by the weather as Josh Allen, weaned at the University of Wyoming, is used to cold and snow.
But, a quarterback’s nemesis is wind. Even for an elite QB like Allen, who has a huge arm, is affected by high-speed wind gusts and that could be a major problem come Sunday.
Allen leads the NFL in touchdowns produced this season with 44, 29 passing, his fewest in the past five years, and 15 rushing, by far the most of his career.
The concern is, even with Allen’s spectacular strength, the predicted wind speeds could severely impact his effectiveness.
Unfortunately, Buffalo’s running game isn’t up to Pittsburgh’s in recent weeks. Feature back James Cook, after a spectacular performance in the domination of Dallas, has averaged 51 yards,16 carries and just over three yards per on those attempts. That lack of production merely puts more pressure on Allen.
THEN there are the injury reports.
For Pittsburgh, despite all the concerns, the only player who will miss the Bills game is outside linebacker T.J. Watt, the NFL leader in sacks with 19, who’s sidelined by a knee injury and is an impactful loss.
It’s Buffalo, so healthy last week, which paid a price in the win over Miami.
Out with a knee injury is the ostensible No.2 wide receiver, Gabe Davis, in the midst of an uneven season, with six catches and one touchdown in the past five games. Safety Taylor Rapp, whose late fourth-quarter interception sealed the Dolphins’ win, is also unavailable with a calf problem.
Two other key defenders are listed as questionable. Cornerback Rasul Douglas, acquired on Halloween Day in a trade with Green Bay, is struggling with a knee issue. In nine games with Buffalo, he has four interceptions, including a pick-six, two recovered fumbles, eight defensed passes and 29 tackles.
Meanwhile, linebacker Tyrel Dodson, dealing with a shoulder problem, over the last nine games has 54 tackles, six tackles for loss, five quarterback hits and two-and-a-half sacks.
Those would be two, plus Rapp, would be big losses especially against the Steelers’ ground game.
ODDS ON this game began at Bills by 10½ but have dropped to 9½, mostly due to the weather. But that’s probably still too much as both teams have strong defenses that should thrive on a cold, snowy, blustery afternoon.
I don’t have a lot of conviction on this one, except that it will be close and low-scoring.
Bills 13, Steelers 10
(Chuck Pollock, a Wellsville Sun senior sports columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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