NFL 2018 Season - Week 16
 

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Running Backs Aside
by Dennis Ranahan

Two top tier teams with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations square off tonight at Heinz Field when the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Los Angeles Chargers. These teams have the top two rushers in the AFC, now that Kareem Hunt is off on his kick-boxing career. James Conner has led Pittsburgh’s ground attack and filled in for the awol Le’Veon Bell, while Melvin Gordon triggers the Chargers rushing attack.

Tonight, the Chargers are without Gordon, he is out with an injury, and the point spread which currently has the home standing Steelers favored by three points doesn’t seem to reflect his absence. If I’m going to like a team that has lost their best rusher, I at least want some compensation on the point spread.

While my initial leanings on this game was to Philip Rivers and his Chargers, I have as many reasons to not like them in this game now as I do to side with the visitors.

Both the Chargers and Steelers are historically strong in December, but I give an edge to Los Angeles based on their current division standings. Rivers and his mates have spent the entire season chasing the Kansas City Chiefs since suffering an opening day home loss to Andy Reid’s squad. While the Chiefs have grabbed all the headlines with second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes setting scoring records, the Chargers are still just one game off their pace in the AFC West.

I like the Chargers need to win as opposed to where the Steelers are currently perched in their AFC North Division race. The Steelers have already completed their two game season series against the second place Baltimore Ravens, splitting those two contests, and currently hold a two game edge in the loss column over John Harbaugh’s squad.

Unless either of these teams endure an uncharastic end of the year collapse, we can expect they will both be in action next month when the playoffs start. The Steelers are in position to win their division with eyes still focussed on earning one of the two opening week playoff byes. The Chargers are still in the hunt to overtake the Chiefs, who they still have one head-to-head meeting against, but would need to win this one and probably the rest of their games to leapfrog Kansas City.

These two combatants tonight have something else in common, both teams most recent loss was against the Denver Broncos. Two weeks ago, as a seven point underdog, the Broncos surprised the Chargers on their home field, 23-22. Last Sunday, in Denver, the Steelers fell victim to the surging Browns at Mile High Stadium, 24-17.

The Chargers avenged their loss to Denver with a record setting win last Sunday at home over the Arizona Cardinals, 45-10. In that victory, Rivers completed a single game record 25 consecutive passes and set the all-time completion percentage mark, 96.55, with a 28 for 29 day.

The Steelers return home after a ragged two game road trip that resulted in a narrow win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, 20-16, and last week’s setback in Denver. Prior to that road trip, the Steelers had taken control of their division race with a resounding 52-21 victory over the Carolina Panthers to advance their win streak to five games.

Both teams in tonight’s matchup are capable of winning this key AFC battle, but while the Steelers have already replaced Bell at runningback, there are questions on whether the lack of Gordon will doom Rivers and company.