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Steelers Stand in Way of Bills’ Third Straight Victory

Times around One Bills Drive and among the Buffalo nation have drastically improved over the past two weeks.  That’s what two straight wins and erasing all 0-16 thoughts will do for you.  Once Sharpie’d in as the shoe-in team to land the first overall pick in next April’s draft, suddenly it’s time to break up these resurgent Bills.

Unfortunately, though, despite consecutive wins over Detroit and Cincinnati, the good times and smiles might be coming to screeching hault, as the Buffalo Bills welcome into Ralph Wilson Stadium one of the AFC and league heavyweights, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Buffalo’s 2010 story is well documented.  The hard luck, laughingstock of the NFL for most of this season, it took the Bills two months to get two wins.  Again, faced with a growing list of players landing on injured reserve, saddled with the league’s worst run defense and the continued inability to finish off close game in winning time, it’s been same-old, same-old.

But when the Bills rid themselves of much maligned QB Trent Edwards and handed the reigns to Ryan Fitzpatrick for good, the Bills began to morph slowly into a team that was capable of being in games until the end yet they just couldn’t avoid the costly mistakes and win the close ones.  Losers of three straight games all by three points, it felt as though any second the Bills would burst into the win column.  Finally against the road weary Lions, the Bills found win No.1. 

Last week, they came up with win No.2 in dramatic, yet crushing fashion.  The Bills faced first half deficits of 17 and 21 points, and somewhat reminicent of a certain Buffalo Bills team years ago, they erased a tremendous deficit, outscored Cincinnati 35-0 in the second half of last week’s game and won going away, 49-31.  They became the first team ever to overcome a 17-point hole and win by 17 or more points in a game.

Heading up the Bills’ resurgence is Fitzpatrick, whose 18 TDs in just eight games ranks fourth in the AFC.  Fitzpatrick’s job now to find a way to lead Buffalo to their third consecutive win for the first time since 2008 when the Bills began that season 4-0.  Lucky for Fitzpatrick, he’ll be bringing some help in the form of WR Steve Johnson and RB Fred Jackson.

Where did this guy come from?  That’s usually the question asked of Johnson.  In case you care, he came out of the University of Kentucky.  Most defenses care to know how to stop him.  The dynamite Fitzpatrick-to-Johnson connection has produced nine touchdowns heading into Week 12;  only the combo of Matt Cassel and Dwayne Bowe have produced more touchdowns with 11.  Johnson is currently in a three-way tie for second in the league with nine touchdowns (Green Bay’s Greg Jennings and New York Giants WR Hakeem Nicks also have nine).  Bowe and Detroit Lions wide out Calvin Johnson (both have 11 TD’s) are the only other receivers with more TD catches than Johnson.

Fred Jackson seems to have found his 2009 form, posting consecutive 100-yard rushing games against Detroit and Cincinnati.  It’s also no coincidence that Jackson’s two best games are also the Bills’ two best rushing performances this season.

After what they described as an embarrassing performance against New England two weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers used the Oakland Raiders as their frustration punching bag a week ago.  The Steelers blew out the silver and black, 35-3, to remain in the chase for the AFC North crown and one of the coveted top two seeds in the AFC playoffs.  Not bad for a team that was forced to play without their franchise quarterback the first four weeks of the season.

Ben Roethisberger didn’t take a snap under center for the Steelers until Week 6, but he’s made up for his leaving his teammates who were left to do the dirty work while the former Miami of Ohio product served a four-game suspension.  Big Ben has led the Steelers to a 4-2 mark with 12 touchdowns and has Pittsburgh on pace for next Sunday’s gigantic showdown with Baltimore to decide who the giant in the AFC North will be.

After being surgically taken apart by Tom Brady and the Patriots offense, the Steelers were conceding 268.8 yards passing per game before last week.  It turns out all the defense needed was a showdown with the Raiders.  The Steel Curtain was in full effect last week producing six sacks and three turnovers.  As well as Bills RB Fred Jackson has been the past two weeks, expecting more of the same numbers from Jackson versus the vaunted Steelers run defense might be asking too much.  Pittsburgh allows 63.0 rushing yards per game on the ground.  If their stout pace keeps up, they could be on pace to be the league’s best rush defense in four seasons.

Pittsburhg’s main concern focuses on their offensive line, the achilles heel of the Steelers’ offense.  The line was dealt a major blow back in July when RT Willie Colon was lost for the year with an achilles injury.  Three weeks ago, the Steelers were forced to put their left tackle, Max Starks, on injured reserve as well.  The loses of Colon and Starks have forced the Steelers’ hand for the majority of the season, as Pittsburgh has tried to mix and match line combinations to find the right blend of protecting Roethlisberger and generating running room for RB Rashard Mendenhall.

Mendenhall leads Pittsburgh in rushing with 811 yards and eight touchdowns, but hasn’t rushed for 100 yards since Week 3 against Tampa Bay.  This could be his chance to end his lenghty drought against the Bills, who have the NFL’s worst run defense.  Buffalo allows 163.5 yards per game on the ground, but have improved over the past three weeks allowing just 104.7 ypg since a horrendous five-week period in which they surrendered 200 yards rushing four times.

Prediction:  Steelers 30, Bills 14.  The Bills have been playing much better of late.  They’ve shown there’s no quit in this team and they’ve passed the laughingstock torch on to a few other teams( Carolina, Cincinnati for starters).  But this going to be a big step up from beating Detroit and Cincinnati to now attempting to defeat Pittsburgh.  It would be like the equivalent in baseball from facing Jamie Moyer to then facing Nolan Ryan.  Buffalo has been facing slow change ups, and now they’ll be up against a steady diet of upper-90 mph fastballs.  The Steelers rebounded in impressive fashion, thrasing the Raiders last week.  I don’t anticipate any such trap-game mentality here.  Not to mention I think the matchups of Pittsburgh linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley against Buffalo tackles Demetrius Bell and Mansfield Wrotto work exclusively in the favor of the Steelers.

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