The Pittsburgh Steelers will take on the San Diego Chargers tonight at 8:30 p.m. at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California, in what is going to be a huge game for each team’s playoff hopes. Both teams are coming in with 2-2 records, and going 2-3 in a tough AFC conference is only going to make things much more difficult. While many of the NFL games this past weekend had obvious winners before kickoff, ESPN experts are split down the middle on this one.
According to 13 NFL expert picks that work at ESPN, this is a very evenly matched game. Six of the experts are going with the Steelers, while the other seven are picking the Chargers. Since this game is in San Diego and home field advantage is extremely valuable in the NFL, it makes sense that expert opinions slightly favor the Chargers. According to Vegas Insider, the Chargers are between three-and-a-half to four-point favorites. Since an NFL team that is home is always awarded three points when making the spread, Vegas believes these two teams are practically evenly matched on a neutral field. If this game was in Pittsburgh, the Steelers would be favored.
While only four NFL teams remain undefeated, the Steelers and Chargers are both in the same divisions with two of those teams. The Steelers are in second place in the AFC North, while the Cincinnati Bengals are in first place with a 5-0 record. The Chargers are in second place in the AFC West, while the Denver Broncos are in first place with a 5-0 record. While it is still early in the season, losing this game and going 2-3 is going to make it extremely difficult to compete for the division when the current leader has a 5-0 record.
Since there are four divisions in the AFC and six total playoff spots, that leaves two remaining playoff spots for wildcard teams. In order to come up with playoff tiebreakers, conference record is a huge factor that is high on the list. The Steelers currently have a conference record of 0-2. The Chargers have a conference record of 1-1. If the Steelers end up losing, an 0-3 conference record is going to be extremely difficult to recover from. If the Chargers lose, they have a little more flexibility with a 1-2 conference record, but they must improve on it if they want to be competitive for a wildcard.
After Steelers Pro Bowl quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered an MCL sprain a few weeks ago, Pittsburgh’s offense has struggled. All Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown’s production has dropped dramatically with backup quarterback Michael Vick starting. Things may get better for tonight’s game though, as Vick and Brown have reportedly been working on their timing together, according to NFL. Brown weighed in on the situation.
“I think (Mike Vick’s passes) just come out a little bit later than Ben’s. I don’t think Mike Vick has yet adjusted to the timing of how we run things. His balls come out later in the routes, at the top of your route. You just have to get the timing down and make sure we’re on the same page.”
Star running back Le’Veon Bell will also be starting his third game for the Steelers after returning from a two game suspension. While he had very productive numbers in his first two weeks back, he may be ready to breakout and have one of his signature huge games.
For the Chargers, 8x Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates will return after missing the first four games of the season due to a suspension. While Gates is now 35-years-old, he is somehow still as productive as he has ever been. Last year, he scored 12 touchdowns, which was the most since the 2004 season. He is also one of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers’ favorite targets in the red zone.
For two teams that are so evenly matched, do not be surprised if this one comes down to a last second field goal. At the end of the night, either the Pittsburgh Steelers or the San Diego Chargers are going have an uphill battle ahead of them if they are going to make the playoffs after falling to 2-3.
[Image via Joe Sargent/Getty Images]