Buffalo Bills @ Pittsburgh Steelers
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Return of the Steel Curtain
The Saints and Niners served up a scoring fest last weekend in what could be a preview of the NFC Championship game, but there's more than one way to win games and Sunday night is going to show us the polar opposite of last Sunday's shootout.
The Steelers and Bills have come to rely more on their stout defences than scoring prowess this season.
This may not have been the grand design for Pittsburgh at the start of the season - in truth, defensive strength hasn't been their identity since Troy Polamalu retired.
But needs must, and, after losing Lev Bell and Antonio Brown in the offseason and Big Ben in the early weeks of this campaign, Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin and the wider organisation have turned the team around in spectacular fashion.
Where once they were the Killer B's, now they're a killer D.
Moving their first-round draft pick for 2020 to Miami for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick was a drastic move and completely out-of-step with the franchise's reputation for stability and good sense in a league full of faddish copycats, wild swings in fortune and hare-brained decision-makers.
And, it being the Steelers, the massive gamble paid off.
While New England's defence was beating up on a weak schedule, the Steelers unit has evolved into the most fearsome front in the league. Since trade for Fitzpatrick in Week 3, they lead the league in sacks, QB hits and takeaways, with the former Dolphin posting five interceptions, two forced fumbles, nine passes defended, and two touchdowns.
Quarterbacks are terrified of throwing in his direction, and that helps his colleagues. TJ Watt may not eclipse his brother as a defensive force, but he's making a good effort and could be a Defensive Player of the Year winner this year. Bud Dupree has also, in his fifth year, started to deliver too, while Stephon Tuitt's loss hasn't hurt them as much as many expected.
It means they could get away with staring Mason Rudolph at quarterback for several games. They've won six of the last seven, and dropped Rudolph for undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges. He's not great, but he looks far more poised than the high-draft pick he replaced, and he's getting help from their young core of skill positions -
James Washington has stepped up in Juju Smith-Schuster's absence. Diontae Johnson ripped it up last week, and Deon Cain is making plays,
Whether they can continue that against the Bills secondary remains to be seen.
The Bills come into this game after pushing Lamar Jackson and Baltimore hard in Week 14 and shattered the Cowboys on Thanksgiving. The Ravens have scored 40 points or more in four of their last six games and Buffalo kept within seven and could've won that game.
Like the Steelers, this is about the Bills defence. They rank as fifth-best pass defence in DVOA and will be keying in on the inexperienced QB and his receivers. The Bills' secondary will be much tougher than any defence Hodges has played so far.
However, some wonder, with good reason, whether their 9-4 record is built on the shaky foundations of a weak schedule.
They've the benefit of playing in the AFC East for one thing - yes, you've the Patriots, but then there are the Jets and Dolphins. They've only beaten three teams with winning records - and one of those was the Titans when Mariota was still starter.
Playing the Steelers in primetime is a perfect opportunity to show that you're more than a fluke.
Whether their offence is up to taking it is the question. Josh Allen remains a curious 2018 top ten draft pick. His accuracy and questionable play under pressure looks like the potential Achilles heel of the Bills.
That's not what you need to hear given how Pittsburgh are harassing quarterbacks.
This game is going to tell us a lot about both these teams. Devlin Hodges has been encouraging, but he's also benefitted from playing bad teams in his three winning starts so far. The Steelers defence and special teams has accounted for more than half the points scored in his three starts.
We have more data points on Josh Allen, and the Bills coaching staff know what they can and can't do with him. That has me leaning towards Buffalo on the road here. They played Baltimore very tough last week and there's a lot on the line in this game. I think that works in their favour given the kind of experience they have across their team. I'm going for the Bills on the Moneyline in this game at 2.021/1.
Given the strength of both defensive units and the uncertainty about offensive output, it's no surprise to see the Total Points line has dipped under 37. This is a very low number but I'd still see under as the right play at around 2.01/1 given the potential for both defences to terrorise the opposition signal-caller.
Clearly we're not expecting many touchdowns in this, but if you would like to take an interest in this market, the Steelers D/ST is a stand out option at 6/1 to score any time and 22/1 for the first TD. They've become a ballhawk defence, and Diontae Johnson last week showed his return abilities.
You can combine these bets on the Sportsbook for a multiple bet that'll pay out at over 43/1 and 134/1 dependant on whether you go for Anytime or First TD options.