If you would’ve told me that the Pittsburgh Steelers were going to be playoff bound five weeks into this NFL season — in which they sat at 1-4 with a backup QB and injuries all around — I would’ve laughed in your face.
But here we are eight games later and the Steelers are now 8-5 and currently hold the sixth and final playoff spot entering this week’s games. The team that then went to its third string QB and had its star wideout and running back out multiple games has gone 7-1 in an eight game stretch.
We’ve now got Devlin “Duck” Hodges — undrafted rookie out of Samford — at 3-0 as a starting NFL QB and with as many wins as this year’s first overall pick Kyler Murray, who has started the entire season for the Arizona Cardinals.
As a fan of the Steelers, this is a fun team to follow. They’re playing like they’ve got nothing to lose. And it’s true — they really don’t. They were essentially written off back in September with no playoff aspirations whatsoever and more than likely to have a high first round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Then they made the trade to ship off its first round pick next year to Miami for Minkah Fitzpatrick and winning ways of the Steelers soon followed.
Gone is the incessant drama that this team had over 2018 with the Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown issues. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to flip on ESPN and NOT have the latest off the field issue be highlighted, especially with the traveling circus that Brown has been this year and Bell’s latest issue of bowling Saturday night after being ruled out earlier in the week with the flu.
This can be somewhat of a hot take that others might not agree with here, but this season, to me, shows how invaluable head coach Mike Tomlin has been. With Sunday’s win against the Cardinals, Tomlin clinched his 13th consecutive season of .500 or above. That’s quite the accomplishment that’s been done with hundreds of different players. Sure, he could’ve handled the Brown and Bell issues differently — A LOT differently as a matter of fact. But as many people want him to be, he’s not Bill Cowher and he’s not Chuck Noll. He’s not going to be the disciplinarian that those two were and is fine with being a “player’s coach.” Getting a team ravaged by injuries to be 8-5 battling for a playoff spot can arguably be one of his greatest accomplishment thus far.
So here we are with the Sunday Night Football matchup as Pittsburgh hosts a hungry Buffalo Bills team that can clinch a playoff birth with a win — which would be only the second playoff appearance since 1999 for the Bills. Will I disappointed if Pittsburgh loses? No. To be completely honest, I won’t even be surprised if they lose and I’ll actually be happy for Bills fans. But it’ll be really cool if they do make playoffs because anything can happen from there.
I was 5-5 last week to set my record this year at 64-66. Good luck to those of you playing in semifinal matchups and hopefully you weren’t knocked out of playoffs by a last second TD. Onto to this week’s picks ...
Ryan Tannehill, QB, Tennessee Titans. Tannehill and the Titans have had a run similar to the Steelers as they started out 2-4 but are 6-1 in their last seven games and are battling for a wildcard spot and the division lead with Houston also at 8-5. They’ll play Houston this week after the Texans got torched by rookie Drew Lock making his second career start. Fire up Tannehill with confidence this week.
AJ Brown, WR, Tennessee Titans. There isn’t another wide receiver that’s benefitted more from the move to Tannehill from Marcus Mariota than the rookie out of Ole Miss. Over the past three games, Brown has gone over 20 points on two occasions, including last week’s five receptions for 153 yards and two touchdowns. Look for double-digit scoring to continue this week against the Texans.
Darrius Slayton, WR, New York Giants. The fifth round rookie from Auburn had an identical stat line to Brown but gained an extra yard in Monday night’s game against the Eagles. The Giants will take on a Dolphins team this week that’s let up the second most fantasy points to wideouts on the season. It’s tough to trust Slayton in a semi-final playoffs matchup. But if you had someone like Mike Evans, Slayton will be a boom-or-bust replacement.
Raheem Mostert, RB, San Francisco 49ers. Mostert — who was undrafted out of Purdue in 2015 — has capitalized on opportunities with the Niners this season. With other RBs Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida missing time, Mostert has stepped into the RB2 role and was actually the team’s RB1 last week week with 10 carries for 69 yards and a score, including another receiving TD. He’s averaging an absurd 6.0 yards per carry this season and if you’ve got him as your FLEX play, you’re in great shape for your semi-final game.
Tyler Higbee, TE, Los Angeles Rams. Starting TE Gerald Everett has been out for the Rams the past two games and Higbee has “filled in” with double-digit scoring games — something desperately needed by fantasy owners for the TE spot. Even if Everett comes back, I think they’ll continue to feed Higbee, as he’s racked up 14 catches for 223 yards and a score in those two aforementioned weeks.
Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys. Dallas hasn’t defeated a good team all season and sits at 6-7, yet first place, in the league’s worst division, the NFC East. So who do they play this week? Oh, they play a surging Rams team that just knocked off Seattle. Don’t bank on Prescott carrying you to the fantasy finals.
Adam Thielen, WR, Minnesota Vikings. If you’ve had last year’s WR7 sitting on your bench yet you still are in fantasy playoffs, congrats are in order as you did some savvy general managing in getting WR production after your likely top WR has been inactive since the middle of the season. He’s on track to return this week but I figure Minnesota will ease him into the offense with the hopes of not re-aggravating his hamstring injury like he did before five games ago.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s the same deal with JuJu as it is with Thielen — a return is expected from a multi-week injury. Pittsburgh’s been doing just fine without him so I wouldn’t expect Smith-Schuster to be involved too terribly much in Sunday night’s matchup.
Mark Ingram, RB, Baltimore Ravens. Much of the damage against the Jets this year has been done through the air as New York’s run defense isn’t that bad. Baltimore travels to the Meadowlands tonight for the game and while I think the matchup is good, I think they’ll go with Gus Edwards a bit more on the ground if the Ravens get a big lead.
Darren Waller, TE, Oakland Raiders. While Waller has racked up 880 yards receiving this year, which ranks second among TEs, he’s only had double-digit fantasy scoring games in four of 13 games this year. In fact, six out of the last seven games have been in single-digits. Make that seven of eight against the Jaguars this week. However, you’re starting him regardless if you’ve got him because there’s not much else out there that you can realistically bench him for.