The NFL’s Week 15 closes out with the AFC North leading Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3) heading west to Candlestick Park to take on the NFC West leading San Francisco 49ers (10-3).
The Steelers have clinched a playoff berth but with losses by the Texans and Ravens can take the first AFC seed and secure homefield advantage by winning out. The team has had 10 days to prepare and heal up but QB Ben Roethlisberger was limited in practice due to an ankle injury and is listed as questionable.
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Roethlisberger, who is eighth in the league in passing with 271.2 yards per game and a passer rating of 95.6, is able to extend plays with his mobility and strength. Even injured, he may give the Steelers, who still have plenty left to play for, the best chance to win over backups Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon. If he does play, one of the key matchups to watch will be if speed receivers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown can get immediate separation to help Big Ben get the ball out quickly.
With Center Maurkice Pouncey also out, look for a heavy dose of RB Rashard Mendenhall, who is averaging 3.8 yards per carry and 59.2 yards per game this year, both the lowest since his rookie year, to try and take some of the load off of Roethlisberger.
The defense, which is sixth against the run allowing 97 yards per game and first against the pass allowing 179.1 yards per game, will be without LB James Harrison who is serving a single game suspension. Safety Troy Polamalu was back at practice Saturday and is listed as probable but has been impacted lately by a hamstring injury.
On the other side, the 49ers have clinched the NFC West and can pick up a first-round bye if they win out. QB Alex Smith is on track to have the best year of his career. While averaging only 197.3 yards per game, which is 26th in the league, his passer rating of 91.5 is ninth and he has thrown 15 touchdowns, one short of his career best, to only five interceptions. His receiving corps is banged up with injuries to Josh Morgan and Braylon Edwards.
Ted Ginn and Kyle Williams will have to step up to take opportunities offered if the Steelers focus on receiver Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis. The running game is eighth in the league gaining 126.9 yards per game behind RB Frank Gore. Gore is also eighth, averaging 81.1 yards per game, but his production has dropped off over the last several games. He will have his work cut out for him against the stout Steelers run defense.
Keep an eye on the left side of the offensive line. LT Joe Staley is listed as questionable after going out with a concussion last week, and the team gave up five sacks against the Cardinals. Defensively the 49ers are first against the run giving up only 70.5 yards per game. While they are 19th against the pass, allowing 234.5 yards per game, a hobbled Roethlisberger will be a huge target.
Defensive rookie of the year contender LB Aldon Smith has 10.5 sacks this year and veteran DE Justin Smith adds another 6.5. If the 49ers run defense can hold and the secondary can tie up the Steelers’ receivers, this duo could make a short night for Big Ben and force coach Mike Tomlin to go with one of his backups.
FOX Business has evaluated the win/loss and stock market statistics over the past 20 seasons of Monday night NFL games to come up with a Monday Night Markets (MNM) score for each team based on their record and the prior week’s market activity. Let’s take a look at what the markets have to say.
The major indexes were down last week with the Dow Industrials giving up 2.61% while the S&P 500 fell 2.83%, with both indexes snapping a two week winning streak. The markets gave up gains from stronger than expected jobs and regional manufacturing reports after Fitch warned it may lower the sovereign debt rating on some European nations. Markets were also pressured by investor concerns that plans made by an earlier EU summit to alleviate the region’s debt crisis would be too little too late, and after Fed policy makers warned about risks to global economic growth.
Over the past 20 years, the Steelers have played 33 Monday night games and based on our calculations have a Monday night rank of .667 when the Dow closes the prior week down, and .667 when the S&P 500 is down, giving them a MNM rank for this week of .667.
During the same 20 year period, the 49ers have played 37 Monday night games and have a rank of ..500 when the Dow is down and .667 when the S&P 500 is down, giving them an MNM rank this week of .584.
Monday Night Markets picks the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road.
FBN STAFF PICKS - WEEK 15
Chris Cotter (11-4)
My first inclination is to pick the Steelers. But Big Ben is banged up. He will play and play well but he might have to play a near perfect game to beat San Fran’s underrated D. The Niners in a close one.
Sandra Smith (11-4)
Robert Gray (10-4)
After a wacky weekend that saw playoff contenders and pretenders get upset almost across the board, Pittsburgh stakes its claim to the top spot in the AFC with a close win over San Francisco.
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