NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - DECEMBER 23: Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints reacts during the second half against the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 23, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The New Orleans Saints clinched home-field advantage in the playoffs following a 31-28 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.

Drew Brees finished 27-of-39 for 326 yards and a touchdown. Michael Thomas caught 11 passes for 109 yards and a score.

Ben Roethlisberger threw for 380 yards and three touchdowns. JuJu Smith-Schuster, who tweeted Saturday he planned to play through a groin injury to help fantasy football owners during championship week, finished with 11 receptions for 115 yards.

Smith-Schuster’s final reception proved pivotal toward the final outcome. He fumbled after making an eight-yard catch to get Pittsburgh in field-goal range. New Orleans recovered and ran the final 32 seconds off the clock.

     

Saints Must Seek More Balance to Ignite Offense for Postseason

The Saints offense caught fire in the fourth quarter as New Orleans drove for what proved to be the game-winning score. But the Saints still finished with 370 total yards, below their season average of 385.9.

And it’s impossible to ignore the impact of the pass interference penalty that set up the team’s first touchdown. Rather than turning the ball over on downs while trailing 3-0 in the first quarter, New Orleans took a 7-3 lead.

That penalty didn’t swing the game in the Saints’ favor, but it was a lucky break.

An inability to establish the running game was one reason New Orleans struggled to move the ball against a Steelers defense that has been trending in the wrong direction. Mark Ingram II and Alvin Kamara combined to run for 58 yards on 18 carries.

Brees is the most prolific passer in NFL history and continues to play at a high level. To fulfill their Super Bowl destiny, though, the Saints need to strike a better balance between the passing and running games.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence New Orleans averages 54.0 rushing yards in its two defeats compared to 133.3 yards in its 13 wins.

The Saints won’t want to find out in the playoffs, especially if they meet the Chicago Bears. The Los Angeles Rams lost 15-6 to the Bears in Week 14. In that defeat, Jared Goff attempted 44 passes but threw for only 180 yards and got intercepted four times. Todd Gurley, meanwhile, had 11 carries for 28 yards.

The Bears turned the high-powered Rams into a one-dimensional team, and they’d have the potential to do the same to the Saints.

      

Steelers Defense Falls Apart at Worst Possible Time

The Steelers are teetering on the brink of missing the playoffs for a number of reasons. Their defense is at or near the top of the list.

After a shaky start to the season, Pittsburgh’s defense got on track and started playing at an elite level. As that happened, the Steelers rattled off a six-game winning streak and suddenly looked like a Super Bowl contender.

Then came the team’s Week 13 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, when the Steelers allowed 33 points and 371 total yards. They followed that up with an unexpected defeat to the Oakland Raiders. Derek Carr threw for 322 yards and two touchdowns as Oakland earned its third win.

For most of Sunday’s game, the Steelers defense did its job. The Saints weren’t moving the ball like they usually do, and Pittsburgh even blocked Wil Lutz’s 50-yard attempt with 6:17 left in the fourth quarter to preserve a four-point lead, 28-24.

But it only took one play for the Steelers to undo all of that good work. With the Saints facing a 3rd-and-20, Pittsburgh allowed Ted Ginn Jr. to get wide-open for a 25-yard catch that set up a 1st-and-goal for New Orleans at the 1:33 mark of the fourth quarter.

It might seem harsh to heap too much blame on Pittsburgh’s defense, but the unit has ultimately been far too inconsistent this season.

       

What’s Next?

The Saints wrap up the regular season at home against the Carolina Panthers on Dec. 30. With Sunday’s loss, the Steelers fell to second in the AFC North behind the Baltimore Ravens. They’ll need a Week 17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals and a loss from the Ravens or a tie in the Titans-Colts game to make the playoffs. 

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