The playoffs don't start until the middle of January, but according to Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, his team has essentially started the postseason now.
"We keep saying when I talk to you all every week, it's a must win," he said Tuesday. "Because of the hole or whatever you want tosay that we've kind of dug ourselves into, even though we're not really in the hole because of the way the AFC is, we're still behind some teams and have to do some work."
At 6-5-1, the Steelers are presently on the outside looking in with five games left in the season, making their trip to Minnesota on Thursday night a crucial game. Thanks to that home tie last month with 1-10-1 Detroit, even a win against the Vikings would leave Pittsburgh trailing the Chargers, Bengals and Bills in the wild-card standings.
That's why Pittsburgh's 20-19 win Sunday over AFC North rival Baltimore was so critical. A loss would have ended any realistic hopes of making the playoffs, even in a 17-game season. The victory gave the Steelers a path, even though their last four games are against teams with records of at least .500.
And this one comes against a foe that is arguably even more desperate than them. Minnesota (5-7) also failed to take advantage of a date with the Lions, as the Vikings became Detroit's first victim of a terrible season on Sunday. The Vikings fell 29-27 in Detroit when Jared Goff hit Amon-Ra St. Brown for an 11-yard touchdown pass on the game's last play.
Defense was Minnesota's major issue. On a day where its offense finished with 426 total yards, including 340 yards and two touchdowns from quarterback Kirk Cousins, the defense was carved up by Goff for 296 yards and three scores.
Poor coverage and a lack of pass rush marked the final drive: On 12 pass plays, the Vikings mustered real pressure on Goff just once, and that was only with help of a blitz.
"Weren't tight enough in coverage," safety Harrison Smith said of the last drive. "He did make some good throws, but whether our (pattern) matches were a little off or we weren't tight enough, it was kind of a mixture of those things."
Minnesota should have reinforcements on defense Thursday night. Cornerback Patrick Peterson (COVID-19) and linebacker Anthony Barr (knee, hamstring) were full participants at Tuesday's practice, meaning they'll likely play.
Running back Dalvin Cook (shoulder) was a limited participant after sitting out against the Lions. Wide receiver Adam Thielen (ankle) didn't practice Tuesday and is trending towards missing the game.
The Vikings enter this one a game behind Washington and San Francisco for the final NFC playoff spot. Their schedule features two remaining games with Chicago along with contests against playoff-bound teams in the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers.
This will be the only 19th meeting all-time between the teams, including Super Bowl IX won by the Steelers 16-6. The series is tied at nine, with Pittsburgh winning the most recent meeting 26-9 win in 2017 behind two touchdown passes by Roethlisberger.
--Field Level Media