Two playoff-bound teams square off on Monday night as the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3) face the San Francisco 49ers (10-3) at Candlestick Park in a game that has important seeding implications.
While the 49ers have already clinched the NFC West division, the Steelers are in a tight battle with the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North. The Ravens were embarrassed by the San Diego Chargers on Sunday night, which means Pittsburgh can take a one-game lead in the division.
A San Francisco victory would keep the 49ers on pace with the New Orleans Saints for the second-best record in the NFC.
The Steelers have a banged up squad. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger practiced on Saturday and is expected to start despite a high ankle sprain. Roethlisberger will be without center Maurkice Pouncey, who has been ruled out with an ankle injury.
Pittsburgh will also be without linebacker James Harrison, who is serving a suspension for his hit on Cleveland Browns' quarterback Colt McCoy.
The 49ers are also missing their star linebacker. Patrick Willis has been listed as questionable with a hamstring injury, and it seems that the Willis's chances of playing are slim considering he did not participate in Saturday's walk-through. Left tackle Joe Staley (concussion), wide receiver Braylon Edwards (knee) and fullback Bruce Miller (knee) are also questionable for the Monday night game.
Injuries aside, neither offense is expected to rack up too many yards against perhaps the two best defenses in the NFL. The Steelers lead the league in yards allowed per game (276.1), while the 49ers are fourth (305.1). The 49ers' defense lead the NFL in points allowed per game (14.0), while the Steelers are second (15.2).
The Pittsburgh defense will look to contain Frank Gore. San Francisco's star running back is sixth in the NFL in rushing yards, though he hasn't had a 100-yard rushing game since Nov. 6.
While Gore has had another solid year, the 49ers have benefited this season from the improved play of Alex Smith. The 27-year-old quarterback is arguably having his best season in the NFL. Smith has thrown for 15 touchdowns and only five interceptions this season, and has a quarterback rating of 91.5.
San Francisco's secondary will be tested as the Steelers have a dual receiving threat in Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. While Wallace continues to build off his impressive 2010 season, Brown has been a revelation. The second-year wide out has already caught for 925 yards, and on Dec. 8 against Cleveland, Brown had a career-high 151 yards.
Should Roethlisberger perform at full strength, the Steelers can perhaps use the passing game to score points against a stingy defense, and against a San Francisco squad that opponents are no longer underestimating.
You're the hunted now, you're not the hunter as much, said 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh. You have a target on your back. That's raised. Not saying it wasn't like that before, but that expectation, that bar has raised.
LINE: The 49ers are favored by 3 points.
OVER/UNDER: 38 points.
PREDICTION: This should be a tight game, but expect the second half to see more scoring. Roethlisberger is known for playing through pain, and he has the receivers to move the ball down field when needed. The 49ers will need a big performance from Gore, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree if they expect to put up points, as Pittsburgh. San Francisco has lost two of their last three games, so they want to bounce back before the playoffs start. The Steelers have momentum having won their last four games rather convincingly.
PREDICTED SCORE: Steelers over 49ers, 17-10.