Toronto Star

Quarterbac­ks under pressure with post-season berths on line


Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell challenged the Cincinnati Bengals defence to “pick your poison” in advance of Sunday night’s AFC North title showdown at Heinz Field. With opponents increasing­ly focused on stopping the running of Bell, whom the Steelers elected their team MVP, quarterbac­k Ben Roethlisbe­rger is putting together a career year by precisely distributi­ng the ball to the NFL’s only quintet of 500-yard receivers. Big Ben’s decision making will be pivotal if Cincinnati loads up to deny Bell, who gashed the Bengals for 235 total yards and three touchdowns in a 42-21rout at Paul Brown Stadium when the teams met earlier this month. He hasn’t fumbled despite producing a franchise-record 2,115 scrimmage yards on 359 combined touches. Here are Sunday’s seven most compelling matchups: Roethlisbe­rger vs. Bengals D Who has the edge? Roethlisbe­rger. The Steelers own a decided advantage at the game’s most important position. Big Ben owns two Super Bowl rings, while Andy Dalton has proven erratic in prime-time games (8:20 p.m., NBC/ TSN4). With Bell typically drawing an extra defender into the box, Roethlisbe­rger can go downfield to tight end Heath Miller or receivers Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant off play action. The Steelers can also go into no-huddle, up-tempo mode to keep Cincinnati from disguising coverages that helped trick Peyton Manning into throwing four intercep-

tions Monday night. Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart vs. Falcons defence Why it matters: The winner (4:25 p.m., CBS/TSN4) earns the NFC South crown and hosts a wild-card game. Quarterbac­k Cam Newton will try to lead the Panthers to back-to-back division titles a little more than three weeks after surviving a two-vehicle crash. Falcons coach Mike Smith could be gone with a loss. Who has the edge? Stewart. The sev-

enth-year back has a league-best 437 yards over the last four games and is averaging 5.6 yards per carry during his hot streak. Newton has averaged 65 yards rushing his last three starts and will tag team with Stewart’s inside-out running against a Falcons defence that has surrendere­d a league-worst 20 rushing touchdowns. Chargers quarterbac­k Philip Rivers vs. Chiefs pass rush

Why it matters: The Chargers are seeking a second consecutiv­e wildcard entry under coach Mike McCoy. The Chiefs could also grab another wild-card trip under Andy Reid by combining a victory with losses from the Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans.

Who has the edge? Rivers. He is 8-0 all-time in the final week of the regular season. And despite disc issues in his back, Rivers threw for four touchdowns during the Week 16 overtime comeback against the San Francisco

49ers. His offensive line surrendere­d just two sacks despite Rivers’ 54 throws. His protectors must be just as stout against Kansas City’s pass-rushing duo of Justin Houston and Tamba Hali (24 combined sacks). Packers linebacker­s Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers vs. Lions offensive line

Who has the edge? Matthews and Peppers. Despite last week’s win, Lions quarterbac­k Matthew Stafford threw two intercepti­ons in the face of pressure from the Chicago Bears. Matthews (10) and Peppers (7) have combined for 17 of Green Bay’s 39 sacks. When operating inside, Matthews figures to have his way against Detroit rookie center Travis Swanson. Peppers could tee off against Cornelius Lucas III, who’s starting his second game at right tackle. Rams defensive front four vs. Seahawks QB Russell Wilson

Who has the edge: Wilson. If he gets 264 more passing yards and 58 rushing yards, Wilson would become the first quarterbac­k in league history with 3,500 passing yards and 900 rushing in one season. He’s produced nine total TDs (against one INT) during Seattle’s five-game win streak. Cardinals quarterbac­k Ryan Lindley vs. 49ers defence

The skinny: Arizona’s Super Bowl chances took a devastatin­g hit when starting quarterbac­k Drew Stanton was sidelined by a knee injury. A subsequent infection could prevent Stanton from returning for the playoffs.

Why it matters: Cardinals coach Bruce Arians hoped to start rookie Logan Thomas until it became apparent in practice how raw Thomas remains. Arizona needs to win and hope the Seahawks lose to avoid the wild-card route.

Who has the edge? 49ers. San Francisco’s attacking defence knows the Car-

dinals don’t have an effective quarterbac­k in Lindley, who is completing just 40.7 per cent of his passes. His 111 attempts without a TD pass represent the longest drought to start an NFL career. Cowboys quarterbac­k Tony Romo vs. Redskins secondary

The skinny: Washington quarterbac­k Robert Griffin III has played well in his last two games. He needs to leave a positive impression (1 p.m., Fox) on coach Jay Gruden to remain the longterm answer under center.

Who has the edge? Romo He has entered the most valuable player conversati­on by stiff-arming his usual December fade with 10 touchdowns and zero intercepti­ons while going 3-0 this month. Washington’s pass defence is ranked 22nd. Worse, the Redskins rank at the bottom of the National Football League by allowing opposing quarterbac­ks to post a collective 108.9 passer rating.

 ??  ?? QBs in the spotlight on the final Sunday clockwise from top left, Ben Roethlisbe­r Cowboys, Ryan Lindley of the Cardinals
QBs in the spotlight on the final Sunday clockwise from top left, Ben Roethlisbe­r Cowboys, Ryan Lindley of the Cardinals
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and Russell Wilson of the Seahawks.
y of the NFL regular season include, rger of the Steelers, Tony Romo of the and Russell Wilson of the Seahawks.
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