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Pollock looks ahead: Is the Bills-Steelers game the best wild-card matchup?

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By CHUCK POLLOCK, Senior Sports Columnist

Heading into Saturday afternoon and the start of the NFL’s three-day, six-game “Super Wild-Card” weekend, you could make a case that any of five of those matchups would qualify as the round’s most intriguing.

Saturday’s games, the resurgent Browns at ahead-of schedule Houston and Miami with former Chief Tyreek Hill at Kansas City, are both interesting.

Sunday afternoon, the Lake Erie matchup of the Steelers at Bills, and the night pairing of the Rams with former Lions QB Matthew Stafford at Detroit are both must-see.

And Monday evening’s pairing of the struggling Eagles — five losses in six games — at Tampa Bay with recycled quarterback Baker Mayfield is fascinating.

BUT TO me, the square-off that’s most intriguing is Pittsburgh at Buffalo, two AFC rivals separated by just over 200 miles.

OK, I’m prejudiced. In 51 years covering the Bills, other than division opponents, they have played the Steelers the most of any other team — 27 times. I’ve been at every one, including the 12 at Pittsburgh. The Steelers lead 15-12 in wins, including 2-1 in the playoffs, each of those at “The Confluence.”

I’ve always found those games fun because of the similarity of the franchises.

Both are called “Rust Belt teams,” though that’s a bit unfair. And the reality is, of the NFL’s 32 franchises, they have two of the four loudest, most loyal, frenetic, willing-to-travel fan bases in the league along with the Cowboys and Raiders.

Since starting my coverage of the Bills in 1973, Buffalo has had 14 head coaches: Lou Saban, Jim Ringo, Chuck Knox, Kay Stephenson, Hank Bullough, Marv Levy, Wade Phillips, Gregg Williams, Mike Mularkey, Dick Jauron, Chan Gailey, Doug Marrone, Rex Ryan and Sean McDermott. That doesn’t include interim stints by Perry Fewell (finishing out Jauron’s last season) and Anthony Lynn (picking up after Ryan).

Only five of them — two are easy — made the playoffs, do you know who they were? (Answer below).

By contrast, the Steelers, over that same span, have had three. Chuck Noll was coaching when I started, then came Bill Cowher’s 15-year stint and finally, Mike Tomlin, in his 17th season.  That’s it, a trio of coaches starting in 1969.

Clearly, that’s one area where the Steelers and Bills are very dissimilar.

THIS SEASON though, their paths to Sunday afternoon at Highmark Stadium were pretty much alike.

Buffalo, after flawed defensive positioning cost it an overtime loss at Philadelphia, McDermott’s team fell to 6-6 and 11th place in the AFC. Their postseason hopes appeared doomed.

But, a week later, another major gaffe worked to the Bills’ advantage. Chiefs wide receiver Kadarius Toney lined up offside and that penalty wiped out the likely game-winning touchdown off a lateral that he scored on. Buffalo sneaked out of Arrowhead Stadium with a 20-17 win and that triumph started the Bills on a five-game win streak as the conference’s other playoff contenders fell all over themselves. It produced a fourth straight division title and the AFC’s No. 2 seed for 11-6 Buffalo.

Pittsburgh’s path to the postseason was equally dramatic.

After the Steelers lost consecutive games to the Cardinals, Patriots and Colts and averaged a pathetic 14 points doing it, Tomlin decided he’d seen enough of starting quarterback Kenny Pickett and backup Mitchell Trubisky, feeling that neither brought the consistency nor point-scoring ability for Pittsburgh (7-7) to win.

Thus, he rolled the dice with No. 3 QB Mason Rudolph who merely ran off victories over Cincinnati, Seattle and Baltimore and averaged 27 per game in doing it. The Steelers,  now 10- 7, still needed some help and got it Sunday afternoon when Tennessee upset the Jaguars in Nashville pushing Pittsburgh into the last playoff slot.

Fittingly, for these two cold-weather teams, Sunday’s weather will be lousy in Orchard Park, temperatures in the low 20s, winds at 15-25 mph and the likelihood of 1-3 inches of snow … perfect for the Bills-Steelers.

We’ll talk about both teams’ injury woes later this week.

Quiz answer: Saban, Knox, Levy, Phillips and McDermott.

(Chuck Pollock, a Wellsville Sun senior sports columnist, can be reached at cpollock@wnynet.net.)

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(You can support the work of our journalists and keep this site free with a PayPal donation HERE)

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