Steelers and Falcons meet in key interconference matchup

(SportsNetwork.com) - A pair of teams with division titles on the brain square off Sunday at the Georgia Dome, where the Pittsburgh Steelers will take on the hosting Atlanta Falcons.

The Steelers are 8-5 this season, right behind the 8-4-1 Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North standings. The Steelers have won two of three games and improved to 5-2 in the past seven games with Sunday's 42-21 win over the Bengals.

Le'Veon Bell ran for 185 yards and two scores on 26 carries and has recorded 95 yards or more in each of the past three games, averaging 161.3 ypg in that time. Bell is second in the NFL with 1,231 rushing yards and third with 94.7 yards per game.

Bell totaled 235 yards from scrimmage to join Walter Payton (1977) as only the second player in NFL history to tally 200 yards from scrimmage in three consecutive games.

Ben Roethlisberger threw for 350 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions to keep Pittsburgh alive in the division title hunt. Antonio Brown (117 yards) and Martavis Bryant (109 yards) both eclipsed the 100-yard mark against Cincinnati, and helped the Steelers amass 543 yards.

The Steelers have scored 30 or more points in seven games in 2014, tying a franchise record for the most such games in a season.

"We just know that it is one game at a time," said Roethlisberger. "We (know) every week is kind of a playoff week for us. We're going to give it everything we have every week."

Pittsburgh will close the regular season with two games at home versus Kansas City and a rematch with Cincinnati.

The Falcons are even with New Orleans atop the mediocre NFC South standings with similar 5-8 records. The Falcons had won three of four games until Monday night's 43-37 loss in Green Bay.

Atlanta rallied for 20 fourth-quarter points in the unfriendly confines of Lambeau Field and Matt Ryan completed 24-of-39 passes for 375 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones blew up for a team-record 259 yards and a TD on 11 receptions.

"They just leaned on me today and I just tried to make most of the plays," Jones said. "Everything they threw on me, I tried my best to get them."

Jones leads all receivers in the NFL with 1,428 yards. The 259-yard outburst was the best performance by any receiver in the NFL this season, besting Houston Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins, who posted 238 yards in a game against the Tennessee Titans earlier this season.

He did suffer a hip injury in the fourth quarter, but is expected to be alright Sunday versus the Steelers.

"Julio has a hip injury, and (safety) William Moore has a foot injury. We're hoping that these guys will be ready to go at the end of the week," Falcons head coach Mike Smith said. "How much practice time they're going to get? We don't know that at this point in time, but it is our intention to do everything in our power to have these guys ready to go against Pittsburgh."

Falcons wide receiver Roddy White needs one more touchdown to pass Michael Turner (61) for the franchise lead.

The Steelers lead the series with the Falcons, 12-2-1, and are 6-2 in the Peach State. Pittsburgh won the last meeting, 15-9, in overtime back on Sept. 12, 2010 in the season opener for both teams. Roethlisberger did not play in that one because of a suspension.

Ryan passed for 252 yards with no TDs and one INT. That game took place in the Steel City and Ryan is back home, where owns a 39-12 record with 84 touchdown passes and 32 interceptions with a 98.0 QB rating. Ryan has thrown at least one touchdown in 18 straight games dating back to 2013.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

The Falcons have New Orleans and Carolina on the docket to close out the regular season, and face a tough challenge with Pittsburgh in town.

Atlanta will have to slow down Bell and the Steelers' ground attack to have a chance, and struggled with Green Bay's Monday night. The Packers netted 179 yards on the ground and running backs James Starks and Eddie Lacy ended with 75 and 73 yards, respectively. Both backs had a rushing touchdown.

Bell poses as a huge threat this week and Smith knows it.

"Well, he's going to have a challenge very similar to what we had in the game yesterday. If it wasn't there down the field they were going to check the ball down," Smith said Tuesday. "Their backs were very active in the passing game yesterday, and the running back that we're getting to face this week has had 200 yards of total offense the last couple of weeks. He's not just doing it carrying the ball; he's doing it catching the ball as well. It's going to be a challenge for us."

Smith also gave credit to Roethlisberger and his ability to shed off would-be tacklers in the pocket. If Aaron Rodgers was annoying enough by making time in the pocket, Big Ben will be just as irritating. Rodgers passed for 327 yards and three scores, and hooked up with Jordy Nelson eight times for 146 yards and a pair of touchdown connections.

Enter Brown.

Brown is first in the NFL with 105 receptions, second with 1,375 yards and third with 11 TDs. Brown and Bryant can give opposing defensive backfields nightmares with their speed and ability to gain yards after the catch.

The Steelers have won two in a row on the road and Sunday's game in Atlanta won't be an easy one.

"I really think the significant element of the storyline is we are faced with another road game against a division leader and it's a significant game for both teams," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "Both teams will prepare with that in mind and play with an edge with that in mind. We have a great deal of respect for these guys."

OVERALL ANALYSIS

The cream usually rises to the top and no team deserves to be in the playoffs with a record below .500. Well, the Falcons can be that team if the remainder of the season goes their way.

However, the Steelers will make it difficult for the Falcons to achieve their goal with a high-scoring win at the Georgia Dome. Look for another all-purpose performance from Bell and some more receptions for Brown.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Steelers 33, Falcons 24