Expanded Playoff Simulation Part III: Third Time the Charm?

Welcome back to the land of 2019. The 8-8 Pittsburgh Steelers and 9-7 Los Angeles Rams would have made the playoffs under the new format. Despite narrowly missing the playoffs, both teams have come under intense scrutiny due to trading their 2020 first-round picks in exchange for a failed attempt at making the playoffs. Here, in an alternate 2019, the Steelers and Rams make the playoffs. Here is the second part of Pittsburgh’s journey.

For Part I, go here. To read about Jared Goff and the Rams, go here.

After one of the NFL’s biggest upsets, the Steelers enter hostile territory at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. In the regular season, the Ravens swept the matchup. The Ravens defeated the Steelers in Pittsburgh by a score of 26-23 before ending Pittsburgh’s season (in real life) with a resounding 28-10 win at home.

In our simulation, the Ravens began the game with the ball. On the first play of the game, Gus Edwards broke around the edge for a gain of 11. After a pair of ineffective Mark Ingram runs, Lamar Jackson missed Edwards out of the backfield, and the Ravens were forced to punt.

James Conner opened Pittsburgh’s first drive with a 10-yard run before picking up just a yard on the ensuing first down. Benny Snell and Jaylen Samuels picked up four yards on the next two plays, and the Steelers were forced to punt.

After a third poor run from Ingram, Javon Hargrave slipped through Baltimore’s offensive line to sack Jackson for a seven-yard loss. On third-and-17, Jackson lofted a ball to Seth Roberts that was hauled in. A pair of Gus Edwards runs set the Ravens up inside the 25. On the next play, Marquise Brown took a screen pass to the end zone for a Baltimore touchdown. With the converted extra point, the Ravens took a 7-0 lead.

Down seven, Mason Rudolph connected on his first two passes: a 14-yarder to JuJu Smith-Schuster and a 19-yarder to James Washington. After crossing midfield, Samuels split the defense for a 30-yard chunk. Conner continued to apply pressure, gaining 10 more yards. The Ravens exacted their revenge with a tackle of Snell for a loss of four. An errant pass from Rudolph set up a third down from the 13. After an encroachment penalty on Baltimore, Rudolph hit Smith-Schuster for a touchdown. Chris Boswell connected on the extra point, tying the game 7-7.

Pittsburgh continued to have its way with the Baltimore rushing attack as an Ingram carry and a pair from Justice Hill resulted in just five yards. Baltimore was forced to punt, ending the first quarter.

Conner broke another solid run to earn a Pittsburgh first down. Vance McDonald got into the action with a three-yard catch. Samuels was forced out of bounds after a gain of one, but Rudolph found Diontae Johnson for 14 yards and a critical first down. After a three-yard Conner run, Snell was stuffed twice, and the Steelers had to settle for a 51-yard field goal from Boswell. The Steelers lead 10-7.

Baltimore’s offensive line broke down again as Hill was pummeled for a loss of four. On second-and-long, Jackson found Snead for a big gain of 20, but Snead fumbled before getting to the ground.

Kerrith Whyte made his first appearance of the game, gaining three yards on first down. Conner was stuffed on second down. On third down, Rudolph threw a short pass to Johnson who could not get to the marker, bringing up a 44-yard field goal. Boswell nailed the field goal to extend the lead to 13-7.

Edwards pushed ahead to gain a pair of yards to begin the next drive. On second down, Ingram got back to the line of scrimmage, but the ball was jarred away, and the Steelers recovered their second fumble in three plays.

Opening the second straight drive, Whyte sliced through the defense for a 22-yard touchdown. With the ensuing extra point, the Steelers took a shocking 20-7 lead.

John Harbaugh showed his trust in Ingram, feeding him the ball on the next offensive play. On second down, Hill caught the defense napping on a halfback draw, gaining 42 yards. Ingram gained three yards on the next two carries. On third down, a rogue hand from the defensive line knocked Jackson’s pass out of the air. Tucker hit a 38-yard field goal to trim the lead to 10.

Earl Thomas got home on a safety blitz, forcing the Steelers into a second-and-long. After a pair of four-yard runs, the Steelers were forced to punt.

After a false start, Brown gained six yards on a short catch. An incompletion to Mark Andrews set up a third-and-nine for Baltimore. Willie Snead extended the nose of the ball just enough to convert the third down before Jackson hit Andrews to move into Pittsburgh territory. With the clock nearing a minute left in the half, a pair of three-yard runs from Edwards and minimal gain from a Jackson scramble set up a 53-yard field goal try. After initially considering a field goal, Harbaugh sent the punting unit onto the field.

With 30 seconds to go, the Steelers ran four straight run plays before Rudolph fired a pair of incompletions to end the half.

To open the second half, Rudolph misfired on his first two passes. On third down, McDonald slipped open for a 12-yard gain and a first down. After a Snell loss of four yards, Whyte set the Steelers back into a third-and-manageable with a nine-yard run. Rudolph threw to a covered Samuels who was tackled at the first down marker. Samuels and Snell combined for 13 yards on the next two plays. Rudolph hit Johnson in the hands on the next play, but the rookie bobbled and dropped the ball. A Conner three-yard reception and one-yard rush brought up the opportunity for a 55-yard field goal, but the Steelers decided to punt the ball and pin Baltimore inside their five.

Trying to make a play on first down, Jackson rolled to his right and stepped out of bounds at the one, narrowly avoiding a safety. On second down, Jackson kept the ball on a bootleg, gaining 16. Ingram pushed ahead for 13 more to get the Ravens to their 30. Edwards, Hill, and Ingram contributed three straight productive runs before Edwards lost three to set up a third-and-nine. Jackson side-stepped a tackler and had his second 16-yard run of the drive. Edwards burst ahead for 14 yards before Ingram gained nine yards on his next two runs. On the third-and-short, Hill gained the first down after being dragged down via his facemask. On the next play, Jackson ran a quarterback power to perfection, capping off the 13-play, 90-yard drive with a touchdown. The Ravens trailed 20-17.

After a holding penalty on the kickoff, the Steelers had to start their next drive inside their 10. Rudolph missed an open Smith-Schuster before Conner got the Steelers into a third-and-eight. Johnson caught the next pass, but he was tackled just short of the marker, ending the third quarter.

After receiving good field position, Edwards gained eight yards on a pitch play. Ingram took the handoff on an option play to gain 11 and put the Ravens inside the 40. Hill and Edwards gained a total of four yards on their next two plays, and Brown hauled in a pass to convert on third down. The Pittsburgh defense stiffened with a run stuff and a Mark Barron sack. On third down, Jackson overthrew Roberts, and Tucker came on to split the uprights from 48 yards away, tying the game.

The Oklahoma State connection was out of tune as Washington could not bring in an errant pass from Rudolph. Conner rectified the situation with a 14-yard run. After three more runs, the Steelers were stuck with another punting situation.

The Ravens received the ball with under seven minutes to go in regulation. Following the blocking of Ronnie Stanley, Ingram gashed the Steelers with a 59-yard run. After a pair of three-yard runs from Hill and Jackson, Jackson broke contain and churned out 17 yards to push the Ravens to the Pittsburgh seven-yard-line. The Pittsburgh defense again stiffened, allowing rushes of negative one, three, and one before Tucker stepped up to hit a 21-yard, go-ahead field goal.

With 1:53 on the clock, the Steelers began their trek to the end zone with a pair of runs, using the first of three timeouts. On third down, Smith-Schuster got a step on the corner and gained a first down. A five-yard run from Conner and a 14-yard catch from Johnson put the Steelers in Baltimore territory. Samuels and Snell combined for two yards on the next two plays, eliciting the second timeout from Mike Tomlin. On third down, Rudolph missed Smith-Schuster. After a false start, the Steelers had 43 seconds and a fourth-and-13 to win the game. Washington appeared to have half of a step on the corner, but Rudolph airmailed Washington. As the ball hit the turf, Baltimore exploded into jubilation.

With a pair of kneel-downs, the Ravens were on the winning end of a playoff game for the first time since the 2014 season.

The MVP of the game was Lamar Jackson. Despite only completing 11 passes, Jackson threw for 97 yards and a touchdown while adding 54 yards on the ground.

Part IV will feature another divisional matchup with the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans squaring off. If the Titans win, they will advance to the Super Bowl because they beat the Ravens in the real-life playoffs. In that case, Part V would be a simulation of a Super Bowl between the Titans and San Francisco 49ers. If the Texans win, Part V will be a rematch of a regular-season smackdown between the Texans and the Ravens.

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