Without a doubt this is a huge signpost game on the Steelers schedule. Win, and they go to 5-2 at their bye and will be in great position to vie for one of the top seeds in the conference. A loss will likely cast them into the great swarm of teams hoping to snag a spot on Wildcard Weekend.
As is often the case in the NFL, the game will be largely determined by how well the two teams account for key absences on their roster. Without Aaron Smith, an already steep challenge in containing Adrian Peterson looks downright daunting. Missing Antoine Winfield exposes an already shaky Vikings secondary to what could be a mammoth day from the Steelers passing game.
The Steelers offensive line will probably be the fulcrum on which the entire contest swings. Without Winfield, the Vikes' pass rush absolutely has to get to Roethlisberger or the Steelers could have a Bruce Arians wet dream of 450 yards passing. Just as importantly, they need to prove they can run the ball against stout competition. The Browns did a pretty decent job of cracking down the run game last week, limiting Rashard Mendenhall to 3.6 yards per carry, the lowest of any game in which he's gotten double digit carries. If the run game in snuffed out by the Williams Wall much like it was against the Titans in Week 1, the loss of Winfield won't be as big a deal.
Excluding the runs out of the Wildcat, the defensive line rotation held their ground against Cleveland last week. But, again, it's the Browns. Contain yourself. Still, it was enough to make me think the right side of the line won't be embarrassed on a weekly basis the way it was at the end of the 2007 season. Peterson will probably break off a big gainer or two with his cutback ability, but if the Steelers can keep the remainder of his touches from giving the Vikings manageable third downs, they'll be golden. A forced fumble would also be nice. Don't discount the chances of James Harrison swiping the ball out of Purple Jesus' oft-fumbling hands.
Post Game Heroes had a great breakdown this week about Minnesota's vulnerability to passes to backs and tight ends. The demotion of FWP's stone hands plays into that being a bigger part of the Steelers offense. Mewelde Moore is already a very good receiving back, but for the defense to have to deal with the first guy on the depth chart being able to catch passes makes the Steelers much more difficult to defend. Heath Miller also could continue what has been a banner statistical year for him this week.
As for Favre, I'll give the old attention whore credit for outplaying just about anyone's expectations of him coming into the season. Luckily the Steelers defense has experience in practice dealing with a quarterback who relies on some of his same tactics. Obviously, the Steelers would prefer Favre try to beat them than have Peterson gash them all day. Minnesota got a little of both last week against Baltimore's D, with Peterson going for 148 and Favre throwing for three TDs and no picks. A lot of that was keyed off Favre exploiting a confused Ravens secondary early on. I wouldn't expect the same miscues from the Steelers.