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Saints, Steelers playing for different levels of playoff positioning

If the New Orleans Saints defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, they will have accomplished all that they can in the regular season with one week left to play.

They already have won the NFC South championship, and a win in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday would make the Saints 13-2 and guarantee them the No. 1 seed in the NFC, which means a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

That would mean their regular-season finale at home against Carolina a week later would have no effect on their post-season prospects, except to allow them to rest key players for the playoffs, knowing that the game's outcome won't change anything other than their final record.

It's a significant opportunity and one that New Orleans has been building toward by winning 12 of 13 games since a season-opening 48-40 home loss to Tampa Bay.

"I think our focus right now is this game in front of us and playing our best football game this weekend," Saints head coach Sean Payton said Wednesday. "Certainly, as you go through the course of the season, you talk about winning the division and then you talk about improving your seeding. I think everyone's aware of how that all works but the focus is doing what we can to win this week."

The game is even more important for the Steelers. If the Chargers beat the Ravens on Saturday night in Los Angeles, the Steelers can clinch a third consecutive division title by beating the Saints. But if the Ravens upset the Chargers, a Steelers loss could have them on the outside looking in of the AFC playoff picture heading into the final week of the regular season.

The Steelers rediscovered their running game in an upset victory against one of the AFC favorites to reach the Super Bowl. Now they'll try to beat the best team in the NFC on the road.

The Steelers (8-5-1) rushed for 158 yards in their 17-10 victory over the New England Patriots, which kept them a half-game ahead of the Ravens (8-6) in first place in the AFC North.

Rookie Jaylen Samuels ran for 142 yards in only his second career start. The Steelers' rushing total was quite an improvement over the 206 yards total they had over a four-game span.

Samuels could get a third consecutive start if James Conner can't make it back this week from his high ankle sprain. Conner said Wednesday that high ankle sprains can be "deceiving," noting it has been tough for him get comfortable on the field.

"I thought he showed good patience," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said of Samuels. "When it was there he hit it hard. He protected the ball. Those are things you want from a guy who isn't used to carrying it as much or as often as he did."

With Samuels as the feature back the Steelers don't have to change one thing about their offense. Just like Le'Veon Bell and Conner before him, Samuels doesn't have to come off the field on third down because he is a quality receiver.

Samuels had two catches for 30 yards against the Patriots, including a crucial third-down conversion that helped set up a 48-yard field goal late in the game.

"It's one of the first things we noticed about him is he has really good hands," Roethlisberger said. "He has soft hands. You can throw it all over the place and he can make plays. He showed that this week. We can put him out there and do some things with him. Hopefully, we're just scratching the surface."

Whether it's Samuels or Conner on Sunday, the Steelers will be facing the NFL's top run defense. The Saints give up 79.1 rushing yards per game and just 3.7 yards per carry.

"I think the yards per-carry speaks on the dominance of their run defense," head coach Mike Tomlin said. "They are No. 2 in the league in terms of yards per carry so forget the number of runs, forget the game circumstance, ahead-behind, the nature of that. When people choose to run they are No. 2 in the league in terms of yards per carry, so they're run-game dominant."

While both teams would like to run the ball Sunday, they each have future Hall of Fame quarterbacks that will be featured. Roethlisberger and Saints quarterback Drew Brees have combined for almost 130,000 passing yards. Brees is the NFL's all-time leading passer with 74,111.

It hasn't happened often over the years, but Roethlisberger is facing Brees one week after playing Tom Brady.

"It's pretty special," Roethlisberger said. "Two Hall of Famers, two of the best who have ever done it, so it's pretty cool."

The Saints are hoping to maintain the level of defensive play that has enabled them to lead the NFL in scoring defense since Week 4 while breaking out of an offensive slump that has now reached three games.

New Orleans hasn't allowed more than 17 points in any of its last six games. But after averaging more than 37 points during the first 11 games, it has averaged 16.7 in the last three.

Updated December 19, 2018

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