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Giants at Steelers 2016, Week 13: First look at this week’s story lines

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Giants set to begin December playoff drive

Pittsburgh Steelers v Indianapolis Colts
Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It is time for December football, and for the first time in a while those December football games for the New York Giants won’t just be “play out the string” contests. They will be meaningful games that will determine whether or not the 8-3 Giants make the playoffs for the first time since 2011, or end up as a pretender, once again on the outside looking in.

For the Giants, December will begin with a trip to Heinz Field to face the 6-6 Pittsburgh Steelers. Here are some of this week’s story lines.

Individual matchups

There are, of course, a couple of attention-getting individual position comparisons.

Eli Manning vs. Ben Roethlisberger. These two highly-decorated quarterbacks are linked by being members of the historic 2004 quarterback class. Both have a pair of Super Bowl titles, and both have resumes that might land them in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Both are also forever linked by the fact that then-GM Ernie Accorsi has often admitted that, had he not been confident he would be able to pull off the draft day trade that brought Manning from the San Diego Chargers in exchange for Philip Rivers and other draft choices, he simply would have selected Roethlisberger with the Giants’ pick at No. 4. How would that have worked out? We will never know, of course, but you have to think it would have ended up just fine for the Giants.

Odell Beckham Jr. vs. Antonio Brown. The two super star wide receivers have startlingly similar stat lines for their careers.

The caveat is that Brown is in his seventh season, Beckham only in his third. Brown has 82 receptions for 998 yards (12.2 yards per catch) and 10 touchdowns this season. Beckham has 65 catches for 915 yards (14.1 per catch) with 8 TDs. We could also see both stars match up as punt returners.

Both players have run afoul of the league a few times, with Brown’s end zone celebration penalties even drawing Roethlisberger’s ire.

Playoff implications

You know the deal with the Giants. They are currently the fifth seed in the NFC, but the next five games represent a big step up in class of opponents. The Giants, with a game against the Dallas Cowboys looming, will watch Thursday’s Cowboys-Minnesota Vikings game to see if the NFC East title remains a realistic target, or if the likely path will be the wild-card.

The Steelers are tied atop the AFC North with the Baltimore Ravens, though the Ravens own a victory over Pittsburgh already. Pittsburgh might need to win the division to make the playoffs.

Can the defense keep rolling?

Jason Pierre-Paul just earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his three-sack, seven tackle, fumble recovery for a touchdown game against the Cleveland Browns.

The Giants, with JPP and Olivier Vernon leading a pass rush that has 14 sacks over the past three weeks, Damon Harrison anchoring a stout run defense and Landon Collins and Janoris Jenkins starring in the secondary, have given up only 16.5 points per game during their six-game winning streak.

Can the Giants keep that up against a Steelers team with Roethlisberger, Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell? The Steelers have scored 30 or more points four times.

Will the offense finally break out?

As we have written all season, everyone continues to wait for the Giants’ offense to resemble the high-scoring unit that it was in 2015. That has yet to happen, with penalties, near-misses and a running game that has improved but still bogs down too often, holding the Giants back.

Can the Giants finally put together a week where the offense works the way it was expected to?

Special teams questions

Who will return punts? Will Dwayne Harris reclaim that job after what he told reporters was a week off to rest a variety of ailments? Will it be Beckham, who electrified in that capacity against Cleveland? Giants’ fans have mixed feelings.

Will placekicker Robbie Gould get through a game without missing an extra point? He has missed three in the past two weeks.

How much will the Giants miss Nat Berhe and Mark Herzlich? Berhe and Herzlich, two of the Giants’ best special teams coverage players, both suffered concussions vs. the Browns. If neither can play Sunday, will the Giants suffer as a result in kickoff and punt coverage?