The Dallas Cowboys will host the Pittsburgh Steelers this afternoon in a game that amounts to a must-win for both sides.
I agree that the phrase "no love lost between these two teams" is trite and nonsensical, but in this case it's also applicable. There is some profound, Super Bowl-related history between these two franchises, that—although unnecessary given the stakes—makes this game feel extra important.
Both teams have waxed and waned through 2012, and I think both teams' players, coaches and fans agree that they're lucky to still be alive. Especially the Cowboys, who rank a paltry 18th in Football Outsiders' overall efficiency rankings.
If they want to beat Pittsburgh today, they'll need to overcome a number of mismatches working against them. Here are three particular Steelers who stand a good chance of dominating the Cowboys:
OLB LaMarr Woodley
Woodley hasn't played since spraining his ankle against Cleveland, but according to Mike Bires of the Beaver County Times, he will be ready to start against Dallas on Sunday.
That could be trouble for the Cowboys.
In his 460 snaps this season, Woodley is the only Steelers player that Pro Football Focus rates as a plus pass-rusher. That sounds wrong, but it's not; decimated by injuries this year, the Steelers have struggled mightily to pressure the quarterback
Playing on the left side of Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense, Woodley should find himself frequently matched up with right tackle Doug Free—whom Football Outsiders rates the worst player on Dallas' offense. By a large margin.
In fact, according to Football Outsiders, Free is the worst pass-blocking tackle in the league who's "earned" more than 891 snaps.
The disparity between him and Woodley is palpable and could manifest itself in a number of Pittsburgh sacks.
TE Heath Miller
Miller has been a good tight end throughout his career, but he's elevated his game to a new level in 2012.
He's already tied his career high with seven touchdowns, and is on pace to set career highs in yards and receptions too. Once just a red-zone target and security blanket for Ben Roethlisberger, Miller has now developed into a bona fide threat on every down.
That newfound rapport between Roethlisberger and Miller could mean trouble for the Cowboys. Like, serious trouble.
According to Football Outsiders, the Cowboys rank 30th in the league against opposing tight ends—only the Colts and Patriots do a worse job defending them.
Miller should be open throughout the afternoon in Dallas.
WR Emmanuel Sanders
With the receiving corps finally starting to convalesce into form, Emmanuel Sanders could be in line for an auspicious game in Dallas this afternoon.
Along with ranking 30th against tight ends, the Cowboys also rank 29th in the league defending "other" wide receivers ("other" being defined as anyone besides the top two options).
Just last weekend they had difficulty covering Bengals slot receiver (and former reality star) Andrew Hawkins—a player whose game closely resembles that of Sanders.
One of the most efficient and woefully underrated slot receivers in the game, Sanders has a chance to pick the Cowboys apart on Sunday.