Major AFC playoff implications are on the line as the New England Patriots head to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers in a pivotal Week 15 matchup. With the Kansas City Chiefs in full control of the #1 seed in the AFC Playoffs, the winner of Sunday’s game would have the inside track on the #2 seed with a much valued first round bye week for the playoffs.
This will be the 32nd overall game between these AFC powerhouses with both teams with the Patriots holding that all-time series lead 16-15. New England has dominated this series during the Bill Belichick era winning 11 of the last 14 games including last year’s Week 15 match up. In that game, the Patriots beat the Steelers 27-24 riding TE Rob Gronkowski’s 9 catches for 168 yards performance.
The Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5-1) enter this game on a three game losing streak having fallen to the Broncos, Chargers, and Raiders in consecutive weeks. Coupled with their loss to Kansas City in week 2, they have been swept by the AFC West this year and are desperate for a win to keep ahead of the Baltimore Ravens that trail the Steelers in the AFC North standings by a half game.
For New England (9-4), they are coming off of an inexplicably bad loss to the bottom feeding Miami Dolphins. In that game, a last second lateral pass play netted a 69 yard touchdown for the Dolphins sending New England home with their 4th road loss of the year. Fortunately for the Patriots, the Week 14 losses of both the Steelers and the Texans did not hurt their 2nd seed playoff standings in the AFC.
Huge playoff implications are on the line so in yet another futile attempt to be non-bias and analytical, both teams were broken down in key areas to see how they will match up against each other and which one may have the key to a victory.
Quarterback – PATRIOTS: The Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger is one of three quarterbacks that has already surpassed 4,000 passing yards this season. However, he is turning the ball over at a fairly alarming rate. In their last four games, Roethlisberger has thrown 6 interceptions and is tied for the most interceptions NFL by quarterbacks not named “Sam Darnold”.
Running Backs – PATRIOTS: The collection of running backs that that Patriots utilize, led by James White, have produced more yards, both rushing and receiving, than their Steelers’ counterparts. With the status of Pittsburgh’s James Connor still uncertain, the Steelers’ backfield does take a significant step backwards.
Wide Receivers – STEELERS: Led by Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh may have the deepest wide receiver corps in the NFL. Though on paper the talent gap may seem overwhelming, the Patriots’ wide receivers, led by Josh Gordon, are actually not that far behind production wise to their Steelers counterparts.
Tight Ends – PATRIOTS: While it seems that age and injury may have caught up to New England’s Rob Gronkowski, until the Steelers can prove that they can consistently cover him, the edge goes to the Patriots.
Offensive Line – PATRIOTS: Both teams have done a great job at protecting their passers surrendering only 18 sacks this season. However, the Patriots Offensive Line has been significantly better in establishing the running game over the course of the season.
Defensive Front Seven – STEELERS: Pittsburgh’s defensive front not only is in the top 10 in rushing yards allowed, they are also leading the league in sacks with 45 on the season.
Secondary – STEELERS: While neither secondary is really performing that well, the Steelers do get the edge because are allowing less yards than the Patriots.
Special Teams – PATRIOTS: Both special teams units are relatively equal both in their strengths (return game and punting) and their weaknesses (field goal consistency). However New England’s special team have been able to make big plays which could lead to game changing possessions.
Coaching – Patriots: By most accounts, Mike Tomlin is perceived as one of the better head coaches in the NFL. However, it is very easy to make the case that he is the AFC’s version of the Packers’ Mike McCarthy: In possession of an excellent quarterback but not being able to build up the rest of the team, through coaching and talent development, to win more Championships. Tomlin’s only championship came with the team he inherited from Bill Cowher and 12 seasons have passed with really nothing to show for it.
If we assign 2 points for every category (1 point per team for draws) this is how it lines up:
Betting Line: Patriots -2.5
Key’s to Victory:
1) Take What the Steelers Give on Defense: While the Patriots have done a good job this season keeping their run/pass play selection balanced, New England should not shy away from going to a more pass heavy game plan if that is what Pittsburgh is allowing. Staying aggressive on offense and mixing in a no huddle quick passing attack will help keep the Steelers front seven from keying in on the quarterback.
2) Dare Pittsburgh to Run the Ball: The Pittsburgh Steelers have the highest percentage of passing plays in the NFL. Going into week 15, Pittsburgh has thrown the ball almost 67% of the time when on offense. The Patriots need to utilize more nickel and dime defenses on early downs and force the Steelers to get away from their offensive comfort zone of passing the ball.
3) Special Teams, Special Teams, Special Team: A reoccurring theme during the Belichick Era has been the ability for the Patriots to make unexpected big plays by the special teams. With so much attention on the superstars on both the Offense and Defense, the Patriots need to make a few key plays on Special Teams to help shift momentum or to help flip field position.
The Patriots enter this game coming off an ugly division road loss where sloppy play in all phases of the game culminated with a last second pass play costing them the game. While that game certainly rewarded Dolphins fans with a single highlight amidst their last 20 years of futility, for the Patriots the damage was minimal with other AFC division leaders losing on Sunday as well. The good news is that since 2014, the Patriots are 10-3 in the regular season when coming off a loss. Not that past performances will have any impact on Sunday’s game, it’s a safe bet that this week’s practices have been much more intense and more focused than usual. A win over Pittsburgh on Sunday would give the Patriots the head-to-head tie breakers with a majority of the AFC Division contenders.
Look for a high scoring game that comes down to the last possession to determine the outcome.
The Knuckles Prediction: Patriots 30 – Steelers 27
Because of the importance of this game and the accuracy generally shown by our expert writer, I will keep this page up until Sunday GameDay.
I also want to be on record for my weekly pick that today I’m picking the Texans to win. Texans 30-17