In what could be a preview of the AFC Championship Game, the New England Patriots head to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers in a pivotal Week 15 matchup. The stakes couldn’t be higher with the winner of Sunday’s game getting the inside track to home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
This will be the 31st overall game between these AFC powerhouses with both teams even at 15 wins a piece. Recent history however has been in the Patriots favor having beat the Steelers 10 out of the last 13 times including last year’s AFC Championship game 36-17 in Foxboro.
For Pittsburgh, they come into this game as healthy as they have ever been offensively and are riding a league high 8 game win streak. As talented as the Steelers have been over the years, they have never been able to put it all together to beat the Patriots when it mattered the most. Subsequently, New England has taken prime penthouse real estate in the Steelers’ heads and Mike Tomlin has made no secret that this is the game they have pointed to when the NFL scheduled was released earlier this year.
The Patriots enter this game after losing their first game since September and look to have key defensive personnel return on Sunday in a hope to regain the driver’s seat in the AFC playoff race. While New England has shown the ability to bounce back after a loss, they face the toughest challenge that they have had in 2017 season going to Pittsburgh.
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 coming off his highest yardage total of the season but it’s hard to know where his mindset exactly is after spending the off season contemplating retirement and then entering the season questioning his own ability to be able to play at a high level. The Patriots’ Tom Brady is looking to bounce back after a subpar performance in Week 14 but make no mistake that he will be more motivated than ever to put last week’s game behind him.
Running Backs – Push: There is no doubt that the Steelers La’Veon Bell is the most complete running back in the NFL and is fully capable of being utilized on all three downs. However, the collection of running backs that that Patriots utilize have produced more yards from scrimmage and more touchdowns than the Steelers’ backfield.
Wide Receivers – Steelers: Led by Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh may have the best and deepest wide receiver corps in the NFL. Though on paper the talent gap may seem insurmountable, the Patriots’ wide receivers are actually not that far behind production wise to their Steelers counterparts.
Tight Ends – Patriots: The Steelers have a decent group of tight ends led by Jesse James but the return of Rob Gronkowski from his one game vacation gives the Patriots a significant advantage considering how the Steelers have yet to prove they can consistently cover him.
Offensive Line – Push: While the Steelers have pass protected slightly better than the Patriots, surprising the Patriots have done a better job with run blocking.
Defensive Front Seven – Steelers: Though the Patriots have shown a major improvement in their front seven play when healthy, the Steelers have been consistently better at slowing down opposing running games and creating a pass rush.
Secondary – Steelers: The Patriots secondary has shown some signs of life over the last few months but the Steelers secondary, statistically anyway, is still yielding less yards and is holding opposing passers to a lower QB Rating.
Special Teams – Patriots: Though both teams’ kickers have been relatively even this year, New England, to most people’s surprise, have performed significantly better than Pittsburgh in both the Kicking and Punt return.
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 11 seasons have passed with 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:
Key’s to Victory:
1) Unleash the Passing Game: A key factor in the Patriots loss in Week 14 was a very predictable game plan which didn’t utilize enough intermediate depth routes and seemed uncharacteristically lethargic. The Patriots must but much more aggressive against Pittsburgh by using more no huddle and have a much better mid-range passing attack.
2) More James White and Dion Lewis: The Patriots have been very successful this season with keeping their offensive balance with the running game. However, getting both James White and Dion Lewis involved on early downs in the passing game should yield some success against the Steelers’ linebackers.
3) Special Teams, Special Teams, Special Team: During the Belichick/Brady Era, there have been huge special teams plays that have turned the tide in the games with the Steelers. With so much attention on the superstars on Offense or Defense, the Patriots need to make a few unexpected key plays on Special Teams to keep the Steelers at bay.
The Patriots enter this game coming off a division road loss where injuries in their front seven coupled with the Rob Gronkowski’s unscheduled vacation contributed to a lack luster performance. The bright side is that the Patriots are 36-4 since 2003 coming off a loss. While the Patriots can’t lean on history to help them on Sunday, it’s safe to assume that this week’s preparation has been much more focused than usual.
For the Steelers, they enter this game about as healthy as they have ever been when facing the Patriots. In the last 3 games where Pittsburgh has hosted New England, the Patriots have outscored the Steelers 92-60. At this point, it’s pretty simple for Pittsburgh when facing New England: If not now, when?
Look for a high drama / high scoring affair that comes down to the last possession.
The Knuckles Prediction: Patriots 33 – Steelers 27