AFC division leaders will face off on Sunday as Pittsburgh tries to reverse its recent fortunes against New England. The Steelers (7-5-1) have lost two games in a row, putting their position atop the AFC North in jeopardy with the Ravens just a half-game behind. The Patriots (9-4) can clinch their 10th straight AFC East title with a win over Pittsburgh and a loss by Miami in Minnesota.
The Steelers are in a precarious position in their division after two tough losses. The first came at home against the Chargers, who erased a 13-0 deficit and won 33-30 on a field goal with no time remaining. Last week, Pittsburgh made the long trip to the West Coast to Oakland, a place that has not been kind to the team in recent years. Unfortunately, those struggles continued as the Raiders outgained and outplayed the Steelers, who had a chance to tie the game late but Chris Boswell slipped on a 40-yard field goal attempt on the last play of the game.
Now, Pittsburgh looks to regroup at home against New England, who has dominated the recent matchups between the two. The Patriots have won five in a row against the Steelers, including last season's Week 15 encounter, a 27-24 victory that prevented Pittsburgh from getting the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
Forget seeding this time around, the Steelers simply need a win to solidify their playoff standing or else it will be a pressure-packed finish to the regular season.
New England at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 16 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Patriots -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Tom Brady vs. Ben Roethlisberger
When it comes to these two teams, it pretty much starts and ends with the quarterbacks. Brady and Roethlisberger are no strangers to facing one another although the former has had the upper hand in their matchups. Brady is 11-2 against Pittsburgh in the regular season, including 3-0 in the postseason. In those games, he has a sparkling 30:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio with a 112.98 passer rating. On the other hand, Roethlisberger is 3-8 vs. New England and while his numbers (22:11 TD-to-INT ratio, 93.3 passer rating) aren't bad it doesn't change the stat that matters the most: wins. The Steelers have lost five straight to the Patriots, a stretch that goes back to the 2011 season and includes a loss in the AFC Championship Game in '16.
As for this season, Roethlisberger has thrown for more yards and touchdowns with a higher completion rate, but he also has more interceptions and plays in an offense that tilts heavily towards the pass. Brady's numbers are down slightly compared to last year, but New England is still tied for the AFC's third-best record and the overall offensive numbers are very similar between the two teams.
Each quarterback is capable of taking over a game and basically willing their team to victory, but Brady has a better track record when it comes to this matchup. Will that trend continue or can Roethlisberger work some of his Heinz Field magic to help his team get over the hump against the Patriots?
2. Don’t forget about running the ball
As good as Brady and Roethlisberger are, both offenses need to show some semblance of a running game, if for any other reason to not let the defenses focus on getting to the quarterback. Statistically speaking, New England has done a better job of running the football than Pittsburgh, but the emergence of James Conner from Le'Veon Bell's shadow has been one of the storylines of this season.
Conner, who is tied for sixth in the NFL in rushing with 909 yards and second with 12 rushing touchdowns, missed last week's game because of an ankle injury. He has yet to return to practice but there's a chance he could return for Sunday's game. That would be a welcome sight considering the Steelers managed just 40 rushing yards on 19 carries against the Raiders. If Conner can't go, Stevan Ridley probably will get the bulk of the carries with Jaylen Samuels involved as well. Ridley, a former Patriot, will be extra motivated for this game while Samuels is even more dangerous as a receiver and could cause matchup problems for New England.
As for the Patriots, it's pretty simple – if they run the ball successfully, they will probably win. New England is averaging 138.8 rushing yards per game in nine victories compared to 72 in four losses (while giving up 150.5 yards on the ground in the process). Sony Michel has had some good games, but the first-round pick also has dealt with some injuries and has struggled to get much going in recent weeks. After posting a season-best 133 rushing yards a couple of weeks ago against the Jets, Michel has averaged just 3.2 yards per carry over the last two games. Complicating matters for Michel is Pittsburgh ranks sixth in the league against the run (96.9 ypg) and has been even more dominant the past two weeks, holding the Chargers and Raiders to a total of 140 rushing yards.
Neither team will likely be able to run the ball down the other's throat (nor will they try), but whichever offense has more success staying grounded should be better positioned to come away victorious.
3. Limiting the big targets
Part of the reason Brady and Roethlisberger have had so much success throwing the ball is due to the guys on the other end. Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski are All-Pros but each has taken somewhat of a backseat this season due to the emergence of a teammate, injury or other factors.
In Brown's case, he's posted yet another 1,000-yard season and is tied for the NFL lead with 12 touchdown catches, but JuJu Smith-Schuster leads the Steelers in both receptions (91) and yards (1,234). Combine those two with tight ends Vance McDonald and Jesse James (73 catches, 923 yards, 5 TDs between them), and the aforementioned Samuels out of the backfield, and Pittsburgh has all sorts of weapons it can throw at a New England defense that ranks 23rd against the pass (259.5 ypg). If the Steelers get any sort of production from rookie James Washington, who has struggled to acclimate to the pro game, look out.
For the Patriots, Gronkowski has just three touchdowns on the season and he's third on the team in receiving yards, behind Josh Gordon and James White. Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan are still around and the Patriots also have been utilizing Cordarrelle Patterson in a number of ways, including in the backfield. But the key for New England is its big tight end. Gronk has had quite a bit of success in his career against Pittsburgh, including going for 168 yards on nine receptions with a two-point conversion in last season's win. He's a matchup nightmare for pretty much every NFL team but the Steelers are hoping a different approach can help limit the damage he does. Cameron Sutton is expected to play the nickel on Sunday instead of Mike Hilton, as Pittsburgh is going to throw a little more size (Sutton is 5-11, Hilton 5-9) at Gronk and New England's other receivers. Even if the Steelers are successful in limiting Gronk, Brady has no problems spreading the ball around. So either way, Pittsburgh's 12th-ranked pass defense (233.9 ypg) has a tough task ahead of it.
Pittsburgh enters this game reeling slightly as two tough losses have trimmed its lead in the AFC North to a half-game. The Steelers also are trying to end a five-game losing streak to New England. The Patriots lost last week courtesy of the "Miami Miracle," but are still in control in the AFC East.
Pittsburgh has been the better defense statistically but it will have to find a way to cause some havoc and probably a few turnovers to get Tom Brady out of his rhythm and put the pressure on the Patriots. And that's one area where the Steelers surprisingly have not done well in, with just six interceptions and 13 total takeaways on the season. New England has fared much better with 14 interceptions alone and has a clear edge in the turnover differential department (+6 vs. -8).
However, it's the middle of December and this game is being played in Heinz Field. Pittsburgh is a different team at home and Ben Roethlisberger and company know what's at stake here. In the end, the Steelers' defense rises to the challenge, Big Ben makes enough throws, and embattled kicker Chris Boswell comes up clutch as Pittsburgh stops the bleeding and tightens up the seeding outlook in the AFC in the process.