There are two more weeks left in the NFL season after this one, so nothing will be set in stone... but let’s be real: The top seed in the AFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs will be on the line Sunday when the Patriots visit the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers (11-2) have won eight in a row and hold a one-game lead over New England for the top spot. The winner of this game will have the head-to-head tiebreaker edge, so a Patriots win would likely force the road to the Super Bowl to go through Foxboro even if the teams remained tied. (We say “likely” because if both teams lose another game and Jacksonville wins out, leaving all three at 12-4, the Jaguars would be the top seed.)
Unlikely scenarios aside, it is fitting that these teams and their veteran quarterbacks who have dominated the AFC for most of this century are meeting at least one more time with so much on the line. But head-to-head, it has been Tom Brady who has done the dominating of Ben Roethlisberger and company. Brady is 7-2 against Roethlisberger, and the Pats have won four in a row against the Steelers, including a 36-17 drubbing in last year’s AFC title game. Of course, that game was played in New England because the Patriots had beaten the Steelers in Pittsburgh in October. Will history repeat?
New England at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 17 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Patriots -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Pittsburgh stop the run without Shazier?
For all the attention given to the quarterbacks and passing games in this one — and rightfully so since they are the top two passing teams in the NFL in terms of yards — the outcome may be decided by the Patriots' running game. Before struggling last week, New England had back-to-back games in which they racked up more than 190 rushing yards, taking advantage of defenses focused on Tom Brady and company. So the Pats are capable. And while the Steelers obviously drew inspiration and rallied around injured linebacker Ryan Shazier, they also have obviously missed him on the field. With Shazier, Pittsburgh had recorded six straight games of 80 yards or fewer allowed on the ground. But since he went down early in the Cincinnati game two weeks ago, the Steelers have been vulnerable. The Bengals ran for 130 yards, and last week Baltimore put up 152. The offense was able to bail the Steelers out in both cases, but barely. It’s not a recipe for consistent success.
2. Who will Belichick take away?
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is famous for forcing teams to “play left-handed.” That is, he takes away what they do best on offense and forces them to beat him with someone other than their best weapon. But that’s tough to do against the Steelers, who have the NFL’s leading receiver in Antonio Brown (above, right) and the leading rusher in Le’Veon Bell. Brown has had some success of late against New England, averaging more than 100 yards per game in his last three against the Pats. Bell has faced them only three times, and one of those was when he left last year’s playoff game early with an injury. In the other two meetings, he was held in check on the ground (74 and 81 yards) but was a threat as a receiver and averaged 144 yards from scrimmage. It would seem stopping Bell would be the first priority. If the Pats can find a way to shut down the running game, it becomes easier to deal with Brown if the Steelers are forced into obvious passing situations.
3. The return of Gronk
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski returns after a one-game suspension, and Pittsburgh fans are certainly wishing it had been two games. While Gronk missed last year’s AFC title game due to injury, he has tormented the Steelers throughout his career. In five games against Pittsburgh, Gronkowski has 30 catches for 496 yards and eight touchdowns. The Steelers have actually defended tight ends well this season, ranking seventh in the NFL in yards allowed (534) and first in touchdowns allowed (two). But all tight ends are not created equal. When Pittsburgh faced Delanie Walker, one of the NFL’s best, he caught six passes for 92 yards. Gronkowski is the best of them all, a step above Walker. If the Steelers can’t contain him, it will be a long day.
The Patriots laid an egg on Monday night in Miami, but they rarely play well there. And it’s always hard to imagine New England losing two in a row, especially with quite a bit still at stake. For all the top-seed discussion above, New England still needs to take care of business to hold off the Jaguars and avoid having to play during Wild Card Weekend. So Bill Belichick will have the Pats ready. The Steelers have been finding ways to win all season even when they don’t play great — Ben Roethlisberger leads the NFL with three fourth-quarter comebacks this season — but you usually have to play great to beat New England. Without Ryan Shazier, the Steelers' defense looks very vulnerable.