Ben Roethlisberger and the 2-5 Pittsburgh Steelers travel to Gillette Stadium to take on Tom Brady and the 6-2 New England Patriots at 4:25 p.m. ET on CBS. Twelve years ago these two proud franchises met in the 2002 AFC Championship Game. Starting with that game, Pittsburgh and New England have combined for 12 AFC title game appearances, eight Super Bowl appearances, and five Lombardi Trophies. Since the 2001 season, there have only been two AFC Championship Games that didn't include either the Patriots or the Steelers. Indeed, their decade-long dominance of the AFC was quite impressive.
Unfortunately, for Pittsburgh fans, things have begun to change. After an 8-8 finish a season ago, the Steelers started 2013 0-4 before notching back-to-back victories against the Jets and Ravens. However, a loss to the Raiders last week put a damper on any hope the Steelers could get back in the AFC North divisional race. The Patriots, meanwhile, got off to a quick 4-0 start before going 2-2 in their last four contests. While things haven't always looked pretty for New England this season, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have found ways to win. This is will be the 27th overall meeting and 23rd regular-season matchup between the two franchises. Pittsburgh holds a 14-8 advantage in regular-season games.
3 Things to Watch
Perhaps it can be blamed on a young, inexperienced receiving corps, but the numbers clearly show that Brady is having a down year. Brady has only thrown for 300 yards in a game just once this year. Through eight games, Brady is on pace for an 18:12 TD-to-INT ratio on the season. Last Sunday, the Patriots attacked the Dolphins with the running game, finishing with 37 rushing attempts compared to Brady's 22 throws. Earlier this season he was in the midst of a 52-game stretch of at least one touchdown pass. He surpassed Johnny Unitas, but fell two games shy of Drew Brees' NFL-record 54-game streak. Brady, however, has been held without a passing touchdown in two of his last four games. That isn't to say that Brady is out of magic; something that those who watched his comeback effort against the Saints can attest to. Perhaps another week with Rob Gronkowski in the lineup and additional time with his young wideouts will lead to improvement in Brady's statistics over the second half of the season.
Shaky Offensive Lines
These are two of the most suspect offensive lines in the league. The Steelers have had troubles with this unit for years. Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 27 times this season and the Steelers are ranked 30th in rushing offense, at just 68 yards per contest. Last week injuries knocked out three Steelers guards: Ramon Foster (concussion), David DeCastro (right ankle) and Guy Whimper (left knee). This is in addition to the season-ending injury to center Maurkice Pouncey earlier this year. The Steelers will likely struggle to block Chandler Jones, the Patriots' long, athletic pass-rusher. Jones leads New England with 6.5 sacks and has only failed to notch at least one sack in just three games this season. On top of Brady's struggles in the pocket this season, he will be without starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who broke his leg last week and was placed on injured reserve. Vollmer would have been responsible for blocking the Steelers' leading pass-rusher, Lamarr Woodley. Woodley is hot right now, notching four sacks in his last five games.
These aren't the stout run defenses we used to know. There is no Vince Wilfork. There is no Casey Hampton. Without their run-stuffing nose tackles, the Steelers are 27th in the NFL against the run, allowing 121.9 rushing yards per game, while the Patriots are 31st at 130.8 yards per game on the ground. Clearly, New England misses Wilfork, who was lost for the season after tearing his Achilles in Week 4. Over the past two weeks New England gave up 104 yards to the Jets' Chris Ivory and 4.9 yards per carry to the Dolphins' Lamar Miller. The Steelers' defense is No. 2 in the NFL against the pass, which may be misleading as teams don't throw much on Pittsburgh due to their lackluster rush defense. In fact, the Steelers have faced the second-fewest pass attempts in the league with just 207, compared to 213 rushing attempts. More rushes than passes is almost unheard of when it comes to offensive game plans in today's NFL. The Steelers' defense, normally stingy in the red zone, also has allowed nine rushing touchdown, which is tied for the third-most in the league.
Key Player for Pittsburgh: Le'Veon Bell, RB
After being inactive for the Steelers' first four games, Bell returned earlier this month. He has struggled to really get himself going, averaging 3.3 yards per rush. It appeared he had turned a corner two weeks ago against Baltimore when he rushed for 93 yards on 4.9 yards per carry. However, last week he took a step back against the Raiders, finishing with just 24 yards on 13 carries. He does give the Steelers a legitimate scoring threat on the ground, leading the team with three rushing touchdowns. Bell is the Steelers' best bet to keep pressure off of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has been sacked 26 times (3rd in the NFL) and knocked down or forced out of the pocket on numerous other occasions.
Key Player for New England: Stevan Ridley, RB
The former LSU Tiger hasn't been flashy this year, but he's been quite efficient in rushing for 399 yards and four touchdowns. He's provided offense for the Patriots when Tom Brady and the passing game stalls. He should be chomping at the bit to slash up a very weak Steelers run defense. Mark him down as a definite fantasy starter this week as he will likely put up over 100 yards rushing.
Pittsburgh hasn't looked really good all season. These Steelers aren't close to the team they've been in past years. New England is perhaps the most unimpressive division-leading team this season. While it hasn't always looked pretty, the Patriots have found ways to win. Seemingly on their way to another AFC East title, New England will only improve as this season goes on. After this game the Steelers will find themselves off to an uncharacteristic 2-6 first half.
New England 24, Pittsburgh 13