The New England Patriots put themselves in a precarious position with their Monday night loss to the Miami Dolphins, but a victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday at Heinz Field would put them back on track for the AFC’s No. 1 seed.
That, of course, will be easier said than done.
The 11-2 Steelers have reeled off eight consecutive victories and can all but lock up home-field advantage with a win over the Patriots in one of New England’s most highly anticipated regular-season games in recent memory.
Pittsburgh hasn’t looked like a juggernaut during its win streak — each of its last three wins came by three points or fewer against teams scuffling for wild-card spots — but it boasts one of the NFL’s most talented rosters, especially on offense.
Here’s a closer look at what the Steelers bring to the table:
The Steelers have the NFL’s receiving leader in Antonio Brown, its leading rusher in Le’Veon Bell and a playoff-tested veteran quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, who just threw for 506 yards Sunday night in a 39-38 win over the Baltimore Ravens.
Bell, who also is arguably the league’s best pass-catching back, has surpassed 100 yards from scrimmage in seven of his last eight games (and more than 150 in four of those). He faces a favorable matchup against a Patriots defense that ranks dead last in yards allowed per carry and typically struggles to cover running backs in the passing game.
As for Brown: Well, you could make a legitimate case for him as this year’s NFL MVP — an award no wideout ever has won. Just look at his last four stat lines:
Week 14: 11 catches, 213 yards vs. Baltimore
Week 13: Eight catches, 101 yards, one touchdown vs. Cincinnati
Week 12: 10 catches, 169 yards, two touchdowns vs. Green Bay
Week 11: 10 catches, 144 yards, three touchdowns vs. Tennessee
That’s 39 catches for 627 yards and six touchdowns — an average of 9.8 catches, 156.8 yards and 1.5 scores per game. Insanity.
Brown’s 99 total receptions and 1,509 receiving yards this season both lead all NFL pass-catchers by a mile. Expect him to receive plenty of attention from New England’s secondary.
The All-Pro isn’t Pittsburgh’s only threat at wideout, though. Martavis Bryant and rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster both have put up 100-yard performances this season, though neither has been anywhere near as consistent as Brown.
The Patriots were fortunate enough to avoid a fully healthy “Killer B’s” trifecta in both Steelers games last season, with Roethlisberger missing the teams’ regular-season matchup and Bell suffering an injury early in the AFC Championship Game. It doesn’t appear they’ll be so lucky this time around.
The Steelers lost the heart and soul of their defense when linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a frightening spinal injury two weeks ago.
Shazier, who since has been placed on injured reserve, leads the team in tackles, interceptions, pass breakups and forced fumbles, and his absence leaves a sizeable hole in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 front. The recently re-signed Sean Spence served as his primary replacement against the Ravens.
That defense still features a number of talented players, however, and is particularly skilled at getting after opposing quarterbacks. Pittsburgh ranks second in the league behind the Jacksonville Jaguars in sacks with 41, including nine by defensive end Cameron Heyward, seven by linebacker Vince Williams, six by rookie linebacker T.J. Watt and five by linebacker Bud Dupree.
Add D-end Stephon Tuitt (11 QB hits this season) to the mix, and you have a fearsome pass rush that will test the Patriots’ recently inconsistent offensive line, which struggled to keep Tom Brady off the turf in two games against the Dolphins.
On the back end, the Steelers hope to have Joe Haden back this weekend — impressive considering the former Cleveland Browns cornerback fractured his fibula just last month. Haden had been playing well before his injury, and having him available would be a huge boost for a Pittsburgh secondary that Brady shredded in the AFC title game.
The Steelers have stressed for months now a desire to play more man coverage after the Patriots exploited holes in their zone schemes in that January rout, but according to those who cover the team on a daily basis, they haven’t used a ton of it so far this season. We’ll see if they finally make the switch this Sunday.
“I feel like we’re in a better position to (play man-to-man), and we have practiced it more, globally speaking, over the course of a 12-month calendar,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told reporters Tuesday. “We’ll see what it looks like.”