As Bill Belichick said Friday, no NFL season truly feels complete until the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers renew their rivalry.
This Sunday, the Patriots and Steelers will meet for the 14th time in the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era and the 11th time since Ben Roethlisberger arrived on the scene in 2005. And with New England looking to rebound from the Miami Miracle and Pittsburgh reeling after three consecutive losses, this meeting will have major playoff implications for both teams.
Time: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
Location: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh
The 9-4 Patriots are pegged as three-point road favorites over the 7-5-1 Steelers, against whom they’re 5-0 since 2013.
New England won 27-24 in a thriller at Heinz Field last December, scoring the go-ahead touchdown with less than a minute remaining and then intercepting a Ben Roethlisberger pass in the end zone after Jesse James’ would-be touchdown catch was disallowed.
That controversial ruling prompted an offseason change to the NFL rulebook, with the league removing the “survive the ground” requirement from its much-maligned catch rule.
The Patriots’ crushing loss in Miami last week prevented them from clinching their 10th straight AFC East title. They can do so Sunday with a win and a Dolphins loss. New England also can clinch a playoff spot with a win and a Tennessee Titans loss.
The Patriots also need a victory to maintain their grip on a first-round playoff bye. If they lose and the Houston Texans beat or tie the New York Jets, the Pats would fall to third place in the AFC with two weeks remaining.
Pittsburgh currently sits in fourth place in the AFC and just a half-game ahead of the 7-6 Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North. A loss to the Patriots and a Ravens win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could drop the Steelers out of the playoff picture, depending on other results involving the conference’s other wild-card contenders (namely the Dolphins, Titans and Indianapolis Colts).
The Steelers have lost games to the Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Chargers and Oakland Raiders in the last three weeks.
The Patriots are, remarkably, 100 percent healthy. They were the only team in the NFL to have full participation from their entire roster in every practice this week, and the last two players remaining on their injury report — cornerback Stephon Gilmore and tight end Dwayne Allen — were removed Friday.
Allen is set to return to action Sunday after missing three games with a knee injury.
Roethlisberger was removed from the Steelers’ injury report and will play after missing most of the second half of the Raiders game with bruised ribs, but the status of starting running back James Conner remains unclear. Conner, who missed last week’s game with an ankle injury, practiced just once this week (in a limited capacity Friday) and is listed as questionable for Sunday.
Steelers slot receiver/return man Ryan Switzer also is listed as questionable with an ankle injury. Offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle) is out.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Rob Gronkowski, Patriots tight end
Gronkowski has demolished the Steelers throughout his career (39 catches, 664 yards, eight touchdowns in six games) and was a menace when these teams met last season, racking up a career-high 168 receiving yards on nine catches.
Gronk’s primary victim in that game was safety Sean Davis, whom he beat three times on four targets for 69 yards on the Patriots’ game-winning drive, then again on the ensuing two-point conversion. Davis moved from strong safety to free safety this season, so Gronkowski, who expects the Steelers to “throw a lot of things” at him on Sunday, likely will see less of him and more of rookie Terrell Edmunds and veteran Morgan Burnett.
“We’ve got several things we’re going to try to enlist to try to handle him,” Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler told reporters this week.
Artie Burns, Steelers cornerback
The Steelers shook up their secondary this week, adding some more size and physicality in hopes of slowing down Gronkowski and receivers Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon, all of whom are coming off strong performances against the Dolphins. Burns will return to the starting lineup after playing just 11 defensive snaps over the last seven games, and Cameron Sutton is getting the nod over Mike Hilton in the slot, according to reports out of Pittsburgh.
Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers wide receivers
The Patriots, who largely neutralized Minnesota’s Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs two weeks ago, will face an arguably even more formidable receiving duo this weekend. Brown, a four-time All-Pro, continues to pile up numbers at age 30 (86 catches, 1,063 yards, 12 touchdowns), and the ascending Smith-Schuster has been even more productive this season, catching 91 balls for 1,234 yards, though Brown has doubled him up in touchdown receptions.
In a change from recent years, however, Pittsburgh has gotten little out of its third and fourth receivers, with Switzer and rookie James Washington combining for just 312 yards and two touchdowns on 40 catches this season. The Steelers’ tight ends have picked up the slack, with Vance McDonald catching 44 passes for 509 yards and three touchdowns and James adding 29 for 414 and two. Conner has been a productive pass-catcher, as well.
Slot receiver Eli Rodgers, who tore his ACL in the 2017 playoffs and hasn’t played since, reportedly practiced with the first-team offense this week and could make his season debut Sunday.
J.C. Jackson, Patriots cornerback
Jackson has been an excellent addition to the Patriots’ secondary this season, and his role has continued to grow in recent weeks. He leapfrogged Jonathan Jones on the depth chart two weeks ago, then was elevated above starter Jason McCourty after McCourty struggled to keep up with Kenny Stills.
Will Jackson keep that No. 2 spot this week? And if so, how with the Patriots opt to cover the Steelers’ dynamic duo? Stephon Gilmore on Smith-Schuster seems like the most likely option, which would leave Jackson on the always-dangerous Brown. That would be easily the greatest challenge of the undrafted rookie’s young career, but the confident Maryland product insisted he’s up for it.
“It’s like, damn, like Antonio Brown? I’m guarding him?’ ” Jackson told NESN.com’s Doug Kyed this week. “But I’m ready, though. I feel like I’m ready for it.”
Stevan Ridley, Steelers running back
Intriguing rookie Jaylen Samuels clearly was the Steelers’ lead back last week with Conner out (48 snaps to Ridley’s eight; 18 touches to Ridley’s five), but we’re including Ridley here because of the pointed comments he made this week to the Boston Herald’s Kevin Duffy.
Ridley, who spent four seasons with the Patriots from 2011 to 2014, told the Herald the Pats “trashed” him after he tore his ACL in the final year of his rookie contract. The Steelers are Ridley’s seventh team since his departure from Foxboro, and he openly admitted he’s had this game circled on his calendar all season.
Ridley carried the ball just five times for 4 yards against Oakland and was not targeted in the passing game, but he did score a touchdown on a handoff from the 2-yard line.
Thumbnail photo via Philip G. Pavely/USA TODAY Sports Images