4:25 PM EST, CBS – Line: Patriots -3 , Over/Under: 54.5
A titanic clash featuring major Playoff Implications takes place today from Heinz Field, as the surging Pittsburgh Steelers host the reigning Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots in a matchup that will for all intents and purposes decide the No. One Seed in the AFC, thus granting the victor home field advantage throughout the Playoffs. Up until last Monday Night, the Patriots (10-3, 1st in AFC East) had remained lock and step with their Western Pennsylvania Rivals in the standings, stringing together eight consecutive wins entering their annual trip to South Beach with the Miami Dolphins, where what initially appeared like a routine meeting against a struggling division foe turned into something else altogether. Needless to say, the juggernaut that has been New England’s Offense dissipated before a nationally televised audience, as Bill Belichick’s charges were dealt their third defeat of the campaign in a 27-20 affair that wasn’t as close as the final score would indicate. By the time that the Offense found some rhythm it was too late, as they trailed Miami 27-10 entering the Fourth Quarter, where they would score the final ten points of the contest, suggesting a more respectable performance was put forth, though that was hardly the case. For the first time all season, the mighty Patriots’ Attack looked lacking, as they were held to season lows in First Downs (14), Total Yards (248), and Rushing Yards (25), while failing to complete a single Third Down (0-for-11), as Tom Brady (67.4%, 297.3 Y/G, 7.25 NY/A, 27 TD, 6 INT) found himself under fire all night, unable to find a consistent outlet to get the ball to. The 12-time Pro Bowl Quarterback turned in what was clearly his most disappointing performance of the term, completing just 24-of-43 Passes for 233 Yards, with a Touchdown and a pair of Interceptions, which has continued a subtly alarming trend of late which is very uncharacteristic of the future Hall of Famer. Throughout the first ten games of the season, Brady proved as efficient as ever, throwing Twenty-Two Touchdowns in comparison to a mere Two interceptions, but over the last three outings has tossed Five Touchdowns opposed to Four Interceptions, with four of those scores coming in one game alone. Could it be that age is finally catching up to the 40-Year Old, who has also been dealing with a sore Achilles over the last few weeks? Perhaps, but it’s far more likely that the absence of All-Pro Tight End Rob Gronkowski (55 REC, 849 YDS, 7 TD), who was serving a suspension after dealing a late hit in the previous week at Buffalo, along with Right Tackle Marcus Cannon, who was placed on Injured Reserve last week with a broken ankle, collectively played a major role in his struggles. The impact of Gronkowski’s absence merits no explanation, but the void left by Cannon is potentially greater when you consider the fact that Brady has been sacked twenty-nine times thus far, or in other words, fourteen times more than he was in Twelve Regular Season Ties a year ago. Furthermore, he’s been sacked on 5.7% of his dropbacks, which is tied for the third-highest of his 18-Year Career. With the NFL’s Passing Leader (3,865 YDS) shouldering so much of the offensive burden, springing leaks across the Offensive Line is certainly troublesome for Belichick and his Staff, particularly when your Quarterback is navigating uncharted waters at an age where most of his contemporaries have decided to call it a career. And speaking of springing leaks, the Defense, which had done a complete about-face after such a miserable start to the season, visibly collapsed against what had previously been one of the poorest Offenses in the NFL. Simply put, New England made Jay Cutler look like Dan Marino, allowing an oft-injured veteran that had to be coaxed out of retirement at the last second and has thus far developed very little chemistry with his teammates to complete 25-of-38 Attempts for 263 Yards and Three Touchdowns, while Sophomore Tailback Kenyan Drake emerged from relative obscurity rolling up 193 All-Purpose Yards on them in the upset. This was a team that just two weeks prior they handled with ease, relegating Miami to Seventeen Points on 221 Total Yards, while forcing Three Turnovers. The Patriots have eight defenders currently languishing on Injured Reserve, with another nine of their number currently listed as Questionable heading into today’s crucial meeting with the Steelers, including the likes of Linebackers Kyle Van Noy (Calf) and David Harris (Ankle), and Defensive Backs Malcolm Butler (Ankle), Stephon Gilmore (Ankle), Brandon King (Hamstring), and Johnson Bademosi (Illness).
Meanwhile, when it’s all said and done, last weekend could ultimately be looked back upon as the point of the campaign where the tide turned for the Steelers (11-2, 1st in AFC North), who finally gained the upper hand in their season-long marathon with the Patriots. For the third consecutive week, Mike Tomlin’s charges needed to rally back from a late deficit, this time coming back from eleven down to earn a critical 39-38 victory over their bitter division rivals, the Baltimore Ravens, granting them their second consecutive AFC North Title, and third in the last four years. With the Defense reeling after the loss of Pro Bowl Linebacker Ryan Shazier (89 TKL, 3 INT, 10 PD, 2 FF, 1 FR), who suffered severe damage to his neck and spine in the previous week’s meeting with the Cincinnati Bengals, it was up to Ben Roethlisberger (63.3%, 288.0 Y/G, 6.94 NY/A, 24 TD, 13 INT) and the Offense to carry Pittsburgh to victory, with the 14th-year Veteran Quarterback turning in yet another in a long line of vintage performances in what has been one of the NFL’s most entertaining rivalries in recent years. After blowing an early 17-7 lead, Roethlisberger put the team on his shoulders, attempting a career-high Sixty-Six Passes, completing Forty-Four of them for a staggering 506 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns, leading the hosts on four straight scoring Drives of Fifty-Five Yards or more in the Fourth Quarter, including the final one which culminated in a 46-Yard Chris Boswell Field Goal to seal the deal for the third week in a row. It was an offensive dissertation as the Steelers totaled 545 Total Yards on a season-high Thirty-One First Downs, with the 5-Time Pro Bowler compelling them to complete an impressive 12-of-18 Third Downs, while the league’s leading Receiver, Antonio Brown (99 REC, 1,509 YDS, 9 TD), tormented the Ravens’ Secondary with Eleven Receptions for a season-high 213 Yards, and the NFL’s leading rusher, Le’Veon Bell (358 Touches, 1,684 Total YDS, 9 TD), continued to work his magic in both the Rushing and Passing Games with 125 All-Purpose Yards and Three Touchdowns on Twenty-Three Touches. Now winners of eight consecutive contests, in order to position themselves favorably for the Playoffs, they’re going to have to do something that has proven to be exceedingly difficult for them over the years: beat New England. During the Belichick/Brady Era, the Steelers are a dismal 3-10 against the Patriots, losing five out of their last six meetings, including four straight, with last year’s disappointing 36-17 loss in the AFC Championship Game being the most recent installment in a series of painful defeats. Furthermore, of their three victories over their northern rivals, only two of them have come against Brady, who has certainly been the proverbial Boogeyman to the Steel Curtain. Simply put, he’s proven masterful in twelve career encounters (including the Postseason), completing a stellar 69.9% of his Attempts for an average of 294.3 Yards on a healthy 8.43 Yards per Attempt, while throwing Twenty-Nine Touchdowns in comparison to a scant Three Interceptions. When they met in last year’s AFC Title Game at Gillette Stadium, Brady torched their beleaguered Defense for 384 Yards and Three Scores on 32-of-42 Passing. And don’t expect that to change today, particularly given how Pittsburgh has looked since losing Shazier early in the Monday Night madness two weeks ago; after six straight outings relinquishing no more than Eighty Rushing Yards, they were carved up for 130 and 152 Yards in successive weeks, which would only make it easier for Brady to find holes in the Secondary, particularly if they need to commit more defenders to stop the run and crowd the Line of Scrimmage. With Defensive Backs Coty Sensabaugh (Shoulder) and Joe Haden (Leg) currently listed as Questionable with respective injuries, Tomlin’s Defense is going to be shorthanded in a matchup where he’s going to need everyone at their absolute best. it should be particularly interesting to see how they contend with Gronkowski, who will be back in action this week after serving his suspension last Monday Night. To the surprise of nobody, the prolific Tight End has enjoyed quite a bit of success against the Steelers, hauling in Thirty Receptions on Thirty-Six Targets for 496 Yards and Eight Touchdowns in five career meetings. With Shazier, the only defender in their arsenal equipped with the gifts to shadow him, expect a big game out of the 4-Time Pro Bowler.