The Patriots travel to Pittsburgh this Sunday to face the Steelers in a pivotal AFC matchup. The winner will take control in the fight to gain home field advantage in the playoffs.
Following a loss to the Dolphins, the Patriots have a number of questions to answer. One thing New England can safely count on is the return of Rob Gronkowski after his one-game suspension. Historically, the Patriots have been excellent in games following a loss under Bill Belichick. New England has also enjoyed past success at Heinz Field.
As for the Steelers, here are a few things to know:
Ben Roethlisberger is coming off a career performance: Against the division rival Ravens in Week 14, Roethlisberger completed a career-high 44 passes for 506 yards. The Steelers prevailed 39-38. The 35-year-old quarterback became the first in NFL history to record three separate games throwing for at least 500 yards.
After briefly questioning himself earlier this season in the aftermath of a loss to the Jaguars (another team in contention for the AFC’s top playoff seed), Roethlisberger has rebounded to lead Pittsburgh in another playoff push.
Like the Patriots, the Steelers are missing their defensive leader: The Patriots will continue through the 2017 season without Dont’a Hightower, arguably the most important player on the defense. The Steelers are also operating without their defensive leader, as linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal injury making a tackle against the Bengals in Week 13.
In an instant, Pittsburgh lost a playmaker and a leading tackler for the season. This past week, Shazier underwent spinal stabilization surgery, and has begun physical rehabilitation.
The Steelers defense has been prolific in pressuring the quarterback: Aside from the Jaguars, no team in the NFL has recorded more quarterback sacks this season than the Steelers (41). Considering the recipe for beating Tom Brady revolves around getting to the quarterback, Pittsburgh looks capable of doing just that.
Stopping the tight end has been a Pittsburgh strength: While Gronkowski returns for the Patriots, he will face difficult opposition in the Steelers defense. Other than the Chiefs, no NFL defense has allowed fewer touchdowns to tight ends this season (2).
Even without Shazier, the Steelers held Ravens tight ends to a combined one catch for one yard in Week 14. Gronkowski will have to reverse a season-long trend if he wants to make an impact in Pittsburgh.
Antonio Brown is an MVP candidate: Having shattered virtually every record for wide receiver accomplishments in a five-year span, Antonio Brown is on a far higher trajectory this season than mere domination of his position. He’s been making a case for a receiver to be included in the MVP discussion.
In his last four games, he’s hauled in 39 catches, 627 yards, and six touchdowns. Brown has been a lifeline of production in a run of tightly contested Steelers wins. Even as a known quantity to every defense that lines up across from him, he’s has been borderline unstoppable since mid-November.
Unlike last season’s game against the Patriots, Le’Veon Bell is healthy: The Patriots soundly defeated the Steelers in the AFC Championship nearly 11 months ago. Of course, Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell was a non-factor, exiting early with an injury he reportedly had been dealing with prior to the game.
This time around, Bell appears to be healthy. And he’s intent on seizing his “opportunity” in 2017. Bell is both the leading rusher and the leader in yards from scrimmage this season, posing yet another threat on top of Brown and Roethlisberger.
The Steelers won’t be fazed by fourth quarter drama: In games decided by seven points or less this season, Mike Tomlin’s team is 7-1. Four of their last five wins were decided by three points or less.
Needless to say, Pittsburgh is familiar with playing in close games. As situational football has been a staple of the Belichick era in New England, it could mean that the Sunday afternoon clash lives up to the hype it’s been receiving all week.