PITTSBURGH (AP) — No pregame talk of a potential playoff rematch by Mike Tomlin.
No real implications for home-field advantage in the AFC.
Not much hype either, at least not the kind that typically accompanies a meeting between the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Not with both teams coming off the kind of numbing road losses that can linger for weeks if not handled properly.
Yes, the Patriots (9-4) and Steelers (7-5-1) still lead their divisions, even if it doesn’t necessarily feel like it.
Not after the New England found itself on the wrong end of the “Miami Miracle” last week while Pittsburgh slipped to a third straight defeat in Oakland, one that left its postseason prospects iffy at best.
“It’s not ideal, but we are in (first),” Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward said. “We haven’t won the games we’re supposed to and that’s on us. … But there’s still a lot on the line.”
Particularly for Pittsburgh. The Steelers lead Baltimore by just a half-game in the AFC North. Pittsburgh will reach the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season by winning its final three games. It makes the math pretty easy.
The task itself is considerably harder considering New England’s mastery over Pittsburgh for the better part of two decades.
The Patriots have won each of the past five games between the two perennial AFC powers, including a 27-24 victory at Heinz Field last season that included a chaotic fourth quarter featuring a New England rally and an overturned call on a seemingly obvious go-ahead touchdown grab by Steelers tight end Jesse James in the final minute that ultimately led to an NFL rule change.
While Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger shrugged off his team’s spotty record when facing Tom Brady — who is 11-2 all-time against Pittsburgh — by pointing out “we are not the only team that has issues with them” — he’s well aware his club’s margin for error has vanished.
“I don’t think confidence, there isn’t a loss in it, (but) an understanding of what we need to do,” Roethlisberger said. “We need to face adversity in the face and just kind of (get) ready for maybe one of the biggest challenges we had all year.”
New England’s playoff position isn’t nearly as perilous, even after allowing the Dolphins to turn a double-lateral on the final snap into a stunning 69-yard touchdown, a play that ended with tight end Rob Gronkowski working at deep safety and futilely diving at Kenyan Drake as the Miami running back crossed the goal line.
“It happened, we wish it hadn’t, we’ve watched it, we’ve corrected it as a staff, we’ve corrected it with the team, and really honestly, we’ve got to move on to Pittsburgh,” Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores said. “So, if that situation kind of shows up again, I think we’ll handle it better.”
The Patriots can win a staggering 10th consecutive AFC East title with a victory and a loss by the Dolphins in Minnesota. Not that they’re particularly concerned about what happens in other stadiums. Going against a team desperate to get things right is a big enough task.
“They’re going to come out and give us their best shot,” New England running back James White said. “They’re going to throw everything they have at us. We’ve just got to be prepared to execute and see what their game plan is for us and kind of adjust from there.”
No rearview mirror
“The Jesse James rule” became a part of the NFL lexicon during the offseason after the league altered the rule that turned James’ apparent touchdown grab in the fourth quarter into an incompletion.
League director of officiating Al Riveron said the James’ catch did not “survive the ground” when he reached across the goal line, a move that resulted in the ball briefly slipping from his grasp. The rule was amended before the 2018 season, allowing for some movement of the ball as long as the receiver maintains control.
James has done his best to not let the memory linger even if the loss cost the Steelers home field in the playoffs. Their season ended when they were upset at home by Jacksonville in the divisional round.
“It doesn’t matter which way it went,” James said. “If we would have been Super Bowl champions, we would have been Super Bowl champions after that game. We just didn’t have what it took to make a playoff run.”
The Patriots have struggled against the run all season, particularly on the road. New England has allowed nearly 150 yards rushing in its four losses, all of which have come away from Gillette Stadium. The Patriots have given up 37 runs of more than 10 yards and nine runs of 20 or more yards this season, including a season-high 54-yard touchdown run to Miami’s Brandon Bolden last week.
Pittsburgh is hopeful running back James Conner will be back after sitting out last week’s game against Oakland with an ankle injury. Conner is sixth in the NFL in yards rushing.
“The run game’s been something that we need to do a much better job of coaching, do a better job of playing,” Flores said. “Teams are going to keep running the ball or attempting to run the ball until we do something to stop it.”
Brady needs 141 yards to become the fourth quarterback in NFL history to throw for 70,000 yards. Brady enters Sunday ranked fourth with 69,859 passing yards. Drew Brees is first with 73,908, followed by Peyton Manning (71,940) and Brett Favre (71,838). … Gronkowski has overwhelmed the Steelers through the years, averaging 110 yards receiving against Pittsburgh, including 168 last season.