Welcome to Season 7, Episode 14 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
When the new season’s NFL schedule is released each April, there are always a few games that immediately jump out as appealing, matchups that are worth anticipating even when the season is still more than four months away.
That’s how it is every time the Steelers show up on the Patriots schedule. The Patriots, of course, are a viable Super Bowl contender every year, while on paper the Steelers always look like one. The Patriots have won at least 10 games every year beginning in 2003, and have missed the playoffs just once (2008, when Brady missed 15 7/8 games). The Steelers haven’t had a losing season since 2003, though they did go 8-8 in 2006, 2012 and ’13.
The Patriots have beaten the Steelers in five straight meetings, in 9 of 11, and 12 of 15.
Sunday’s matchup has significant meaning to both teams. The Steelers have lost three straight, and with the Saints looming next week, could find themselves stuck in a prolonged losing streak that leaves them out of the playoffs. The Patriots, even having blown a major opportunity last Sunday in a 34-33 loss to the Dolphins, need this one to remain in the mix for the No. 1 seed, but somehow they’re just 3-4 on the road this season. This game has major importance, and it feels like a real rivalry right now even if it really hasn’t been through the years.
Kick if off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this one started . . .
Three players I’ll be watching not named Tom Brady
Rob Gronkowski: Save for a certain play on defense, Gronk is coming off arguably his best and most encouraging game of the season. He was a bright light in the Patriots’ nearly annual bizarre loss at Miami, catching all eight passes thrown his way for 107 yards and a touchdown. It was his season-high in receptions and his first 100-yard game since Week 1, when he went 7-123-1 against the Texans. Now, with the Steelers on the other side of the line of scrimmage, there’s a chance for momentum in the quest to get Gronk in peak form for the postseason. He has dominated Pittsburgh in his career, including last season, when he had 9 catches for 168 yards in their Week 12 meeting. In six regular-season games against Pittsburgh — five of which were Patriots victories — Gronk has 39 receptions for 664 yards and 8 touchdowns. Over 16 games, that equates to 104 catches for 1,771 yards and 21 touchdowns. No, he’s not as fast as he once was — can you believe he averaged 21.6 yards per catch just two years ago? — but there are recent signs that he can still dominate. Dominant Gronk is the only Gronk the Steelers have known, and it would be beyond encouraging to see that version of him again Sunday.
James Conner: Conner, the excellent and inspiring second-year running back who has performed so well this season that the Steelers could basically tell star holdout Le’Veon Bell to enjoy his vacation, is listed as questionable with a knee injury. If he can’t go, Jaylen Samuels and former Patriot Stevan Ridley will pick up the brunt of the carries. Considering how the Patriots run defense performed against Miami — that would be poorly — there should be opportunity there for whoever takes the handoff from Ben Roethlisberger. The Dolphins ran for 189 yards on just 21 attempts, and that doesn’t include the 52 yards Kenyan Drake picked up on a lateral for the winning touchdown. A week earlier, the Patriots defense was impressively physical against the Vikings, but Minnesota had success running the ball early in the game, and abandoning had to be on the list of reasons Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo lost his job last week. Ridley, a capable if fumble-prone back for the Patriots from 2011-14, said the Patriots “trashed him’’ after he suffered a knee injury. He’s out of the kind of bet-you-wish-you-didn’t-cut-me-now vengeance that Brandon Bolden (two TDs) got for Miami. If he succeeds against the Patriots, too, you know the run defense’s issues are legitimate.
Chris Boswell: Stephen Gostkowski is the second-best place kicker in Patriots history, and the one guy in front of him happens to be the greatest in league history. Still, 13 seasons into his Patriots career, he gets untold grief whenever he misses a kick, basically because he is not Adam Vinatieri, but merely the leading scorer in franchise history. Gostkowski isn’t having his best season — he missed a field goal and an extra point in the loss to the Dolphins, and has made 82.8 percent of his field goal attempts this year, which would be his lowest since 2010 if it stands up over the full season. But we’re spoiled around here, with Vinatieri and Gostkowski (save for an injury in 2010 that gave Shayne Graham an eight-game stint) holding the kicker gig for the last 23 seasons. Here’s what a lousy kicking situation looks like. Steelers kicker Chris Boswell, who slipped on a potential winning field goal last week, has missed six field goal attempts and five extra points this season. The Steelers brought in kickers Kai Forbath and Matt McCrane for tryouts last week, with Tomlin saying “we felt like it was fair for all parties involved to have our kicker earn his way into the stadium this weekend.’’ Boswell kept his job for now, but when he trots on to the field Sunday to attempt a kick, Steelers fans will feel a stress that has been unfamiliar to Patriots fans since the days of Scott “Missin’’ Sisson.
Grievance of the week
During this near-two-decade Bill Belichick heyday, the Patriots have been better than any team I have ever seen in any sport at putting frustrating plays and tough losses behind them. The “On To Cincinnati’’ example after a brutal loss to the Chiefs in the 2014 season still resonates around here, and I suspect the Patriots put the bizarre and disappointing ending to the Dolphins game behind them before their return plane had touched down back in New England. Understandably, the winning play remained a talking point around the NFL during the week. But there was one particular take on it — no, Stephen A. Smith did not praise Duriel Harris and Tony Nathan for pulling it off — that drove me nuts. Maybe you saw the clip of Gronkowski basically standing in place as the various Dolphins laterals and cuts unfolded in front of him, implying that he wasn’t making any effort until it was too late. It was a cheap and ridiculous notion, and I suspect the troll that put it out there on whatever site had it knew that. Gronk, for some reason, was the last line of defense on the play. He kept the ball carrier in his direct line of vision and held his ground — it’s silly to suggest he was supposed to charge forward and try to make the tackle 20 yards up field. The problem was two-fold: Not enough of the Patriots’ faster players got back in time, and Gronk had no chance of outrunning Kenyan Drake to the pylon once it become clear that all aqua green hell was breaking loose. There’s plenty of blame to go around on that play, but it was silly (or worse) to try to pin it on him.
Prediction, or, say, does anyone remember the name Bill Austin?
Perhaps Steelers aficionados do, but he’s probably not well-known to NFL fans. Here’s his claim to at least some fame: He was the Steelers coach from 1966-68, going 11-28-3 in those three seasons. Sounds like he was basically their Rod Rust. Austin was replaced in 1969 by Chuck Noll, who led the Steelers to four Super Bowl victories before his retirement after the 1991 season.
The Steelers have had two coaches since: Bill Cowher (1992-2006), and Tomlin (2007-current). I can’t help but wonder, should the Steelers lose this game and again next week against the Saints, whether Pittsburgh could have a fourth head coach in the past 50 years come next season. The Steelers are talented, but they’re also teetering, and the Patriots have a chance to deliver a devastating blow to playoff hopes that looked certain a month ago. There’s a lot riding on this one, and I’ll take the Patriots over the Steelers every time in that scenario.
Patriots 34, Steelers 31.