For all intents and purposes, we all know that Sunday afternoon’s game between the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers will determine which team will clinch the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs, and secure home field advantage throughout the postseason.
Interestingly enough, the Steelers enter this game as the underdog (the latest lines have the Patriots as three-point favorites in the football odds for Patriots game), despite the fact that Pittsburgh is not only riding an NFL-high eight-game winning streak and has the best record in the conference, but also has generally played a bit better in the friendly confines of Heinz Field, versus on the road (they’re 11-2 at home, compared to 11-3 on the road, since the start of 2016).
But then again, we’re talking about the Patriots. Even with the ugly loss against the Miami Dolphins last Sunday evening, New England is still the highest scoring team in the AFC (averaging 28.3 points per game), but also has the second-highest point scoring differential in the conference as well (+118). With the season-ending injury to Carson Wentz last Sunday, Tom Brady may have found himself in the proverbial driver’s seat for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award, which would move him into a tie with Jim Brown, Earl Campbell, and Kurt Warner as the only individuals to win the award three times over the course of their career.
New England’s famous modus operandi of attacking opponents is described as “making their opponents play left-handed.” In other words, they identify what the opposing team does best, devotes their top resources towards eliminating the opponent from relying on that, and forcing them to have to rely on “Plan B.”
But in terms of the Steelers, which “poison” is the Patriots comfortable with picking? Do they focus on stopping wide receiver Antonio Brown, who is in the midst of an MVP campaign of his own? Or do they worry about stopping running back Le’Veon Bell, who leads the NFL in both rushing yards and total yards from scrimmage?
That’s the challenge the Steelers present. Bell’s patience, vision, and ability to rip off chunks of yards time and time again is absolutely demoralizing to opposing defenders, and he could make life very miserable for a Patriots rushing defense that’s ranked 23rd in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game, and dead last in the league in average yards per carry allowed by opposing runners.
And then there’s Brown, who is not only on pace for his 5th consecutive season with at least 100 receptions, 1,200 yards receiving, and nine touchdowns, but has averaged almost 10 catches for over 130 yards and more than one touchdown over the last four games. Brown has easily distanced himself from all other peers at his position, and sits alone atop the “best wide receiver in the NFL” discussion.
Of course, it’s not like the Patriots’ defense will be the only unit with the totally unenviable task of stopping the opposing offense; the Steelers offense will spend all week answering the nearly-unanswerable question of “how do we slow down Brady?” Pittsburgh’s pass defense was already something of a question mark, and with the loss of speedy linebacker Ryan Shazier (to a very scary spine injury on December 4th), that could open up spots on the middle of the field, which Brady is lethally effective at exploiting.
Plain and simple: in this battle among the AFC’s top heavyweights, expect an old-fashioned shootout between two of the best offenses the conference – and the league in general – has to offer.