By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots have played a number of big-time regular-season games over the past 17 years or so, but this weekend’s meeting with the Steelers in Pittsburgh should certainly rank among the most important.
It is, for all intents and purposes, a regular-season Super Bowl. If we presume both the Patriots and Steelers will win their very winnable games in Weeks 16 and 17, then we can safely say that the winner of Sunday’s game will earn the No. 1 seed in the AFC — as well as the first-round playoff bye and the home-field advantage that come with it.
As far as the stakes go for a Week 15 contest, they don’t get much clearer than that. The loser of Sunday’s game will still be very much alive in the quest to reach Super Bowl LII, but the road will become much more difficult. The Patriots have lost their last two postseason games on the road — both AFC Championship Games at Denver, in 2013 and 2015 — while the Steelers are 2-2 in road playoff games in the past two years, including an AFC Championship Game loss in Foxboro last season.
While making the AFC title game is no guarantee, having home field figures to be a very, very important factor if that second meeting is to actually take place like Mike Tomlin predicted.
So, when the coin is finally flipped on Sunday at Heinz Field, here’s what to expect.
All eyes are on Tom Brady — even more so than usual — after an ugly performance on Monday Night Football. Fortunately for Tommy Boy, he should have a soft landing in Pittsburgh for his response.
In 12 games, regular and postseason combined, Brady has thrown 29 touchdowns and three interceptions vs. the Steelers. He’s completed 70 percent of his passes and averaged 294 yards per game. The Patriots are 10-2 in those contests — including 3-0 in the playoffs.
More recently, Brady’s dominance over Pittsburgh has been outright staggering.
Since 2007, when someone named Anthony Smith mistakenly guaranteed a victory over Brady and the Patriots, the quarterback has completed 72 percent of his passes, averaged 325 yards, and he’s thrown a ridiculous 22 touchdowns with … zero interceptions. That’s a passer rating of 127.6. The Patriots have gone 6-1 in those seven games.
The venue hasn’t mattered much, either. In that same span, in three games at Heinz Field, Brady has completed 70 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and zero interceptions while averaging 257 yards per game — a passer rating of 113.9.
No matter the head coach, the defensive coordinator, the players on the field, the time of year, or the location on earth, Tom Brady has absolutely, unequivocally owned the Pittsburgh Steelers. If there’s any team he’d like to face after a poor performance on national TV, it’d probably be Pittsburgh. And given the way the Steelers’ pass defense has looked recently, the opportunity is ripe for Brady to remind everyone that he’s the youngest 40-year-old to ever play professional football.
Bottling Up Brown And Bell
While the New England offense is primed for a big Sunday, so too is the fearsome trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.
In last year’s AFC Championship Game, Bell left early due to an injury and did not return. In the regular-season meeting last year, Roethlisberger did not play. In the 2015 season opener, Bell was out due to suspension. They haven’t all been healthy and active for a game against the Patriots since 2013, which was Bell’s rookie season.
In that 2013 meeting, the Patriots offense put up 55 points and made the game unwinnable for Pittsburgh. But Bell had 139 yards from scrimmage, and Brown caught five passes for 71 yards and a touchdown. Roethlisberger threw for 400 yards and four touchdowns (though he was picked off twice).
Brown has managed to put up some eye-popping numbers in his five career games against the Patriots. He’s averaged 7.4 receptions for 91 yards, and he’s caught three touchdowns.
In two full games against the Patriots, Bell has averaged 4.2 yards per carry while rushing for 155 yards on 37 carries. A dual threat, he’s also caught 14 passes for 133 yards.
Roethlisberger’s recent history with the Patriots hasn’t been particularly outstanding, as he’s thrown 11 touchdowns and six interceptions against the Patriots since 2010. But he did complete 65.1 percent of his passes while averaging 363 yards per game. He’s thrown for at least 314 yards in all of them, and he reached the 400-yard mark once.
With the Patriots’ defense still far from fully solidified after a shaky start to the season, the Steelers’ trio of weapons — plus JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant, Eli Rogers and Jesse James — should be able to do some damage to try to match New England’s offensive output.
A little-known lyric to the famed “12 Days Of Christmas” song goes a little something like this:
“On the Sunday before Christmas,
Corrente gave to me,
11 breaks in game play,
10 yards for holding,
nine calls in coverage,
eight headsets smashing,
seven players crying,
six illegal motions,
four officials’ huddles,
two angry teams,
and a game that takes way too long to end!”
We’ll all be singing that on Sunday, as the referee assigned to the game — Tony Corrente — and his crew have been playing it fast and loose with their penalty calls all season long.
From the NFL’s standpoint, the decision is a bit puzzling. In a game that will be airing in every single U.S. television market except Tennessee and the Bay Area, the last thing the NFL wants to put on everybody’s TV is an over-officiated game with no pace or flow.
From the Patriots’ standpoint, the team would be wise to prepare Rob Gronkowski for some potentially frustrating moments. Considering he snapped the last time he was on the field and felt the game was not being officiated properly, he should not be surprised if a flag flies his way for one of his patented offensive pass interference penalties where he actually doesn’t do anything wrong.
At the same time, the showering of flags from Corrente’s crew could help Gronkowski, too. If the Steelers aren’t allowed to grab and hold Gronkowski up the field the way so many defenses are, then Gronkowski just might turn in a career day. He’ll be motivated enough to come out firing after being kept in a cage last week while suspended, and he already averages 99 yards per game against the Steelers, catching eight touchdowns in five games. So if the game is officiated tightly, he may be able to run wild.
At the same time, an over-officiated game can be difficult to predict. About the only thing that both fan bases ought to be prepared for is a handful of frustrating moments.
While we’re all JACKED UP about the two offenses going head-to-head and putting up points, the reality is that both defenses are likely to make some stops. The Patriots are scoring touchdowns on 57 percent of their red zone trips; the Steelers are at 48 percent on the year.
That means the kickers figure to play rather important roles in what could be a close game.
Stephen Gostkowski has been hot as of late — he’s a perfect 17-for-17 on PATs and 11-for-11 on field goals, including a 62-yarder in Mexico City, over his last five games. But nobody’s been more clutch than Chris Boswell as of late.
Boswell has four game-winning kicks in the final minutes of games over the last five weeks. The most impressive of the bunch was a 53-yarder at home to beat the Packers. Last week’s winning kick came with zero seconds on the clock and the Steelers losing by two points to the Ravens, which removed the safety net of overtime on the kick. He also beat Indy and Cincy with his right foot.
On the season, Boswell is at 92.9 percent on PATs and 91.4 percent on field goals. Gostkowski is at 97.4 percent on PATs and 91.2 percent on field goals.
As of Friday, the forecast for Sunday afternoon and early evening doesn’t look ideal for kicking. Temperatures will be in the 30s, and there’s a 50 percent chance for rain. The wind doesn’t look like it’ll be a problem, but there should be some high-stakes, high-difficulty kicks on tap for Sunday. Whichever kicker outperforms the other just might decide the winner.