Conference Superiority

AFC Game Of The Week

New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers

Patriots: Another year with double-digit wins, did you expect anything else from them? For the eighth straight season, the Patriots are closing in on another AFC East division title and another first-round bye in the playoffs. It’s remarkable the consistency that this team plays with each and every season. After some issues early in this season, they fixed them and simplified things defensively and won eight games in a row. Monday night in Miami was a struggle for them. They definitely reverted back to their September defense once again and the little things definitely hurt them. There was a strong lack of tackling, miscommunication all across the board, they struggled to get off the field and they put no type of pressure on Jay Cutler who had a big game for the Dolphins. The Patriots offense just couldn’t get anything going either. There was no Gronkowski, Cooks was taken away and the pressure got to Brady early and often and that’s all you have to do when you play the Patriots if you want to beat them and that’s pressure number 12, throw him off his timing and he becomes frustrated and it gets him out of his rhythm. Despite the loss, they are still in a really good position at 10-3 with three games to play. No team has been better at bouncing back after a loss than the New England Patriots and knowing how they prepare for the next opponent, they will get back to the basics and hopefully get some key players back. Gronk will return from his suspension, Trey Flowers, who’s their best pass rusher and their best defensive player should be back and now, it’s time for the biggest game of the year in an AFC title game rematch and possible preview.

Steelers: I’ve watched them closely as of late and whenever I do, I feel myself aging and turning grey because they always seem to find themselves struggling and getting behind at certain points of the game and they did that once again against the Ravens last week. They were down by 11 points at one time and as they have a few times during this winning streak, they came back and found a way to win. Out of all the years that I’ve seen this team play since Mike Tomlin became the head coach, this maybe the grittiest Steelers team that he’s had. Right now, they’re 11-2 and holding the top seed in the AFC playoff picture. There is still some causes for concern with them though. First, they needed a 500-yard passing game from Ben Roethlisberger to survive the Baltimore Ravens and the running game couldn’t get it going at all. Secondly, their defense really struggled and you can see just how much Ryan Shazier’s presence truly means to that. He’s been their defensive player and he’s one of the best when it comes to recording tackles for lost yards and lastly, their secondary gave up a ton of big plays down the field. The good teams in this league however always find a way to come back. I truly feel that Antonio Brown is an MVP candidate and quite frankly, I’m not sure where this offense would be without him. When you need a catch in the red zone, he’s there, when you need a catch over the middle on third down, he’s Mr. Reliable and when you need a big play late in the game when everything is on the line, you can always count on number 84 to get the job done. There’s no receiver in the NFL that means more to his offense than this guy does and when I see Ben connect with him, I think they can complete those passes in the dark if they wanted. You talk about big games, this is the day we’ve been waiting for.

Patriots Player To Watch: Rex Burkhead– What do the Patriots love to do the most out of anybody else in the league on offense? They love to space their running backs to get a mismatch with a linebacker over the middle. To be a running back for the Patriots, one of the things that Bill expects out of you is to be able to block and catch the football in check down situations. It’s been a running back by committee situation for the Patriots. Rex has come in and provided more balance for this offense. He can line up in the slot, out wide and he’s also able to take handoffs out the backfield. I look for New England to mix things up and get him the ball to control things and keep the Steelers defense guessing along with attacking the middle of the field.

Steelers Player To Watch: Artie Burns– The secondary has always been a bit of a liability for the Pittsburgh Steelers and if you closely watch their last five games, they’ve given up a ton of big plays down the field over 20 yards. Artie will be seeing a ton of Brandin Cooks throughout the game and he’ll need to bring it. I could also see the Steelers matching him up on Hogan if necessary. This is your biggest match up of the season with a consistent receiving core coming into your house. Be mentally tough and handle your business. You saw what the Dolphins did to those Pats receivers on Monday night, implement your own scheme on how you can try to shut them down.

Final Analysis: I have been waiting for this one. When the schedules came out and I saw this on the schedule, this was one of the five games that I had circled. This is a rivalry that has been pretty one-sided in favor of the Patriots. How do these guys bounce back? They were flat in every single phase of the game on Monday night. Things will open up for them with the return of Gronk. He commands so much attention and the Patriots will look to attack the middle of the field throughout the game. The Patriots need to keep Brady on his feet throughout this game. When he gets hit, it gets him off his rhythm and he’s extremely discombobulated. Last year in the AFC title game, the Steelers played a ton of cover two, cover three and many zone schemes and because of that, the Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl and Brady threw for over 400 yards, a few touchdown passes and completed 75 percent of his passes. It’s key that the Steelers secondary players beat these Patriots receivers up at the line of scrimmage because when you do, it affects them and it allows your defensive front to pressure the quarterback.

Prediction: Steelers 31 Patriots 28