A pivotal weekend for sure, Week 15 should have a major impact on the direction this season is headed. Not only do we have the game of the year in Pittsburgh, but there are other big headlines like the Eagles moving forward without Carson Wentz, the return of Aaron Rodgers in a must-win game at Carolina, and a rematch between the Rams-Seahawks where Seattle can really take control of the NFC West again.
But if you know me, you know exactly where I’m focused this week.
Game of the Year: Patriots (10-3) at Steelers (11-2)
This is arguably the NFL’s biggest regular-season game this late in the year in a decade. You may recall that epic 2007 season when the undefeated Colts and Patriots met in Week 9, and later when 10-1 Green Bay visited 10-1 Dallas. This is definitely on that level with the No. 1 seed and inside track to the Super Bowl in the AFC on the line.
It’s fitting to mention that 2007 NE-IND game, because that is really the last “big” road win for the Patriots, over 10 years ago. They have controlled the AFC East so much, and have had a lock on a first-round bye since 2010, so the Patriots are only 0-2 in road playoff games since 2007 (both losses in Denver). So they don’t have a road playoff win, and they have 9 other road wins over teams who made the playoffs. That includes some pretty soft competition like the 2011 Broncos (8-8 Tebow squad), 2014 Colts (the one-man team), 2015 Texans, 2016 Dolphins, and the 2016 Steelers with Landry Jones at QB.
In fact, the only 12-win team the Patriots have beat on the road since the 2007 Colts was the 2010 Steelers (12-4) at midseason when they were 6-2. Maybe the 2017 Saints, who the Patriots beat in Week 2, will get to 12-4 as well, but clearly they weren’t playing that well to start the season, especially on defense. This year’s Pittsburgh team should be able to go 13-3 at minimum, even if they rarely look the part.
So this is a much bigger road test than usual for the Patriots, who have failed such matchups before like in 2009 (Indy and NO), 2011 (Pittsburgh), 2014 (Green Bay), and 2015 (Denver).
We know the Steelers play much better at home on offense, and that’s where the offense has scored at least 26 points in every game this season except for that 9-point clunker against Jacksonville’s No. 1 pass defense. The Patriots do not have Jacksonville’s defense, but we know that this matchup hinges largely on what the Pittsburgh defense that has made Brett Hundley and Joe Flacco look great in recent weeks will do against Tom Brady.
What more can you say that the numbers can’t? Brady is 10-2 against the Steelers with 29 touchdowns to three interceptions. It doesn’t matter if the Patriots run the ball or not in these matchups, because they can always control the flow of the game with the quick-passing game. They also know when to pick their spots for deep shots against the Steelers, including some trickery like the throwback pass from Randy Moss to Brady in 2007, and a version of that last year in the AFC-CG.
Unless Father Time is smelling blood in the water with Brady, there’s no reason not to expect he will shred this defense again. The Patriots almost never drop two games in a row, so I’m not sure if the shocking Miami loss wasn’t some purposeful half-assed effort with the main focus always being on this important game for home-field advantage. New England also gets Rob Gronkowski back, and that obviously makes a big difference for Brady and everyone. Pittsburgh has had a hell of a time with him (eight touchdowns allowed in five games), and not even covering him has been a problem in the past.
This could also be a game where Danny Amendola and the receiving backs (Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, James White) get a lot of catches. I doubt we’ll see many runs from the Patriots. Chris Hogan and Brandin Cooks are more manageable for the Pittsburgh secondary, though they made Hogan look like Steve Largent in January and Cooks could add to the long list of 50+ yard touchdowns allowed by this defense, which misses Joe Haden. Yes, Ryan Shazier is a big loss, but the Patriots do a good job of making the linebackers irrelevant in this matchup by getting rid of the ball so quickly and into the slot. Keith Butler has his work cut out for him more than usual this week.
That’s why this game is really on Ben Roethlisberger and the offense to deliver. Control the game like they did in 2011, the last time the Steelers beat New England. That day the Steelers have five drives of 10+ plays, and held the ball for 39:22 in a 25-17 win. They also pressed the receivers on defense to make things more difficult on Brady, who still didn’t have a lousy game by any means. He just had fewer opportunities, which is why Roethlisberger has to be lights out on third down and in the red zone. He’s been very good in recent weeks, so I think he can deliver against the ultimate bend-but-don’t-break defense, but converting third downs and red-zone trips into touchdowns is paramount here. Mike Tomlin also can’t be settling for 50+ yard field goals, or sub-20-yard FGs, and punting inside the NE 40 in this matchup as he’s done before. If you can’t acknowledge that you’re playing the New England Patriots instead of the Cleveland Browns, you’ve already lost.
The return of JuJu Smith-Schuster gives Roethlisberger another option that he’s been more successful with as opposed to Martavis Bryant this year. Jesse James has also come along at tight end in recent weeks. Le’Veon Bell is putting in a ton of receiving work in recent weeks. There’s also a guy named Antonio Brown. Pittsburgh has more than enough weapons to move up and down the field all game long in this one. Just have to score touchdowns and play from ahead early. These games are almost never close between these teams. I’m not sure there’s been a real close game since the 2005 matchup, won 23-20 by the Patriots.
Roethlisberger has to be patient in this matchup and take what the defense gives him. Basically, be like Brady, which he did in 2011 and he did against the Ravens last week with another 500-yard passing game. Don’t force the deep ball on third-and-1 like he did to start the AFC-CG. Just extend the drive and keep Brady off the field. Easier said than done, but I’d be really surprised if the Steelers couldn’t score at least 27 points in this one.
For as difficult as a task as New England is for the Steelers, this might only be the first of two times they have to beat them to get back to the Super Bowl. I just don’t see another AFC contender standing in these team’s ways. In fact, it’s extra important for the Steelers to get the No. 1 seed so that they should only have to face one of Jacksonville and New England instead of both. The worst realistic outcome would be for the Steelers to finish as the No. 2 seed and have to host the No. 3 Jaguars in the divisional round. The Jaguars are a really tough matchup for Pittsburgh this year. Then of course if they won that one, they’d have to go to Foxboro where they play this team even worse every time. So winning this game is absolutely critical.
Is beating New England twice in the same year reasonable? The 2005 Broncos, 2006 Colts, 2011 Giants, 2012 Ravens, and 2015 Broncos all did so. The 2010 Jets went 2-1 against them, and even turned around from 45-3 in December to that stunning playoff upset. So it can be done. But the Steelers first need to show us they can hang with this team at home in a massive game. If they can’t do it this year, then I really don’t see this Killer B’s era team ever getting past NE.
You probably think I’m leaning towards Pittsburgh in this matchup, and honestly, I think I am too. However, I just can’t overlook the way the Steelers are squeaking out last-second FG wins over the Colts, Packers (without Rodgers), and Ravens. Or how the D is suddenly giving up big plays every week, and giving up 33 PPG at home to Hundley and Flacco. Now they get their arch nemesis when he’s in his “Angry” mode after a loss and has Gronk back? Not to mention the chess (Belichick) vs. checkers (Tomlin) coaching matchup.
I simply can’t do it. Not this time.
Final: Patriots 34, Steelers 27
2017 Week 15 Predictions
Aside from Saturday’s games, I’m going pretty vanilla with favorites this week. Just think there’s a lot of easy calls, which means we’ll probably have a ton of upsets and I’ll be bitching on Twitter about them.
- Week 1: 8-7
- Week 2: 11-5
- Week 3: 9-7
- Week 4: 8-8
- Week 5: 6-8
- Week 6: 6-8
- Week 7: 11-4
- Week 8: 12-1
- Week 9: 6-7
- Week 10: 12-2 (Spread: 6-8)
- Week 11: 8-6 (Spread: 8-5-1)
- Week 12: 12-4 (Spread: 7-9)
- Week 13: 11-5 (Spread: 10-6)
- Week 14: 6-10 (Spread: 7-9)
- Season: 126-82 (Spread: 38-37-1)