By Norm Elrod
The lineup for Week 15 in the NFL is shaping up nicely, with multiple matchups between possible playoff contenders. The Los Angeles Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs started things off Thursday, with Philip Rivers orchestrating a last-second comeback win to pull the Chargers even with the Chiefs. Kansas City owns the tiebreaker and still has the inside track on AFC West title. The Dallas Cowboys and Indianapolis Colts are each jockeying for playoff position in their respective conferences. While the Cowboys control their own destiny, the Colts, for now, find themselves on the outside looking in.
And then there’s Sunday’s New England Patriots – Pittsburgh Steelers grudge match. Both of these teams are quite familiar with December (and January) football that matters. The Patriots have won the AFC East nine seasons running, and look destined to make it 10, last Sunday’s last-second collapse notwithstanding. The Steelers took the AFC North in three of the last four seasons, but find themselves fending off the rallying Baltimore Ravens. Obviously this marquee Week 15 matchup matters for both teams.
The Patriots, in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era, are about as clutch of a team as we’ve ever seen in the NFL. That makes moments like last week’s ‘Miami Miracle’ loss all the more surprising. Don’t expect them to get caught flat-footed again, with a chance at clinching a playoff spot. A win would make them 10-4, and a Titans loss on top of that would ensure a postseason berth.
Brady is having another strong season, with top-10 showings so far in touchdown passes and yards per game. Nearing the end of his hall of fame career, he also continues to break record after record. Brady’s complement of weapons, which seemed to be a trouble spot early on, has evolved, as often happens with this team. James White has 76 catches out of the backfield to lead the team, and Rob Gronkowski creates matchup problems whenever he’s on the field. But only with the addition of Josh Gordon in Week 4 and the return of Julian Edelman in Week 5 did the offense really begin to click. White and Sony Michel have also combined for over 1000 rushing yards, as this version of the Patriots looks to run a little more than in past seasons.
The Patriots defense is unexceptional, ranking in the bottom half of NFL units overall. They only give up 22.5 points per game, which puts them in the middle of the pack. Opponents understand their trouble with the run. More to the point, they tend to lose when they give up a lot of yards on the ground. Opposing teams have rushed for an average of 150.5 yards per game in the team’s four losses.
Can the struggling Steelers, losers of three straight, including a horrendous loss to the lowly Oakland Raiders last week, follow that path to victory? Should they try? James Conner is having a strong season in place of holdout Le’Veon Bell. And he’s certainly become an impact player in his own right. Conner has picked up 909 rushing yards on the season, but hasn’t managed a 100-yard game since early November. All but one of his 100-yard efforts came against AFC North opponents and all but one came in wins. Conner sat out last week’s loss with an ankle sprain and is still feeling the effects this week.
Ben Roethlisberger is also on the Steelers’ injured list this week, recovering from a broken rib. The injury isn’t likely to keep him off the field like it did for half of last week’s game. Big Ben is having a fabulous season, averaging 325.2 passing yards per game, second only to Patrick Mahomes. And his go-to receivers, Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, have hauled in 86 and 91 catches respectively.
The Steelers defense shares the blame for the recent slide. They did, after all, give up 322 passing yards to Derek Carr, who is currently averaging 245 yards per game, and couldn’t seem to stop the Raiders in the fourth quarter of a game that should never have been that close. This top-10 unit, which gives up only 330.8 total yards and 23.5 points per game, is also struggling in the turnover department. They’ve intercepted one pass over the last three weeks. Tom Brady, more so than most QBs will pick part just about any team if given enough chances.
The Patriots have won the teams’ last five meetings against the Steelers, and will be looking to get back in the win column after last week’s fluke loss. Tom Brady has thrown 25 touchdowns versus four interceptions against them in his career and steps up in important games. The offense has clearly figured things out after early-season issues.
The Steelers come into this home game a little banged up, and may have to rely more heavily on their passing game. Brown and Smith-Schuster, both essentially number-one receivers, are certainly capable of carrying that additional load. But will the ailing Roethlisberger be able to deliver? The Steelers have been turning the ball over lately as well, without generating many turnovers on defense, and Brady is a quarterback that takes advantage of opportunities.
Look for the Patriots beat the Steelers in a high-scoring game. SportsLine analyst Adam Thompson sees it much the same way…
The struggling Steelers have lost three straight, including last week’s head-scratcher to the Raiders. Ben Roethlisberger is banged up and James Conner is questionable, and now they face a Patriots team that blew it last week at Miami. Tom Brady has owned Pittsburgh, and the Steelers have struggled against their best competition, beating just one team with a winning record all season (the Ravens; they split the season series). Lay the small number on the Pats.