Steelers face must-win against hated Patriots
The Pittsburgh Steelers never seem to make things easy, and thanks to an inexplicable loss in Oakland this past Sunday, they now have a difficult path to the playoffs.
The Steelers (7-5-1) lead the Ravens (7-6) by a half-game in the AFC North with three games remaining.
The first of those three games is against a long-time nemesis, the New England Patriots, in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers are 0-5 in their past five games against the Patriots, including a 27-24 loss at Heinz Field last December that prevented Pittsburgh from earning the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said the past does not matter, and he is only focused on this game. But New England must be confident knowing that karma works in its favor in Pittsburgh. Last year, the Patriots took a three-point lead late in the game -- only to have Pittsburgh's JuJu Smith-Schuster make a long catch and run. The Steelers thought they had won when Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw what appeared to be a game-winning touchdown pass to tight end Jesse James. Then, something happened and it was ruled that James didn't survive the ground. Incomplete pass. Fans at Heinz Field were stunned.
The Patriots had new life. Two plays later, Roethlisberger threw an interception. Never before had a stadium gone from such elation to despair.
Many Steelers are treating this Sunday's game like a playoff game because they know anything short of 10 wins is putting their playoff hopes in serious jeopardy.
"We realize what's at stake," Roethlisberger said. "No panic. We still control our destiny, but it's not going to get any easier."
The Steelers are in this position because they lost three consecutive games after starting the season 7-2-1.
Making things more challenging this week is the team's overall health. Roethlisberger has bruised ribs, but he said he is going to play. Running back James Conner has a high ankle sprain and is unlikely to play.
Conner's replacement, Jaylen Samuels, only had 28 yards rushing on 11 carries against the Raiders, but he had seven catches for 64 yards and was instrumental in the fourth-quarter touchdown drive that gave the Steelers a short-lived lead.
The Steelers might have to outscore the Patriots because their defense hasn't held up the past three games against the Broncos, Chargers or Raiders. They allowed 14 points in the second halves against the Raiders and Broncos and 26 to the Chargers, who erased a 23-7 halftime deficit.
The Raiders scored with 21 seconds remaining on a fourth-down pass.
"It was very disappointing how the game ended, particularly because we weren't able to stand up in that moment defensively and really, that's the second time in two weeks we weren't able to stand up in that moment," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "We are open to all possibilities in an effort to change that outcome. One thing we aren't going to do is we are not going to hope and wish. We are not going through our processes in which we have and just hope that the outcome changes."
The Steelers have to change something up against the Patriots on Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field. Tom Brady has had the Steelers' number since he entered the league in 2000. He has completed 70.8 percent of his passes with 23 touchdowns and only one interception against the Steelers since 2007, Tomlin's first season as head coach of the Steelers.
The Patriots will be motivated too after they lost to the Dolphins on the final play of the game in Miami last weekend.
"We are licking our wounds as we should when you are unsuccessful in this business, but not a lot of time for that," Tomlin said. "We understand that as well. Sunday is coming. We are excited about an opportunity to compete and get this negative taste out of our mouths as I am sure New England is. They are coming off of a bitter, disappointing game. It's going to be high stakes. It's going to be a big-time atmosphere."
The Patriots are 3-4 on the road and have lost to four teams that have been either mediocre or bad this season. The challenge for the Patriots will be the fact that the Steelers have two really good receivers in Antonio Brown and Smith-Schuster who will the test their secondary unlike any other group of receivers this season. The Patriots must get more of a pass rush against the Steelers and show they can stop a top-notch receiving corps.
Offensively, the Patriots will need to protect well against the blitz schemes of the Steelers. The Steelers do a good job of getting pressure on the quarterback. The Steelers lead the league in sacks with 45. The Patriots are tied for 29th with 24 sacks.
Brady will likely use play-action fakes to draw the linebackers in and throw over the top. If the Steelers play zone with their signature zone-blitz scheme, Brady will pick them apart.
The Patriots will likely attack the Steelers by hitting Julian Edelman in the middle of the field and throwing quick slants to Josh Gordon. The Patriots hope that the Steelers cover tight end Rob Gronkowski with linebackers so they can hit the hulking tight end for some big plays.
Updated December 12, 2018