Now, New England takes its 6-2 record to the giant ketchup bottle in Heinz Field to take on the 6-2 Steelers during Sunday Night Football on NBC. New England fans might not want to remember the last time their team was on SNF when a certain 4th and 2 decision was made, but that’s another story. With the tough stretch of games coming up, it is vital that the Patriots show that they are still a force to be reckoned within the AFC by going on the road to face a tough opponent who is on a short week. It’s not a must win, but more of a "show me" kind of win.
The Steelers are coming off a Monday night win over their AFC North division rival, Cincinnati. Ever since Ben Roethlisberger jumped back into the offense in Week 6, Pittsburgh has had more of a downfield ability to add to their running game of Rashard Mendenhall. However, numerous injuries could hurt Pittsburgh on both sides of the ball with defensive end Aaron Smith and left tackle Max Starks out due to injuries. It is always tough to score or go downfield on a defense coached by Dick Lebeau, and Mike Tomlin is one of the more underrated head coaches in the league.
Here are my keys to Sunday Night’s Epic Matchup:
1.New England’s receivers: Last week, we saw the Patriots make a ton of mistakes with their young receivers in terms of catching the ball. Rob Gronkowski had a fair catch blunder on a kickoff and a fumble near the goal line to end the first half. Aaron Hernandez had his share of drops as well. This game is an opportunity for Tom Brady to attack a Pittsburgh defense that, even with Troy Polamalu, is 12th in the AFC in pass defense. Carson Palmer was able to throw all over them in the 4th quarter on Monday night, but it was too little, too late. Brandon Tate and Wes Welker will need to make plays for New England to come out of Pittsburgh with a win. Plus, the offense, as a whole, needs to hang on to the football.
2.Ben Roethlisberger: The Patriots did not do a good job of putting pressure on rookie quarterback Colt McCoy last week as the Texas kid went 14/19 in the victory. If you can’t get McCoy down on the first tackle, how are you going to bring down a guy like Roethlisberger who makes his living on the run after a busted up play?
Opposing quarterbacks are completing passes at a high rate against the weak New England secondary. This is why I wished the Pats would have taken a shot at CB Al Harris before he joined the Miami Dolphins on Tuesday. Hines Ward and Mike Wallace are two better than average receivers and don’t rule out the trick plays from Antwaan Randle El, who was a quarterback in college.
3.James Harrison: With recent regard to Tom Brady’s sprained foot injury, the New England offensive line might want to make sure James Harrison doesn’t get a direct look at Brady. The linebacker has seven sacks, but most importantly, he has shown that he is not afraid to give a big hit. Harrison has been fined for $100,000 under the new NFL hits policy over numerous hits throughout the season.
4.The Kicking Game: Yes, I had this as a key three weeks ago when New England went into San Diego. It turned out that was a deciding key, and with the season ending thigh injury to Patriots’ kicker Stephen Gostkowski, that could be the case Sunday Night. No, Wes Welker will not be kicking field goals; instead it will be former Bengals’ kicker Shayne Graham.
Now, Graham is not a name most people see as better than Gostkowski. But, Graham can be useful in this game as he is 16/21 lifetime kicking field goals at Heinz Field. As we have seen in the past, the Giant Ketchup Bottle tends to not give up a ton of long field goals. So, if New England is down three in the finals seconds, you can have some faith that Graham can send the game into overtime.
Prediction: For me, this is the toughest prediction to make because after the way New England played last week at Cleveland, I am a little hesitant to think they can go into Heinz Field on a Sunday night and win with the defense they have. Over the last two games, the Patriots’ defense has clearly missed not having safety Patrick Chung in that secondary for the big hits he distributes and his ability to make the big play.
If the Patriots do not get after Ben Roethlisberger like they did to Flacco, Rivers, and at times, Brett Favre, this could be another long night. I think New England can hang around in this game as the underdog and the offense, as we know, usually doesn’t have two bad off weeks. Pittsburgh’s defense is one of the best in the NFL, but is vulnerable to the pass. I think the Pats’ bend but don’t break defense holds up for a win. When people doubt New England like the media has this week, Belichick’s teams usually show up.
Patriots 23 Steelers 20