PREGAME STRETCH: New England at Pittsburgh

The Dolphins provided a blueprint, but do the Steelers have the right parts to duplicate it?

THE GAME: NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (10-3) VS PITTSBURGH STEELERS (11-2) CBS, SUNDAY, 4:25 P.M., HEINZ FIELD, 68,400.

Announcers: Jim Nantz and Tony Romo. We’re really excited to see Romo work this one if the quarterback play is at the level we think it might be at. We are not really excited to see the rekindling of Nantz’s love affair with the Patriots. Information courtesy www.the506.com

Weather – or not: Rain and snow, mid-30’s. It would be altogether fitting after 13 weeks of near perfect weather if the biggest game of the year was affected by some nasty stuff. We’re not sure poor weather would favor one team or the other, though. Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: Tony Corrente. Ugh. This is one of the worst, most clueless crews in football, led by the man who once famously flagged James Harrison for “falling on the quarterback with his full body weight.” Philadelphia fans are so incensed with Corrente (they are 5-11 in games he’s worked) they’ve started a change.org petition to have him removed from the NFL. The whole band of merry men are averaging almost 16 freakin’ penalties per game (a league-high 204 penalties called) for 126 yards per game, both at the top of league averages. And for good measure, this crew is known for ticky tack defensive holding and pass interference calls. Sounds like a fun afternoon! Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com, www.profootballreference.com and www.nflpenalties.com (it takes three, count ’em, three web sites to provide you with the best each week in officiating background information).

The last time: The Steelers tried to do the same things seeking different results and were humbled and humiliated, 36-17, in last year’s AFC Championship Game, which was not nearly as close as that score indicates. Tom Brady rolled up a 127.5 passer rating against Pittsburgh’s child’s-play zone coverages and Chris Hogan more than doubled Antonio Brown’s receiving yardage with nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns. The all-time series between the two teams is tied at 15, but it’s been all Patriots in recent years, winning eight of the last 10 and the last four straight.

The line: New England -3/53

Smarts say: This does not seem to us like nearly enough points for the Patriots to be giving up, yet action was roughly 52-48 on this as of Thursday morning. What are we missing? That over/under, of course, is 10 points higher than anything we’ve seen this season and would mean something like 28-25 Patriots. Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 2nd passing, 23rd rushing, 8th scoring (24.6 ppg), 4th sacks allowed (19)

NE defense, 29th passing, 24th rushing, 5th scoring (19.2 ppg), 19th sacks (30)

When the Patriots have the ball:

NE offense, 1st passing, 15th rushing, 4th scoring (28.3 ppg), 11th sacks allowed (29)

PIT defense, 4th passing, 9th rushing, 7th scoring (19.3 ppg), 2nd sacks (41)

Giveaway/Takeaway: NE +7; PIT 0

So…: So those defensive stats tell a powerful story: The Patriots give up a ton of yards but field goals instead of touchdowns once an opponent is in the red zone. We know based on the number of five- and six-field goal games Chris Boswell has that the Steelers are susceptible to that trap. Information courtesy www.nfl.com and www.espn.com.

Key matchups: Steelers defense vs. Rob Gronkowski, Dion Lewis and Chris Hogan

Why: This is what the Patriots do to you. Weapon after weapon after weapon, employed differently by Brady, based on what’s available that particular game First, who’s going to cover Gronk, coming back from suspension? That’ll probably fall to Sean Davis, who’s been alternately great and terrible this year. Supposing he’s great Sunday and keeps Gronkowski from going wild, who’s covering Dion Lewis out of the backfield? That might have fallen to Ryan Shazier, but in his absence, who? Honestly, we have no idea, but let’s suppose Pittsburgh figures it out. Great, Chris Hogan burned you for 180 yards and two TDs last time you played. What you got this time? Even though he’ll practice this week, we seriously doubt Joe Haden will be able to go Sunday, but if he is and is effective, maybe there’s a shot here, too. It’s important to note Pittsburgh’s defense doesn’t have to enter the game thinking about shutting down these guys, but playing the Patriots game of giving up yards but hopefully not touchdowns.

Player on the spot: Joe Haden

Why: Hi Joe. Now that your broken leg is healed enough to practice on, what say you go out there Sunday and revert to your elite form and turn a whole defense around by leading the way in shutting down the best quarterback of all time, who is coming off a bad game last week. Sound good? Oh, and we really need you, so if that leg’s still a bit bum, rub some dirt on it and get out there.

Playoff picture:

+ The Steelers clinch a first-round bye with a win and the No. 1 seed with a win and a Jacksonville loss to the Texans.

+ The Patriots can clinch the AFC East with a win, but not a bye or top-two seed because of their loss to Miami on Monday Night Football.

+ From the “We Always Have to Worry About Something” file: While clinching the No. 1 seed in Week 14 would be a very good thing in a lot of ways, we think it would be a very bad thing in one way and that is the potential to not play a meaningful game for a full month, basically playing a full exhibition season while other teams are fighting for their lives. Not good. The only person we think who would benefit from some rest would be Le’Veon Bell, but that would be in terms of giving him 10-15 touches per game, rather than 30. Managing Ben Roethlisberger through a month of meaningless games would be a nightmare.

Quick hits:

+ We got a chuckle at all the people saying the Dolphins provided a blueprint for beating the Patriots that the Steelers could follow. Um, no. The Dolphins played aggressive man coverage, blitzing out of Cover 1 or playing quarters behind and got a ton of pressure in Brady’s face with their defensive line. The Steelers don’t have the personnel to do that, or maybe more appropriately, the personnel the Steelers have have not yet demonstrated they can do any of those things. The NFL is a week-to-week league because it’s matchup driven. Miami matches up well with the Patriots, the Steelers do not. Does that mean the Steelers can’t beat the Patriots? Absolutely not. But it likely means they can’t beat them using the Dolphins strategy and we already know they can’t beat them playing zone and bringing pressure off the edges, which they’ve tried and failed at in recent years.

+ Kenny Britt was no sooner kicked to the curb by the Browns than he was on a plane to New England for a tryout. Certainly, the number of veteran players who engineer their releases and end up with the Patriots has to concern the NFL, right? Right? (Blogger’s note: It doesn’t.) That said, it would be nice if the Dolphins kicked Lawrence Timmons to the curb right about now.

+ Another week has passed with no specific update on Ryan Shazier’s medical condition. We’re not saying that’s a bad thing, but we’re fairly certain it’s not a good thing.

The pick: As a loyal reader of this blog, we’re sure you remember we picked the Steelers to win the AFC Championship game last year, reasoning that was a team of destiny and speculating Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler had a defensive wrinkle to throw at the Chargers. That was a bad pick. It turns out they weren’t and they didn’t. So we’ll not make that mistake again this year when Pittsburgh feels like a team of destiny and certainly, finally, probably, hopefully they have to try something different on defense against Tom Brady than zone blitzing. Nope, we won’t get fooled again. In fact, we’re expecting that the Steelers won’t be able to stop any of the key Patriots, not Gronk, not Dion Lewis and not Chris Hogan. We think the Pittsburgh offense will keep them in it for a while but eventually make a fata second-half mistake… New England 55-31.

Last week: We pretty much nailed last week’s game (again, we’re hot!), just missing on our call of Steelers by 2. The double win leaves us 8-5 straight up and an impressive 9-4 against the spread for the season. If we’d put our money where our mouth is, that’s straight cash, homey. It should be noted, we had someone who visited Las Vegas last August put $50 on the Steelers to win Super Bowl LII at 11-1 odds. Those odds are currently 5-1.

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