Pittsburgh playoff fortunes rest on reversing Patriots dominance



CBS, SUNDAY, 4:25 P.M., HEINZ FIELD, 68,400

Last week in a nutshell

Headline: A BLACK HOLE / A couple hallmarks of the Mike Tomlin era – clueless strategery and shoddy secondary play – reared their ugly heads against an inferior opponent again with some kicking misery thrown in for good measure. This time, it was the undisciplined and injury wracked (oh, and did we mention last-place) Oakland Raiders who somehow found enough magic to outlast the stunned and stupid Steelers and put Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes in serious jeopardy.

This week’s announcers: Jim Nantz and Tony Romo. Nantz, who is a very good announcer, is at his very worst in trying to hide his disdain for the Steelers in this matchup. Romo, who burst onto the announcing scene last year with a dazzling penchant for predicting plays, is having some growing pains in his second year because he’s spending too much time predicting plays, in particular, and discussing quarterback play, in general. Information courtesy www.the506.com.

Weather – or not: Overcast, drizzle or light rain possible, low 40’s. At this time of year, wind starts becoming more of a factor in games, especially in Heinz Field, but it looks like this game will squeeze between heavy rains Saturday and a windy day Monday. Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: John Parry. This crew also had the Steelers-Falcons game earlier this season. This is a middle-of-the-road crew, averaging 12 penalties and 106 penalty yards assessed against league averages of 13 and 115. Amidst some seriously terrible officiating around the NFL last week, the Steelers were the beneficiaries of a one-sided effort from Ron Torbert’s crew with 14 penalty yards assessed against Pittsburgh vs. 130 yards assessed against the undisciplined Raiders. Of course, the Steelers still couldn’t win. Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com, www.profootballreference.com and www.nflpenalties.com.

The last time: The Patriots bested the Steelers last December, 27-23, in an uneventful game that was soon forgotten. Wait, strike that, reverse it. Of course, the controversy surrounding last year’s game will live forever in this series’ lore. Misguided Steelers fans will continue to insist Jesse James caught the game-winning touchdown pass in the final seconds, only to have daft officials take it away. The reality is the play put on full display the absurdity of the NFL’s catch rule and got it changed. Lost in the controversy is the fact Pittsburgh had three more chances to win the game and could not do it. The victory gave New England a 16-15 lead in the all-time series, but it’s been all Patriots since Mike Tomlin became Pittsburgh’s head coach with the Pats winning seven of nine games between the teams since 2007.

The line: New England -2 /52. Smarts say: Pittsburgh was trending as a 1.5 early favorite last week before that nightmare in Oakland. The spread and O/U would come together for something like 27-24 Patriots (hmmmmmmm, that sounds familiar, but we can’t place our finger on why). Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 2nd passing, 29th rushing, 4th scoring (28.2 ppg), 3rd sacks allowed (18)

NE defense, 23rd passing, 13th rushing, 12th scoring (22.5 ppg), 29th sacks (24)

When the Patriots have the ball:

NE offense, 7th passing, 16th rushing, 6th scoring (28.0 ppg), 3rd sacks allowed (18)

PIT defense, 12th passing, 9th rushing, 16th scoring (23.5 ppg), 1st sacks (45)

Takeaway/Giveaway: NE 20/14 +6 (10th in league); PIT 13/21 -8 (27th in league)

Strength of schedule (games played so far): NE .500; PIT .470

So…: The Steelers are great at accumulating passing yardage and the Patriots give a lot of those up. But that’s been the dynamic just about every week with these statistics and it’s getting very clear that racking up a ton of yards through the air doesn’t often equate with victory. Pittsburgh has not been able to establish anything close to a running game since the Carolina game and we’re wondering if THAT isn’t what Bill Belicheck might take away from his opponent. Keep an eye open for Pittsburgh being able to move freely between the 20s but bog down in the red zone with no rushing game. Information courtesy www.nfl.comand www.espn.com.

On the spot:

Pittsburgh: Michael Pettaway Tomlin

Why: Tomlin is finishing his 12th season as Steelers head coach and absent a miraculous turnaround, it will be another disappointing one, filled with missed opportunities and strategic gaffes. Has his act gotten stale in Pittsburgh? Bill Cowher coached 13 years and departed with an 8-8 season. The legendary Chuck Noll coached 23 years, but you could argue that was 10 too many. Tomlin is a young man, but underperforming gets old very quickly in the NFL these days, even for the staid and steady Steelers. That is not to say the Steelers would or should fire Tomlin. But we’d guess there will be some soul searching on both sides this offseason whether the fit is right for the coach and the organization. Right now, Tomlin’s legacy – fair or not – is a guy who won with other people’s players but couldn’t sniff the Lombardi with his own. People forget that Cowher was a lovable big game loser for most of his Steelers career until he completely changed his legacy in the twilight of it. Can Tomlin do that same?

New England: William Stephen Belichick

Why: Speaking of soul searching in the offseason, the Patriots did a lot of that last winter with coach and quarterback deciding they could stand each other just long enough to take another run at a Super Bowl. Is this the last ride for The Hoodie and The Uggs Model? Only they know for sure (and that might be a fluid topic again), but you can be sure Belichick’s whole being is focused on that one goal. A Steelers win Sunday would very likely mean no bye for the Patriots so there is a lot on the line for the defending Super Bowl runners up.

Key matchups:

Patriots WR Josh Gordon vs. Whoever The Steelers Use To Try To Cover Him. Why: We fear the strategic matchup here will go a lot like the Never-Go-Against-A-Sicilian-When-Death-Is-On-The-Line scene between Vizzini and the Dread Pirate Roberts in “The Princess Bride,” with Pittsburgh DC Keith Butler working all week on a scheme to neutralize Rob Gronkowski while New England OC Josh McDaniels is one step ahead, using that scheme to get Steelers Killer Gordon into all kinds of mismatches with Pittsburgh’s linebackers and their so-far-overmatched hybrids (most notable Morgan Burnett). In six career games, Gordon has 550 receiving yards against the Steelers, that’s almost 50 percent more than against any other team. Watch out for him Sunday. It might be best if we are all blindfolded for the battle of wits, just like Princess Buttercup.

Playoff picture:

+ In the span of three weeks, the Steelers have gone from a playoff frontrunner to precariously perched on the ledge of infamy. A three-game division lead and chance at a first-round bye have faded into the reality that Pittsburgh likely must beat either New England or New Orleans to even make field. An 8-7-1 record isn’t going to get them in as a Wild Card (either IND, MIA or TEN is going to finish 9-7).

If the Steelers can’t figure out a way to get past one of the heavyweights left on the schedule, there is, perhaps, one man who could still get them in. And his name is Joseph Vincent Flacco. Although 8-7-1 isn’t going to get a Wild Card berth, it could win the AFC North if the Ravens lose two of their final three, meaning one to either Tampa Bay or Cleveland. It would seem the best chance of that happening would be a quarterback injury or controversy in Baltimore that puts Flacco behind center again, where he and the Ravens struggled mightily before an injury opened the door for the electric play of Lamar Jackson.

Stranger things have happened.



+ Things tightened up elsewhere in the AFC last week with both New England and Houston losing. And don’t look now, but the Chargers made things very interesting in terms of the AFC top seed with a win over Kansas City on Thursday evening. The Chiefs still control tiebreakers against the Chargers, but face a very difficult Week 16 trip to Seattle that they’ll likely need to win to keep control. A loss in Seattle could very well mean Kansas City will open the playoffs on the road at Pittsburgh or Baltimore. Wow And now the Chargers really have something to play for next Saturday night against Baltimore. If LA can win that game, the Steelers would remain alive in Week 17 no matter the outcome of any other games. Wow.



+ As bad as last weekend was for the Steelers, it was worse for the Texans, who had a chance to seize the #2 spot in the AFC with the Patriots wacky loss to the Dolphins. Houston, however, couldn’t win a home game with Indianapolis, leaving New England still clinging to the first-round bye. Bill O’Brien and his team likely would be the biggest beneficiaries of a Steelers win this Sunday.



+ The race for the second Wild Card spot got a little less wild last weekend with Denver’s surprising loss to the 49ers, but there are still four 7-6 teams vying for the single spot with the Ravens still in control. If the Ravens stumble (against TB or CLE, as noted above), it looks to us like Tennesee has the best chance to finish 9-7 (and maybe even 10-6).




+Putting it all together in terms of the Steelers:

3-0: Finish 10-5-1, almost certainly #4 seed

2-1: Finish 9-6-1, likely win AFCN and secure #4 seed, Wild Card game at home, likely vs. Chargers.

1-2: Finish 8-7-1, probably 75 percent chance of missing playoffs, 20 percent chance win AFCN and get #4, 5 percent chance get #6 spot.

0-3: Finish 7-8-1, first losing season in the Mike Tomlin era, miss playoffs.

To be fair, we fans might be a bit more pessimistic about the Steelers chances than we should be. The New York Times playoff simulator still gives Pittsburgh a 70 percent chance of making the field.

Quick hits:

+ Tom Brady is 8-2 in his career vs. the Steelers in the regular season (although it seems like 80-2) with a quarterback rating of 111.8, his highest rating against any opponent but the Falcons (5-0, 116.7). Brady’s QBR in New England’s last five wins against Pittsburgh:

2013 (W55-31): 151.8

2015 (W28-21): 143.7

2016 (W36-17): 127.5

2016 (W26-17): 124.2

2017 (W27-24): 87.6

Now, there are two ways to looks at those numbers. A Steelers optimist might say, “Hey, he’s getting less effective each game.” A Steelers pessimist might say, “Hey, we had our chance last year. He’s not going to play that poorly again.”

+ There was a huge amount of rightful criticism of the Steelers after the Oakland debacco (worse than a debacle) for their terrible game plan, terrible secondary play, terrible clock management and terrible management of Ben Roethlisberger’s injury. But one huge area where further criticism was warranted was largely overlooked. And that is the fact that Josh Dobbs was kept as the team’s No. 2 quarterback over Landry Jones, based on Dobbs’ performance in meaningless preseason games and non-NFL defenses and discounting Jones’ proven record of adequate (and winning) performance against actual NFL defenses. We said it was a potentially season ruining decision the day it was made and it might have just played out that way last week. Everyone in their right mind agreed the Steelers season was over anyway if #7 suffered a season-ending injury. You don’t keep Landry Jones to quarterback a season, though. You keep him to quarterback a game, or two. Or, in this case, a half. Now, it’s quite arguable that fateful decision to keep Dobbs over Jones has cost the Steelers a game. It’s yet to be seen if it also cost them a playoff berth. If you were one of the fans bashing Jones and clamoring for Dobbs back in August (and you know who you are), we hope you’re happy (and you learn a lesson).

+ Mike Tomlin has been crystal clear on how he incorporates game management into his coaching philosophy and prepares strategically each week. He doesn’t. He lives in the moment of the game and goes where his instincts take him. Unfortunately, his instincts are terrible.

He doubled down on that (actually, it’s like hundreded down by now) at his Tuesday presser, saying he is “actively trying to win the game” with his coaching decisions. We totally believe that he believes that. And there’s the rub. If you can’t even get a coach to consider he might be doing it wrong, there’s no hope he’ll ever start doing it right. Game management is a complex subject and there are rarely black-and-white answers to questions. However, the timeout scenario at the end of the Raiders game is about as close as you can get.

> The Steelers defense has played poorly in the fourth quarter all year and Pittsburgh was struggling to match up and defend the pass already in this game. You can NOT put the game in their hands and expect to win (hope to win, maybe, but hoping isn’t strategy).

> The Steelers offense had just moved swiftly down the field and scored behind their future Hall of Fame quarterback. If you have that option, you MUST put the game in his hands.

> The Steelers had two timeouts remaining. The Raiders had only one timeout remaining. There was no threat of them being able to pin you deep in your own end should your defense hold or get a turnover (ha!).

> So…. Raiders 1st-and-goal at the 7 with 1:16 left, Jalen Richard 1 yd run. You call your first timeout with 1:09 left; 2nd down, incomplete pass, now 1:04 left; 3rd down, incomplete pass, now 1:00 left; fourth down, touchdown, :59 left. You are now getting the ball back with :54 remaining after the kickoff and one timeout with Ben Roethlisberger as your quarterback and you need a field goal to tie. That’s :39 more (six plays!) than Tomlin left for his team and quarterback. Shameful.

+ So….. we all know The Hoodie game plans to take away the opposing offense’s best player. It will be quite interesting to see whether the Patriots think that is still Antonio Brown or whether it’s now JuJu Smith-Schuster.

+ We were totally on board with the Steelers bringing in a new kicker after last week, but we’re also now totally on board with keeping Chris Boswell after the other choices turned out to be Kai Forbath and Matt McCrane. Forbath has the same 85%+ lifetime FG percentage as Boswell and had the same issues with misses last year with the Vikings. Kickers, with the exception of an elite few, are psycho and you just hope you can catch lightning in a bottle with one. The hard part here is that Boswell was one of those elite few just 12 months ago.

The pick: We’d like to break our streak of picking against the Steelers this week. Mike Tomlin is at his best when his teams face extreme odds and Pittsburgh is due for a break against the Patriots after last year’s disastrous ending. But we can’t. With no running game to worry about and Bill Belichick’s game plan likely to take one of Pittsburgh’s stud wideouts out of the picture, there’s just not anything to hang your hat on here, short of a miraculous defensive TD scored by a guy like Artie Burns of Bud Dupree. Don’t hold your breath … New England 27-23.

Last week: Oh boy, were we double right last week, correctly calling the Steelers bumbling through another West Coast loss and begging you all to go out and win some money on the Raiders. That’s three in a row, unfortunately, leaving us 5-7-1 straight up and 6-7 against the spread.


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