By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots come out of their bye week at 7-3 and on their way to another AFC East title. But thanks to the Steelers, they’re in an unfamiliar spot in the conference as the No. 3 seed.
Pittsburgh sits at No. 2 behind the 9-1 Kansas City Chiefs after a 20-16 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, edging out the Pats due to a Week 1 tie with the Cleveland Browns. Ben Roethlisberger scored two unanswered touchdowns in the final three minutes, rumbling for a go-ahead 1-yard touchdown run in the closing seconds. Now, the Steelers’ 7-2-1 just barely bests the Patriots’ 7-3.
Assuming both teams run the table leading up to their matchup, it’ll be the second straight season the Steelers enter their matchup with the Patriots holding the lead in the standings. Pittsburgh is again giving New England a legitimate challenge for a bye week after averaging 9.6 wins from 2012-16.
As the Steelers continue to surge and the Patriots get their chance to bounce back and roll down the stretch, there’s a strong possibility that Week 15 will bring a matchup of 10-win teams to Heinz Field, with the crucial head-to-head tiebreaker again at stake. The Patriots would put themselves in the driver’s seat for a top-2 seed if they dropped the Steelers to 10-3-1 while jumping to 11-3 themselves.
But even if the Patriots beat them, the Steelers’ tie puts more pressure on the Pats than usual to avoid slipping up in the final six games. After the Pats and Steelers battled for the No. 1 seed in 2017, the presence of the Chiefs atop the conference at 9-1 complicates matters for both teams this season. Until K.C. really stumbles, this is shaping up to be the battle for second place.
Despite historically playing well against the Steelers regardless of venue, the Tom Brady-led Patriots have had issues playing on the road this season. That makes Week 15 appear to be a tougher task than in prior years. They’ll have a chance to reverse the trend with road tilts against the Jets and Dolphins in Weeks 12 and 14 before heading to Pittsburgh.
But the Patriots have yet to put a complete game together on the road – and sometimes it’s been as bad as it gets for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. They’re 2-3 away from Gillette Stadium after falling 34-10 to the Tennessee Titans last Sunday, and it’s been especially ugly on offense. They’re averaging just 16.4 points per game on offense on the road, and have totaled just 40 points in their three losses as a team.
Pittsburgh has scored at least 41 points as a team in two of their last three home games.
As for the Steelers at Heinz Field overall, they started slow with two straight losses against the Chiefs and Ravens. But they’ve been on an absolute tear at home since then, winning three straight over the Falcons, Browns, and Panthers by combined score of 126-56. Other than Week 4 against Baltimore, Pittsburgh has scored at least 31 points on offense in all of their home games.
It’s important to apply the “Any Given Sunday” principle here. Just because the Patriots have had their share of struggles on the road doesn’t mean they’ll struggle again in a familiar environment like Pittsburgh. But if they can’t prove capable of putting 60 full minutes together against the Jets or Dolphins, that’ll hardly inspire confidence that they’ll be able to keep up with the Steelers if Pittsburgh is still on a roll heading into this game.
Waiting for the turnaround
Paramount for the Pats before Week 15 is to get their offense rolling as a unit. That could start with tight end Rob Gronkowski. It sounds like the tight end will have a chance to return and prove he’s still the same Gronk on Sunday against the Jets, after sitting out four of the last five weeks including the bye. As we’ve seen with this team so many times before, a hot streak from Gronk would turn this offense around in a major way.
Big picture-wise, the most important thing for the Patriots is to simply figure out what ails them on the road and correct it. There’s been plenty of talk about fast starts and playing four quarters of good football, but it hasn’t been executed as such every time.
Tangible or not, the problems that have cropped up on the road absolutely cannot show up in Pittsburgh. The Patriots need the improved execution they know they haven’t had enough of this season. They needed every minute to earn last season’s win at Heinz, so they likely need a similar effort when these teams clash in four weeks.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.