Tonight, NFL’s Sunday night slate will offer up a highly anticipated game, arguably, one the most awaited of the year. This could even be a potential AFC Championship Game preview, or most would have thought until The Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger got injured and has to make an early exit to the sidelines last week against the Miami Dolphins. With the New England Patriots visiting, it couldn’t come at a worse time, for star signal-caller to miss a game, let alone miss the expected four to six weeks after having to undergo surgery, due to a knee injury. So with him out, some of the excitement has calmed down, and this week’s marquee matchup will not be a blockbuster as anticipated.
But that doesn’t mean it won’t be a good game. Steelers’ QB backup, Landry Jones will most likely start for Pittsburgh, butin pasyt season that proved to be a big step backwards from Big Ben calling te shots in past years. But fans still have a few reasons to be optimistic despite the QB change, as the team still has the amazing duo of Le’Veon Bell at running back and the fast Antonio Brown at wideout, which will make life difficult for any defense. Also giving them a boost is the return of linebacker Ryan Shazier, he is expected to play a big role in their attempt to pull off the huge upset against one of the best offenses in the NFL.
The Patriots are coming into this week a lot healthier than their AFC North opponent, and the Pats have been clicking, speeding ahead at an impressive pace on both sides of the ball. Ever since Tom Brady came back from his suspension, they’ve been unstoppable. Their last game was a clinic is what that team is capable of when they dominated the Cincinnati Bengals, where the Pats two-tight ends of Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett were basically unstoppable. No matter how much the offense is drawing the attention around the league however, their defense is stellar and has been just as good, since they rank second in the league in points allowed.
But Pittsburgh does have a small lead in with a 14-10 lead in their overall head to head series with New England winning the last game at Heinz Field. The Patriots in recent years have closed that gap in the Brady/Bill Belichick era though, since they have won six of the last eight games and the last two straight.
Things to watch for is Big Ben’s Backup, Jones who has already come into several games last season, starting two more due to injuries, so this situation is nothing new for him, but his numbers haven’t been good in the small sample size so how he plays will certainly be the difference maker, if they want to pull of a surprising upset. He won’t be blowing the best team in the conference right now.
Pittsburgh will have to slow down the two tight ends, who are both finally healthy and roaring to go. The combo of Gronkowski and Bennett is so dangerous and couldn’t be stopped last week as the former racked up 162 yards and a score, and the latter hauled in five catches for nearly a first down each time. They are so hard to guard given their size and speed, having them means Brady has other options like tailback James White or wide receiver Julian Edelman too, so they can pick apart the resulting holes in the Steelers’ coverage.
Pittsburgh does have some athletic linebackers like Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones that might be able to some damage to the pair but it will take a group effort to slow those two down. It will be very interesting to see what head coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler do and what schemes they come up with to counter what Tom Brady and company can do when they drop back to pass. Le”veon Bell, despite missing games earlier in the year, has been good in his return so he’ll play a big role in establishing the offense against a very stingy Pats defense.
It’s too bad that the Steelers will not be at full strength. If players like Cameron Heyward, or Ryan Shazier were banged up, Pittsburgh could still win if Roethlisberger was calling plays. Without Big Ben however, it’s a really high mountain for the Steelers’ offense to climb and keep the team in the game, despite having potential pro bowlers at receiver and running back positions.
Maybe Jones will surprise everybody with his callls and get the home crowd into things to make life tough for Brady, and even he knows that despite all the injuries, the Steelers are still the stiffest competition New England has faced since Brady got back to the lineup. Both their offensive and defensive schemes are really difficult to plan against. Stranger things have happened on any given Sunday afternoon, so Pittsburgh cannot be completely ruled out since the Buffalo Bills did beat the Pats and so Las Vegas has set the odds much closer game than conventional wisdom would suggest.
But the Patriots are really special and Brady’s ‘revenge tour’ has gotten off to an amazing start and that trend should only continue as he gets more practice time and real game minutes. New England’s defense has been just as good and the pass rush will play an important role in making life hard for Jones, since head coach Bill Belichick probably has plans for just about every scenario.
Both teams might be sluggish to start as they feel each other out, but at the end the AFC’s top team will put on a show and reaffirm why they’re Super Bowl contenders. With a win, they’ll take a huge step toward home-field advantage in the playoffs, and that’s very likely to happen without Big Ben to retaliate.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Steelers 20