By Matt Citak
Week 15 provides us with one of the best matchups of the season, as the New England Patriots will take on the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. This late-season clash between the AFC’s top two teams has a lot riding on it, as the winner will likely get home-field advantage and the No. 1 seed in the conference. New England enters this game with a 10-3 record after the Miami Dolphins upset the AFC East-leading Patriots, 27-20, on Monday night, snapping an eight-game winning streak. While it’s tough to blame one area of the team, it was clear that the Patriots’ offense was overmatched by the Dolphins’ defense. New England is tied with New Orleans for a league-leading 400 total yards of offense per game, but mustered only 248 total yards of offense.
Tom Brady was sacked just twice, but ended up on the ground many times, as the Dolphins found ways to blitz and get to the All-Pro quarterback. Brady wound up completing 24-of-43 passes for 233 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions, finishing with an uncharacteristically low passer rating of 59.5. However in Week 15, the Patriots will get tight end Rob Gronkowski (suspended) back on the field, which should help put the whole offense back on track. Not only does Gronkowski open up the passing game for Brady and the other pass-catchers, but he is great in both run and pass protection. Bill Belichick will be thrilled.
While New England failed to win their ninth consecutive game last week, the Steelers extended their own a hot streak. Pittsburgh clinched the AFC North after coming back from a 31-20 fourth-quarter deficit to defeat their division rival Baltimore Ravens, 39-38, on Sunday night. It was an amazing performance by both offensive units, combining for nearly 1,000 yards of total offense. Ben Roethlisberger led the offensive attack for the Steelers, finishing the game with 506 passing yards and two touchdowns. His performance, one of the strongest of his 14-year career, made him the first quarterback in NFL history to top 500 yards passing three times. Pittsburgh was also aided by big outings from Antonio Brown (11 receptions for 213 yards), Le’Veon Bell (125 yards from scrimmage with three touchdowns), and Chris Boswell (4-4 on field goals, 3-3 on extra points), as Pittsburgh’s “Killer B’s” attack stepped up in a big divisional showdown.
This Week 15 battle between two of the most high-powered offenses in the NFL is sure to be among the most exciting games of the 2017 season. Pittsburgh is looking for revenge after the Patriots beat them 36-17 in last year’s AFC title game in Foxborough. In nine career games (including the postseason) against the Tom Brady-led Patriots (Brady missed the 2008 contest), Roethlisberger is 2-7, with the last win occurring back in 2011.
THE NFL TODAY analyst Bill Cowher weighed in on this week’s Patriots-Steelers matchup, which will be called by CBS’s lead broadcast team, featuring play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz, analyst Tony Romo, and sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson.
New England Patriots vs. Pittsburgh Steelers – 4:25 PM ET Sunday – CBS
CBS Local Sports: The Patriots are coming off one of their weakest offensive performances in recent memory. What does their Monday-night loss show about the importance of Rob Gronkowski to the offense?
Bill Cowher: He’s a weapon that brings balance to their offense. It was an unusual night for Tom Brady and his inability to convert third downs, which never allowed the offense to get in sync. That was as rare of a third-down performance as you are going to see from a Tom Brady-led offense. Rob Gronkowski is back, and he will be another weapon for Brady, especially in the red zone and particularly on third downs. He will be a big lift to an offense that needs it at this point.
CBS Local Sports: We know Tom Brady will come into this game looking for a big bounce-back performance. But after gaining just 25 yards on 10 rushes against Miami, how important is it for New England to establish the run game against Pittsburgh?
Bill Cowher: With New England, their run game can come from the short-passing game as well. You never know what you’re going to get with the New England offense under Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels. It could be no-huddle. It could be a fullback in the backfield. That’s the one thing you know… from Pittsburgh’s standpoint, you have to be ready to respond and adjust, because there are things you are going to see that you’re not prepared for. That’s… who New England is. They design a game plan, week in and week out, which can vary differently. These two teams have a familiarity with each other. It will be interesting to see the chess match unfold and how patient one team can be. Making adjustments will be a big key to being successful.
CBS Local Sports: Ben Roethlisberger just threw for over 500 yards on his way to an AFC Offensive Player of the Week award. How will he keep up this level of play against New England’s defense, which has looked much improved over the last two months?
Bill Cowher: New England’s defense has gotten better since Week 2. They played very well during the team’s eight-game winning streak that came to an end on Monday night. From Ben’s standpoint, he has to be patient. He has a healthy offensive line. He will get JuJu Smith-Schuster back this week in the slot. Martavis Bryant will play opposite Antonio Brown. Again, they have a familiarity with each other. The key will be Ben’s approach to this game. He must be patient enough to run the ball when needed. At the same time, he can find AB. But he also has other weapons, as well. The one thing Ben has been doing a really good job of is spreading the ball around. He’s been patient, hitting check-downs and moving the chains. The patience will be a big part of it, and situational football will play a large part in being successful. [He’ll have to] convert third downs and score touchdowns in the red zone, and not settle for field goals.
CBS Local Sports: There is no doubt that emotions will be running high for the Steelers on Sunday. But after racking up six penalties for 101 yards in Sunday night’s win over Baltimore, how will Mike Tomlin keep his team focused and disciplined in this weekend’s matchup?
Bill Cowher: It’s a football team that plays with a lot of emotion. They know the importance of this game. These are two of the top teams in the AFC, and, quite frankly, they could meet again in the playoffs. The winner of this game could determine where that game is played. Everyone knows what the implications are with this game. But at the same time, the ability to stay focused and control your emotions has a lot to do with it. These are two good teams, and you can’t beat yourself with foolish penalties. You have to respond and overcome the ones that happen before the whistle. Playing good situational football, being aware of where you are on the field, and not letting emotions get the best of you will be a big part of this game. This is a football team that’s been very focused. We saw the response after the injury to Ryan Shazier, who’s been very inspirational to this football team. So we’ll see. The most important thing for both of these teams is to play with discipline, focus, and be ready to try to seize each opportunity as it comes. Again, you don’t want to turn the football over, and you have to play good situational football.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.