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NFL Preview - New England (6-2) at Pittsburgh (6-2)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - In a game that figures to have a significant impact on the AFC landscape going forward, the New England Patriots pay a visit to Heinz Field this Sunday to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers for a clash between two of the conference's current front-runners.
Both teams enter this primetime showdown sporting identical 6-2 records that put them at the top of the AFC pack along with the Patriots' fellow tenants in the East Division, the New York Jets. The Steelers will be taking the field with a slim half-game edge on rival Baltimore for first place in the North, with the Ravens losing their Week 10 matchup at Atlanta on Thursday.
New England also comes in with the goal of atoning for its worst showing of this 2010 campaign, having been dealt a startling 34-14 road loss to improving Cleveland last Sunday. The Patriots were outgained by a 404-283 margin by the determined Browns, who piled up 230 rushing yards on the afternoon, and matched a season high by committing three turnovers in having a five-game winning streak stopped.
The high-scoring Patriots' sluggish offensive performance last week continued a troubling trend for the perennial playoff participants, who've averaged just 254.5 total yards in splitting their four road games so far this season. That modest output is a concern on Sunday, with the Steelers having fielded one of the league's stingiest defenses over the course of the first half of this 2010 campaign.
Pittsburgh hasn't been without its issues on that side of the ball, however. While the Steelers are yielding a league-low 15.4 points per contest and have routinely smothered the opposition's running game, teams have found success moving the football through the air as of late. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees shredded the Black and Gold for 305 yards and two touchdowns on a pinpoint 34-of-44 passing in a 20-10 victory two weeks back, while Cincinnati's Carson Palmer put up big numbers in the second half in nearly leading the Bengals back from a 20-point deficit this past Monday.
Cincinnati scored a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to pull within 27-21 and moved within range of another score in the game's final minute, but the Steelers came up with a critical stop on fourth down to leave Paul Brown Stadium with a hard-fought win.
Pittsburgh did not exit unscathed, however, as two members of the offensive line suffered injuries that will likely keep them out of Sunday's tilt. Left tackle Max Starks was placed on injured reserve on Wednesday due to a neck problem that will require surgery, while left guard Chris Kemoeatu is doubtful to suit up because of a sprained right knee.
The banged-up Steelers now return home off a short week to battle a New England team with a remarkable history of bouncing back after a loss. The Patriots have dropped consecutive games only twice over the past seven seasons, amassing a stellar 23-2 record in games that have followed a defeat during that span.
The Steelers have a 13-7 advantage in their all-time regular-season series with the Patriots and delivered a 33-10 road rout in their most recent meeting with New England, which occurred in 2008. Brady did not play in that game due to a torn ACL he suffered in that season's opener. The Pats had won their last two non-playoff bouts with Pittsburgh, including a 23-20 triumph in 2005 during their most recent visit to Heinz Field, prior to that setback.
The teams have also met in the postseason four times since 1996, with the Patriots winning a 1996 AFC Divisional Playoff (28-3), the Steelers returning the favor with a victory in a 1997 AFC Divisional Playoff (7-6), and New England prevailing in the 2001 (24-17) and 2004 (41-27) AFC Championships. The 1997, 2001, and 2004 meetings were all played in Pittsburgh.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has an 8-10 record against the Steelers, including a 5-2 mark since coming to New England. Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin is 1-1 against both Belichick and the Patriots as a head coach.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Though it's yet to be reflected in the won-loss column, it's becoming evident the New England offense is no longer the prolific outfit capable of striking at will that we've grown accustomed to in the past. Quarterback Tom Brady (1826 passing yards, 14 TD, 4 INT) is still adjusting to a remodeled group of receivers that no longer includes big-play threat Randy Moss, traded away by the team in early October, and hasn't gotten its usual contribution from All- Pro slotman Wes Welker (44 receptions, 3 TD), who's averaging a pedestrian 8.1 yards per catch while making his way back from a serious knee injury in the 2009 regular-season finale. While Brady's still done an excellent job taking care of the ball, the absence of Moss seems to have had an effect on the star signal-caller, as he's completed a substandard 56.8 percent of his throws over the past three weeks. With Moss gone and Welker struggling, rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez (34 receptions, 2 TD) has become the Pats' most dangerous target, and the talented 21-year-old scored the club's only two touchdowns in last Sunday's loss to the Browns. The running game has been inconsistent as well, but could get a boost from the possible return of veteran back Fred Taylor (98 rushing yards) from a toe injury that sidelined the 12th-year pro for the past five games. If he's active, Taylor will rotate with leading rusher BenJarvus Green-Ellis (385 rushing yards, 6 TD), with astute in-season pickup Danny Woodhead (232 rushing yards, 16 receptions, 3 total TD) taking over third-down duties.
Brady will need to be on target if the Patriots are to rebound this week, as no teams have been effectively able to run on a stout Pittsburgh defense that's allowing a meager 58.3 rushing yards per game and 2.6 yards per attempt. Inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons (78 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) and James Farrior (53 tackles, 1 sack) have been flying to the football playing behind one of the league's premier nose tackles in five-time Pro Bowler Casey Hampton (7 tackles, 1 sack), while standout strong safety Troy Polamalu (44 tackles, 2 INT) excels in providing further support from the back line. The Steelers also possess a couple of tremendous edge rushers in outside linebackers James Harrison (55 tackles, 7 sacks, 1 INT) and LaMarr Woodley (27 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 1 INT), who combined for three sacks and a forced fumble in Monday's win over Cincinnati, and the duo will need to keep bringing the heat to help protect a secondary that's surrendered over 250 passing yards and six touchdowns through the air over the past four weeks. Pittsburgh's depth along the defensive line will be tested as well on Sunday, with sturdy end Aaron Smith likely done for the season with a torn triceps and opposite-side starter Brett Keisel (12 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) expected to miss the game with a hamstring injury.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Pittsburgh's balance on offense could present a few problems for New England, as running back Rashard Mendenhall (702 rushing yards, 7 TD, 14 receptions) is turning in a strong season as the lead ball-carrier and the passing game has been much improved since quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (917 passing yards, 6 TD, 3 INT) returned from a well-publicized four-game suspension to start the year. The injuries up front could prove to be worrisome, however, as Kemoeatu is arguably the team's best run blocker and journeyman Jonathan Scott will be forced to serve as Roethlisberger's blind-side protector at left tackle. If he's given adequate time to throw, Roethlisberger will be looking to connect downfield with big-play receiver Mike Wallace (22 receptions, 5 TD), a deadly deep threat who's averaging 23.1 yards per catch and compiled a career-best 110 yards and a touchdown on five grabs against the Bengals. Wily veteran Hines Ward (30 receptions, 4 TD) remains the offense's go-to guy underneath, with sure-handed tight end Heath Miller (20 receptions, 1 TD) lending assistance in that department as well.
A New England defense that's young in several key spots has taken its lumps at times this season, particularly against the pass. Opposing quarterbacks have completed a league-high 70.1 percent of their throws on a secondary that's allowed an average of 268.9 yards per game through the air (29th overall) and hasn't gotten much help from a spotty pass rush that's totaled a pedestrian 13 sacks over the first eight games. The Patriots have been generally tough in stopping the run, with active inside linebacker Jerod Mayo (96 tackles, 1 sack) and promising rookie counterpart Brandon Spikes (47 tackles) teaming with space-eating nose tackle Vince Wilfork (26 tackles) for a formidable interior corps. That wasn't the case last week, however, with Cleveland running back Peyton Hillis going off for a career-high 184 yards and two scores on 29 carries. The hopeful return of second-year safety Patrick Chung (48 tackles, 2 INT) from a knee injury that's kept him out of the past two tests could help prevent a repeat, though it's still unclear as to whether he'll be ready to go. Getting pressure on Roethlisberger will be imperative, as the cornerback tandem of rookie Devin McCourty (37 tackles, 2 INT, 7 PD) and former practice-squad member Kyle Arrington (35 tackles) has hardly been a shut-down pairing.
The Patriots' fate this week probably lies in the hands of Brady, and the two- time Super Bowl MVP should be a good play considering the Pittsburgh secondary has been vulnerable recently and New England will have trouble getting yards on the ground. Hernandez also gets a thumbs-up under that scenario, with Welker still holding value in points-per-reception leagues. The running back situation for the Pats is a bit more cloudy. Green-Ellis has six touchdowns on the year but remains a risk due to the Steelers' prowess against the run and reluctance to give up points. Woodhead, who's becoming a valued receiver out of the backfield, might actually be the more attractive option. New England had to place kicker Stephen Gostkowski on injured reserve this week, but avoid replacement Shayne Graham and the defense if possible. Pittsburgh's defense is an every-week start, however, as is Mendenhall as the team's clear-cut feature back. Roethlisberger could be in line for a good game against the Patriots' suspect secondary and merits consideration, while Wallace has replaced Ward as the fantasy receiver to own among Steelers.
With a master game-planner in Belichick and a proven winner in Brady, the Patriots should never be counted out under any circumstances. This one looks to be a tall order, however, as New England's inconsistency on the road is a cause for concern and the defense isn't reliable enough to carry the load if the offense once again struggles. While the Steelers do have a few injuries to overcome, they're clearly the better team on defense and possess more versatility on offense due to their ability to run the ball. Factor in a hostile nighttime crowd at Heinz Field, and the advantage seems to be on the side of the home team.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 27, Patriots 17
11/12 13:00:15 ET