Sunday is our last chance to learn anything about the true identity of the New England Patriots in 2018.
With two layups coming up at home against the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets to close out the regular season, Sunday’s contest at Heinz Field against the Pittsburgh Steelers is when we learn just how deep into 2019 the Patriots are capable of playing.
New England has owned Pittsburgh like few other teams – regardless of venue – since the turn of the century. Including the postseason, Tom Brady is 11-2 vs. the Steelers, his last loss coming in 2011. In the regular season, Brady’s 111.8 passer rating vs. Pittsburgh is his best vs. any AFC opponent, while his 25-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio speaks for itself.
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“We just play well at the right time,” Brady said of his success against Pittsburgh. “I don’t think there’s anything in particular.”
Rob Gronkowski brings his A-game vs. the Steelers as well. His first career multi-touchdown performance was against Pittsburgh in 2010, when he hauled in three scoring passes from Brady, and his career high in receiving yards, 168, was against the Steelers just last season.
Gronkowski said it’s a matter of “just playing ball” when it comes down to his success vs. Pittsburgh.
“Just going out and just doing what we’ve got to do, preparing throughout the week and going out and executing,” he said.
All of this is well and good, but are Brady and Gronk still operating at the height of their powers?
Gronk is showing signs of life, with two touchdown catches in the last three weeks after being held out of the end zone since Week 1. His eight catches vs. Miami last week were a season-high.
Throw out the absurdity of the ending of the Dolphins game – admittedly, that’s next to impossible – but realize that Brady threw for a season-best 358 yards against Miami, in a stadium where he’s been…painfully mediocre throughout his career.
And now he’s going up against a defense where he truly seems to have all the answers to the test.
“They’re a tough defense with a lot of good players and a scheme that’s been around for a long time,” backup quarterback Brian Hoyer said.
Hoyer, who spent less than a month in Pittsburgh backing up Ben Roethlisberger in 2012, brings up an excellent point: the defensive scheme of the Steelers hasn’t varied much through the years.
Pittsburgh has had just two defensive coordinators since 2004, the legendary Dick LeBeau for 11 seasons and now Keith Butler for the last four. Always known for blitz-happy schemes, the Steelers had a top-10 scoring defense seven times under LeBeau – including No. 1 overall four times – and Butler has helped oversee two top-10 units thus far.
All of that success has barely affected Brady through the years. But 2018 hasn’t been your typical year for the Patriots, who are in danger of finishing with a losing record on the road for just the third time under Bill Belichick (2000, his very first season on the job, and 2009).
The stakes for each team on Sunday add yet another wrinkle to what’s usually been a matchup with plenty of bark but not much bite in terms of living up to the hype (last year notwithstanding, of course, when Jesse James failed to “survive the ground.”)
In a sense, it’s a matchup between two desperate teams. The kind of matchup where in year’s past, New England would have smelled the blood in the water and vanquished the Steelers into oblivion.
Regardless of what happens Sunday, the Patriots are still going to win the AFC East – just like they were seconds away from doing last week on South Beach. But is their birthright, a first-round bye, still in the cards with a loss to Pittsburgh? New England hasn’t had to play on wild-card weekend since 2009.
The Steelers, meanwhile, have played themselves not only out of the conversation for a coveted bye week, but almost out of the playoff picture altogether. The Baltimore Ravens are just 0.5 games back of Pittsburgh in the AFC North.
The Steelers started 1-2-1 before rolling off five straight wins…followed immediately by three straight losses by a combined 13 points.
“There’s nothing that we can do about it,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said earlier this week. “It’s nothing that we can do about the three that we lost. It’s nothing that we can do about the five or six before that that we won. We are what we are. We have an opportunity this week and that’s our mentality and focus.”
Should the Steelers capitalize on their opportunity, they still aren’t quite out of the woods yet with a trip to the 11-2 New Orleans Saints on tap for next week.
But by beating New England, Pittsburgh would not only shed the Gronkowski-sized monkey on its back, but would affirm everyone’s worst fears: that the 2018 Patriots are different, and not for the better.
Don’t be lulled into thinking things will be different in the playoffs. A New England loss in Pittsburgh on Sunday would ensure it won’t be a very long trip, anyways.