New England Patriots looking to bounce back vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

By Mike Shalin, The Sports Xchange  |  Dec. 13, 2017 at 7:09 PM
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Tom Brady made it very clear that Monday night's loss in Miami didn't sit well with him and his New England Patriots teammates.

"I think everyone took this pretty hard," Brady said on his regular weekly radio appearance on WEEI in Boston. "The locker room wasn't in very good spirits and the plane ride home was very quiet. It is also the ability for us to learn from it and move forward, which is what we are going to need to do because I think we have always felt that one loss shouldn't become two and two shouldn't become three because that is when it really turns into bad seasons.

"We have to figure out a way to play a lot better and I am confident we will put out a good plan. There will be lot of urgency. We know what we're up against and we will try to put out our best game of the year."

But here's the thing about the loss -- in a game the Patriots went 0-for-11 on third downs -- it won't matter at all if New England can rebound with a road win against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

With the soft teams dotting their schedule, the Patriots have had Dec. 17 circled for a month or more. They might even have looked past the Dolphins knowing it comes down to this week.

The Steelers, Houdini-like escape artists in winning eight in a row, are 11-2, a game ahead of the Patriots, who had their eight-game winning streak snapped Monday night. So, if New England wins this week -- and the Patriots won the last four and five of the last six against the Steelers -- the teams will be even in the standings and New England will own the tiebreaker for home field throughout the playoffs.

The Patriots finish out the regular season with home games against the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets.

"They've put a lot of big wins together, played a lot of good football at the most critical times of the game when they needed to," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday of the Steelers. "It's a well-balanced team, very explosive on offense, good on defense, good in the kicking game, have a lot of great players, well coached, tough, hard-nosed, physical team. We've had a long history of great competitive games with (them)."

Ben Roethlisberger threw for 506 yards in Sunday night's comeback win for the Steelers over the Baltimore Ravens -- the fourth win in the last five games secured by a last-minute field goal from kicker Chris Boswell.

Now, it's the Patriots -- with plenty on the line.

"They're an elite group," Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said Wednesday. "They need no endorsement from me there. They're in the thick of things as usual. It starts obviously with their leadership -- Coach Belichick, Tom Brady. They've got great continuity from the top down. I think it shows that they've got a winning approach. It's going to be a good football game."

Both teams will be getting players back from suspension -- the Patriots welcoming tight end Rob Gronkowski and the Steelers getting wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. Both returnees are expected to bolster their team's offense.

Without Gronkowski, Brady led what turned out to be an impotent offense at Miami as the Patriots failed to convert a third down for the first time since 1991.

"You said it. Gronk is not only one of the most dynamic tight ends but just one of the most dynamic players in the NFL," Tomlin said. "Obviously his absence is a significant one and his presence is a significant one."

New England is 10-3 against the Steelers during the Belichick era, 3-0 in the playoffs. Last season, the Patriots defeated Pittsburgh twice, a 36-17 pasting in AFC title game following a New England win at Heinz Field during the regular season.

Pittsburgh is 7-1 in games decided by six points or fewer, prompting Tomlin to say, "We've got some guys that have been in games. We've got some good leadership and I think that's always an element of it.

"Our quarterback is a guy that's been in a lot of those type battles over the years and we've got good leadership. Although our defense is young, guys like Cam Heyward have been around and provide good, steady leadership in those tough moments."

New England made four roster moves Wednesday, signing Kenny Britt for wide receiver depth after he was released by the Cleveland Browns and re-signing defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois. At the same time, though, New England placed tackle Marcus Cannon on injured reserve and released Jonathan Freeney, who was re-signed for one game.

Cannon injured his right ankle Oct. 29 and has been in a walking boot since. It is the second straight year he injured the ankle. He was able to play through the injury last season and will now have surgery to get it right for 2018.

Steelers cornerback Joe Haden, who has missed the last four games with a fractured left fibula, returned to practice but it didn't sound like he would be rushed back. Backup Cody Sensabaugh was also out of practice Wednesday with a shoulder injury suffered Sunday night against Baltimore.

Martavis Bryant missed the Pittsburgh practice to take care of a family matter and will return Thursday and Stephon Tuitt was out because of illness.

Defensive lineman Alan Branch, who suffered a knee injury Monday night, was the only Patriot missing entirely from the team's Wednesday practice.

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