NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (10-3) AT PITTSBURGH STEELERS (11-2)
SERIES HISTORY: 26th regular-season meeting. Steelers lead series, 14-11. The Patriots have won the last three, including 27-16 at Heinz Field last year. The Steelers are 9-8 in Pittsburgh. These teams have played five times in the postseason, with the Patriots winning four. The Patriots are 3-0 against the Steelers in AFC Championship games, including a 36-17 win at Gillette Stadium in January.
KEYS TO THE GAME: New England's offense needs to bounce back from a poor performance in Miami, where Tom Brady threw two interceptions and notched a season-low 59.5 passer rating as the Patriots failed to convert on 11 third-down chances.
Pittsburgh has a solid defense ranked in the top 10 against the run, the pass and in points allowed. Given the loss of linebacker Ryan Shazier, though, look for the Patriots to try to get the running backs involved.
Rob Gronkowski's return from suspension should see him targeted early and often in the middle of the field, something that was certainly lacking last week.
Brady has been hobbled of late with an Achilles injury, so it's important for the offensive line to step up to the challenge of a diverse Steelers pass rush that is second in the NFL in sacks per pass play.
As is so often the case, if the Patriots can be competitive in the trenches, New England has more than enough weapons to challenge Pittsburgh's back end. It also could be a game where Brady uses an up-tempo approach to challenge the Steelers' substitutions and adjustments.
The blueprint to beating the Patriots is not a secret. It is well known the best way to do it is by pressuring Tom Brady and disrupting his receivers at the line of scrimmage. The Steelers know this as well as anyone. They just haven't been able to execute that game plan in the past because they didn't have the personnel to do it.
The Steelers might not have cornerback Joe Haden to play as much man coverage as they would like, but they will try it because playing zone against Brady has proved disastrous in the past. The biggest key for the Steelers will be the pass rush. They're second in the NFL in sacks and need a strong rush to get Brady out of his rhythm.
When the Steelers have the ball, they have to strike a balance between riding their hot passing game and controlling the clock and keeping Brady off the field. Ben Roethlisberger attempted 66 passes and threw for 506 yards against the Ravens last week. The running game was an afterthought. They will continue to ride Roethlisberger's hot hand, but the running game has to be effective, too.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell vs. Patriots edge defenders. New England is banged up and undermanned at both outside linebacker and defensive end. Guys such as Eric Lee and Jonathan Freeny are getting signed off practice squads/the street and are immediately playing significant snaps. The edge of the run defense has been an issue all year for New England. The Dolphins exploited the weakness as Kenyan Drake ran for 114 yards. Now the unit faces Bell, who leads the NFL with 1,105 yards. Oh, and with 75 receptions, Bell is also a challenge the linebackers must deal with in the passing game.
--Patriots offensive line vs. Steelers DEs Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. Pressure up the middle is the key to beating the Patriots. Heyward leads the Steelers in sacks and has been dominant at times. Tuitt has struggled through injuries, but they are paying him big money to perform in games such as this one. If Heyward and Tuitt don't come up big for the Steelers, it's going to be a long day for the defense because the defensive backfield does not match up well with the Patriots' skill players.
FRIDAY INJURY REPORT
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
--Out: DT Alan Branch (knee)
--Questionable: DE Trey Flowers (rib), CB Stephon Gilmore (ankle), LB David Harris (ankle), WR Chris Hogan (shoulder), S Brandon King (hamstring), DE Eric Lee (ankle), WR Matt Slater (hamstring), LB Kyle Van Noy (calf), T LaAdrian Waddle (ankle), DE Deatrich Wise (foot)
--Out: TE Vance McDonald (shoulder)
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Steelers TE Jesse James. He is coming off a career performance against the Ravens, with 10 receptions for 97 yards, and the Steelers could look to him in a big way this week because Vance McDonald has a shoulder injury. The Patriots will do everything in their power to keep Antonio Brown in check. That will free up players such as James to have an impact on the game.
FAST FACTS: Patriots QB Tom Brady leads the NFL with 3,865 passing yards and a 105.2 quarterback rating. He has 2,273 passing yards (324.7 per game) with 22 TDs and no interceptions in his past seven meetings against the Steelers, including the postseason. In last year's AFC Championship Game, he completed 32 of 42 pass attempts for 384 yards and three TDs. He needs 135 passing yards for his ninth career 4,000-yard season. ... RB James White had a TD catch in Week 14. White had a receiving touchdown last time out against Pittsburgh. Since 2015, White has 12 touchdown catches, the most among NFL running backs. ... RB Rex Burkhead has five TDs in his past three and has two straight road games with a score. ... TE Rob Gronkowski has 229 receiving yards and two TDs in his last two games. He was suspended last week. In five career games against the Steelers, he has eight TDs. Since entering the league in 2010, he has the most touchdown receptions, 75. ... Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger completed a career-high 44 of 66 (66.7 percent) attempts for 506 yards, with two TDs and no interceptions, last week against the Ravens. He has three games in which he has thrown for more than 500 yards, most in NFL history. He threw for 314 yards and a touchdown in last year's AF Championship Game and has five straight games against the Patriots with more than 300 passing yards. ... RB Le'Veon Bell leads the NFL with 1,105 rushing yards and 1,684 yards from scrimmage. He ranks first among running backs with 75 catches. He has five straight games with at least 100 yards from scrimmage and is averaging 144 yards in the past two games against the Patriots. ... WR Antonio Brown leads the NFL with 99 catches and 1,509 yards. Last week, he had 11 catches for 213 yards.
PREDICTION: It's hard to imagine Tom Brady having two bad games in a row. He'll bounce back, but the Steelers have too many weapons, including a beast at tight end in Jesse James. The Steelers will steal this one.
OUR PICK: Steelers, 38-35.