Mike Tomlin, a man who has pioneered more widely-accepted colloquialisms than Mark Twain, found himself trapped in a maelstrom of metaphors and literalities during his weekly press conference on Tuesday.
Tomlin attempted to contextualize his feelings about the Steelers’ upcoming showdown with the New England Patriots as follows: “It's good to be in the kitchen. The kitchen's in Pittsburgh, PA, this week in the National Football League, and at Heinz Field.” This is kind of like if Van Gogh followed his “The conscience is a man’s compass” figure of speech with, “Compasses are designed in a way that aligns with the Earth’s magnetic field. The Earth is a life-filled water-sphere floating in the vacuum of space. Conscience guides our confidence and compunction and helps us make decisions and stuff.”
In plain-speak, Tomlin is downright giddy that the most significant game of Pittsburgh’s season—and arguably the most impactful regular-season tilt league-wide—is taking place within the friendly confines of Heinz Field, a distinction that ostensibly gives the Steelers an advantage over New England. And he should be excited! This is perhaps the lone game on the NFL schedule that’s actually lived up to the preseason hype, as New England and Pittsburgh are widely considered to be the topmost contenders in the AFC.
The Steelers are coming off a 39-38 victory against Baltimore, a win that might have been their most impressive of the season. The Patriots, meanwhile, dropped a game in Miami last Monday in which they failed to generate a single first down on third down, the first time that’s ever happened in Bill Belichick’s tenure as head coach.
But trends have mattered little in a “rivalry” that has been nearly as one-sided as the Steelers-Browns rivalry—Tom Brady is simply allergic to losing to the Steelers. Feast on these disgusting game logs:
-2017 AFC Championship Game: 32 for 42 for 384 yards and three touchdowns, 127.5 QB rating (win)
-2016 Regular Season Week 8: 19 for 26 for 222 yards and two touchdowns, 124.2 QB rating (win)
-2015 Regular Season Week 1: 25 for 32 for 288 yards and four touchdowns, 143.7 QB rating (win)
-2013 Regular Season Week 9: 23 for 33 for 432 yards and four touchdowns, 151.8 QB rating (win)
We’ll stop there, for the sake of our sanity. Brady hasn’t lost to the Steelers since 2011, and he hasn’t thrown an interception against them since 2005. The fact that Tom Brady has thrown more than 250 passes against a single team without throwing even a single pick is ridiculous, and it demonstrates that Brady is smarter than every person on Pittsburgh’s coaching staff. That the Patriots are somehow “more vulnerable” following Brady’s less-than-stellar showing against the Dolphins is an egregious claim, and one that fails to consider that Brady treats Pittsburgh’s secondary like a chew-toy.
A Tweet-length scouting report of the Patriots
Tom Brady. I want Antonio Brown to win the MVP so, so bad, but there is a zero-percent chance he surmounts Brady for this honor.
A longer scouting report of the Patriots
Adaptability and balance continue to be among the core Belichickian principles, though perhaps the centermost philosophy this season is his deployment of his gaggle of multi-tool running backs. Did you ever in a million years think the Steelers would be specifically forced to game plan against Rex Burkhead? They do! Internet protections are being stripped away before our eyes and Rex Burkhead is a legitimate X-factor. 2017 has been wild.
But maybe the Patriots won’t lean too heavily on Burkhead. Maybe they’ll over-utilize Dion Lewis, who, it should be noted, was enjoying a meteoric rise up the league’s rushing charts before being stymied by Miami’s front seven. Perhaps James White, a man less than a year removed from staking a legitimate claim for Super Bowl MVP, will get in on the action.
Or maybe Belichick, understanding that Pittsburgh’s secondary is currently the defensive version of Indianapolis’ offensive line, will call a ton of deep shots. Brandin Cooks, a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver who’s no higher than third on Tom Brady’s favorite receiver rankings in any given week, is averaging more than 17 yards per catch this season, and he’s proven to be good for at least one 30- or 40-yard play per game.
Or maybe Belichick, realizing that many of Pittsburgh’s defenders have the tackling aptitude of middle-schoolers, will feed Rob Gronkowski without compunction. The point is that New England’s offense can run pretty much whatever system it wants and can do so with resounding success. This is remarkable, considering that Julian Edelman, their best receiver, hasn’t played this season due to a knee injury and Mike Gillislee, who scored four touchdowns in New England’s first two games, has been relegated to the bench.
Neatest matchup: Pittsburgh’s defense vs. Gronk and the running backs
Ryan Shazier had been playing so formidably prior to his back injury that it felt as if he and he alone gave Pittsburgh’s defense a fighting chance against Gronk and the running backs. Shazier was perhaps the lone player in the NFL capable of chasing a constantly-refreshed backfield sideline-to-sideline and mitigating the most imposing physical specimen in the league for an entire game. Without Shazier, the Steelers will be forced to use a piecemeal collection of defensive pieces to combat New England’s passing attack. Should be a real treat.
Second neatest match: Antonio Brown vs. New England’s secondary
Belichick has somewhat of a penchant for shutting down the opposing team’s best offensive player, which I suppose is the kind of groundbreaking defensive strategy that ultimately earns a spot in Canton. Brown, the best player on Pittsburgh’s offense and maybe in the entire NFL, has proven to be wholly matchup-proof this season, as he’s feasted omnivorously on deep vertical routes, intermediate routes near the sideline, fades, screen passes, and contested circus catches. The Patriots, despite spending $60 million to obtain a Pro Bowl cornerback to supplement the one already on the roster, are currently ranked 28th in the NFL in pass defense. Of course, many of New England’s defensive statistics in this domain are somewhat skewed do to the fact that teams are attempting almost 40 passes against them per game. Still, Sunday’s game is shaping up to be an offensive shootout (the Patriots and Steelers have the No. 1 and No. 2 passing offenses in the NFL, respectively), so Brown figures to get plenty of work.
An important storyline: Vincenzo
I’m basing this on absolutely no tangible intel whatsoever, but I feel like Vince Williams is really gonna bring it on Sunday. Remember, the Steelers tried very, very hard to sign Patriots inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower during free agency, which would have presumably relegated Williams to a backup role. Now, as a result of Shazier’s injury, Williams is currently the quarterback of Pittsburgh defense, and Hightower is on IR.
Another important storyline: Will Pittsburgh’s defense actually prove us wrong?
I understand that the verbally fellating of Tom Brady is probably rubbing one or two of you the wrong way, but given his historic run of dominance against the Steelers, as well as the Steelers’ recent ineptitude against even the most pedestrian opponents, the “offensive shootout” narratives pretty much write themselves.
But what if we’re wrong? What if Pittsburgh’s defense, realizing that missing tackles and blowing assignments is no way to win a Super Bowl, returns to their early-season form and holds Brady to, like, 180 passing yards and grabs a pair of interceptions. A somewhat common misconception about the Patriots is that the “key to beating them” is by sacking Tom Brady, which is stupid because a) the Steelers have sacked Brady seven times over their past four meetings, and it hasn’t mattered and b) Brady is by far the best quarterback in the NFL under pressure. The Steelers cannot commit to a binary game plan like we’re gonna play a bunch of man defense or we’re gonna send the house after Brady. It doesn’t work like that. To emerge victorious on Sunday, Pittsburgh’s defense will be required to do a little bit of everything right.
Prediction: Patriots 38, Steelers 28
Here’s a discouraging statistic: there have only been nine instances since 2001 in which the Patriots followed a loss with another loss. That’s the kind of run that makes me think New England lost to Miami on purpose to essentially guarantee a win against Pittsburgh.
Sunday’s game is undoubtedly significant, but New England and Pittsburgh have been on a crash course for a playoff rematch since the final seconds ticked off during the Patriots’ AFC Championship win last January. Securing a win will be vital for the team hoping to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs (something that seems to matter more to the Steelers than it does to the Patriots), but this Week 15 matchup seems to be but a mere appetizer of things to come.