On Sunday, the New England Patriots (5-1) weathered an early storm from the Cincinnati Bengals and a sluggish offensive start to beat the Bengals 35-17 in Foxborough and take a 5-1 record. This week, the Pats head to Pittsburgh for their third straight match-up with an AFC North opponent, a match-up that will be met without Pittsburgh star quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.
What I predicted to be a potential AFC Championship preview last week has suddenly lost a lot of its luster as back-up Steelers quarterback Landry Jones will try to survive a surging Patriots attack following an embarrassing loss to the Miami Dolphins last Sunday. Here are my week seven New England Patriots keys to victory.
New England Patriots Week Seven Keys to Victory
1. Defense, Defense, Defense
Bill Belichick is like a shark when he smells blood in the water. He clamps down early and with a shaky back-up quarterback under the helm, this is the perfect chance to make this game a snoozer. Through the last two games against AFC North opponents, the Pats defense has allowed an average of 15 points (which is also their average per game for the entire season) and a grand total of 37 first downs and 619 yards.
The defense currently ranks 13th in the league and allowing an average of 347 yards per game. They are giving up an average of 92 rushing yards per game (ninth best in the league) and 255 passing yards per game (18th best in the league). They have 11 sacks, two safeties, four interceptions and five forced fumbles through six games this season. The pass rush continues to be an issue for the Patriots defense as Rob Ninkovich is still finding his way back to form after a four-game suspension (and triceps injury) to start the season.
2. It Can’t Solely Be the Tom Brady Show
Two weeks ago, Tom Brady and company came out hot against the Cleveland Browns. By halftime, the Pats offense had put up 23 points against seven for the Browns and the game was all but over. This past Sunday, not so much. By halftime against the Bengals, the Pats had put up only ten points and the game seemed much different from the week earlier. Though the Pats broke open in the second half of last week, so far during the real 2016 season (the two games since Brady has returned), the Pats have yet to show us who they really are on a consistent basis.
The one consistent factor has been TB12. When all has been said and done through these two games, Tom Brady has simply been incredible. Brady has 57 completions on 75 attempts for a 76 percent completion percentage. He has six touchdowns, zero interceptions and an average of 391 passing yards per game. But so far he has been the difference maker on offense since his return. Two weeks ago, tight end Rob Gronkowski was just becoming a factor. This past Sunday, he finally came roaring in like the beast that he is with seven receptions for 162 yards and a touchdown. But the rest of the Patriots receiving corps are still not performing as advertised.
Last Sunday: Danny Amendola (two catches for 30 yards and no touchdowns)? Still invisible. Julian Edelman (four catches for 30 yards and no touchdowns)? Still MIA. Martellus Bennett had a good day (five receptions for 48 yards) but the star of the offense not named Brady or Gronk was running back James White. White totaled eight receptions for 47 yards and two touchdowns and far surpassed most of the star weapons that Tom Brady is supposed to be throwing to. For the Pats to truly become the offensive juggernaut that the league fears they can be, this cannot continue to be the Tom Brady show. The Pats receivers have got to find separation and start making a consistent difference and that should happen this Sunday against a shell-shocked Pittsburgh Steelers.
3. Blount Force
The running game last Sunday was passable (23 total rushes for 79 yards and one touchdown). But the star of that attack, as he has been all season long, is running back LeGarrette Blount. Through six games this season, Blount has 119 carries for 439 yards and six touchdowns. He is averaging 3.7 yards per carry and 73 yards per game.
The Pittsburgh Steelers defense is clearly in trouble. They are giving up an average of 20 points per game and an average of 394.8 yards per game for a total NFL defensive ranking of 28th. Simply put, that stinks. But before this past Sunday, the Steelers rushing defense was pretty stout. Even after giving up 216 yards on the ground for three touchdowns to a weak Miami Dolphins (2-4) team last Sunday, the Steelers are still tough against the run. They rank 13th best in the league, giving up an average of 101.2 yards per game and six touchdowns.
Was last Sunday a freak occurrence by a second string quarterback that the Steelers just were not prepared for? Was last Sunday the result of the injuries on the Steelers front seven as many Steelers fans claim? Or is the Steelers vaunted defense overhyped and were exposed as such in Miami last Sunday? LeGarrette Blount should hold the answer to these questions when he takes the field. It is imperative for him to find holes in the Steelers front seven exploit them while taking pressure off of Brady and the rest of the offense. If he can do so, the fans in Heinz Field won’t go home crowing about deflated footballs (as many have been doing for nearly two years), they will just go home deflated…and beaten.
Even before Ben Roethlisberger went down to his torn meniscus injury (one that reportedly will keep him out 4-6 weeks), there were serious questions about the ability of the Steelers to survive the Patriots charge. Now that he is gone and given the Steelers complete meltdown in Miami, on paper this could get out of hand..quickly. The Patriots own a 4-2 record at Heinz Field (including the post season). Belichick is 8-3 against Pittsburgh as the coach of the Pats (10-9 overall as a head coach) and Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is 2-4 against the Patriots as a head coach. Tom Brady owns an 8-2 record against the Steelers (including the post season), so all of the stats and all of the stars seem aligned to indicate a happy day for Patriots Nation.
But, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a team embarrassed and they are a team hurting. And they really, really do not like the New England Patriots (remember, this is the team that tried to claim the Patriots messed with their headsets the last time these two squared off..yet another unproven claim). So do not expect the Steelers to simply roll over for the Pats. The Patriots will have to earn every inch of ground that they gain and the crowd will be hostile against them. Even without Ben Roethlisberger this game will be the biggest test of the Patriots young season.
Enjoy the game, folks.
Prediction: New England – 28, Pittsburgh – 14