Well that did not go as planned and that is putting it mildly. The Patriots inexplicably imploded on the final play of what was a hard fought game in Miami, a place that has been a house of horrors for them (they have now lost five of their last six games). However despite the now famous last play, it is important to remember the Patriots were held to just six points in the second half and had a defense that after looking very strong the last couple weeks, looked very poor especially against the run on Sunday.
Despite the troubling loss, it is important to remember that if the Patriots take care of business the rest of the way, they can still end up with a bye and the second seed in the playoffs. Heck, the Patriots with a lot of luck (and I mean a lot) could end up as the top seed and with a home field throughout the playoffs. The only way those things are going to happen though is to put Sunday in the past and win their final regular season road game of the year in Pittsburgh, against a Steeler team who is reeling after a late loss to Oakland, and now face the very real possibility of missing the playoffs altogether. If the Patriots win, that will put a dent into the Steelers playoff chances and give Baltimore a leg up in the division, something that seemed unimaginable a few weeks ago as the Patriots and Steelers seemed entangled in a battle for the second seed and final bye.
With that being said this game will say a lot about the future playoff picture in the AFC, the Patriots troubles on the road, and the Steelers ability to put the past behind them.
Here is what to watch for as the Patriots head on the road against the Steelers:
1. How do Patriots/Steelers respond?
As mentioned above both the Steelers and Patriots go into this game coming off devastating losses with questionable coaching decisions helping the loss take shape. How each team responds will go a long way to deciding what happens in this game.
The Steelers know their postseason berth is at stake and too many more losses could make that very real, but at home they should be able to move the ball well enough on offense to put those concerns of a hangover behind them early. I would not be surprised to see the Steelers take the ball to start to try and get the home crowd behind them if they are able to move down the field with the ease the Dolphins showed the previous Sunday.
On the other side of the Patriots are the team that may face a hangover. This team has struggled on the road this season going just 3-4 on the road and averaging just 23.2 points per game, while surrendering an average of 27 points per game (despite the fact they have faced five of the bottom eight offenses in the league on the road in points per game). This is a game where the Patriots need a statement early and I would not be surprised to see Belichick buck his normal trend and take the ball, giving Brady and McDaniels an opportunity to give some juice to the defense.
2. Which Gronk do we see?
Lost in last week’s loss was the fact that Rob Gronkowski was a huge factor catching all eight targets for 107 yards and a touchdown. There is no doubt the Steelers made note of that considering Gronkowski almost single-handedly propelled the Patriots to victory last year when the offense stalled.
The question is do we see the Gronk of the previous few weeks or the one we saw last week. Granted the Dolphins covered Gronk with mostly linebackers or were in zone, but you can bet the Steelers will be much more aggressive in cover Gronkowski. If Gronk can show the same explosiveness and create the same separation he could be in for another week of a lot of targets. One note though is that the Steelers seem much more likely to bump him at the line and this season more than others that has proved effective because of Gronk’s lost explosiveness.
Now it is important to say, it is not imperative that they get the same Gronk as last week because of how good Josh Gordon, Julian Edelman and Sony Michel have looked the last few weeks. Throw in James White getting back into the mix and Rex Burkhead finally healthy, and the Patriots have enough to get by without a fully explosive Gronk, but the margin is a lot smaller if they have to do that.
3. Not as high-scoring as you would think
This game figures to be high-scoring at first glance considering the weapons each team has, the fact both teams have well above-average quarterbacks, and routinely possess top five offenses in the game, but this week may not bring a game that is back and forth. In fact last week was the first game the Patriots have scored over 30 points since November 4th against the Packers at home, while the Steelers have scored 30 or more just once in the last four weeks, twice in the last six weeks, and three times in the last eight weeks. Neither of these teams seems to be at the top of their game on offense despite the myriad weapons each possesses.
Because of that, the first couple of possessions on each side of the ball are vital for each team as it will likely determine what kind of game each team will be playing in and what their game plan was for the game.
–David Albiani is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage and covers the New England Patriots. Follow David on Twitter @david_albiani