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Patriots vs. Steelers preview: 3 keys to the game, fun facts, prediction

Ryan Hannable
December 15, 2018 - 1:21 pm
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The Patriots’ seemingly annual meeting with the Steelers is here. Coincidentally, it is the same week and place as last year — Week 15 in Pittsburgh.

Last year, the Patriots stunned the Steelers with a last minute interception by Duron Harmon in the end zone following the controversial Jesse James catch, no-catch play. The win clinched the AFC East for the Patriots, while it was the difference maker in the Patriots getting the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

It’s a much different story this year as the Steelers are now fighting for their playoff lives, coming into the game losers of three straight. The Patriots need a win to maintain the No. 2 seed and stay in the hunt for potentially getting homefield advantage.

Patriots vs. Steelers
Sunday, December 16, 2018
4:25, CBS
Patriots -2.5, over/under 54

3 keys to the game

Limit big plays

This was a huge issue in Miami for the Patriots defense, primarily on the ground, but the Steelers offense has the ability to score from anywhere on the field in the passing game. Ben Roethlisberger has two of best best receivers in the game in Antonio Brown and Ju Ju Smith-Schuster, who are deep threats on every play. It will be interesting to see how the Patriots match their cornerbacks up with them. We wouldn’t be surprised to see JC Jackson get one of them and have Jason McCourty slide down to the No. 3 cornerback role. McCourty may not be quick enough to keep up with them.

Get Rob Gronkowski going

Rob Gronkowski had his best game of the year last week against the Dolphins and the Patriots need him to have a similar performance. The All-Pro tight end has dominated the Steelers over the course of his career, as in six career games he has 39 receptions for 664 yards and eight touchdowns. Miami didn’t do a good job covering Gronkowski last week as it played zone and didn’t press him much off the line, which made it easy for him to get open. Look for the Steelers to change things up against him, but if he can continue his success against them, it is definitely a good thing for the Patriots.

Convert on all scoring opportunities

The Patriots left a number of points on the field last week — two missed kicks and two field goals in goal-to-go situations. This obviously hurt them and if it happens again, the Steelers will certainly make them pay. The game likely will come down to third-down plays and red-zone plays, similar to what happens in the playoffs. New England hasn’t been great in the red zone this year and this is the week to get it back on track since Pittsburgh will certainly take advantage of its opportunities as it comes in No. 1 in the league in red zone offense.

Fun facts

1. The Patriots need a win to avoid having their first losing record on the road since 2009 when they went 2-6. They are currently 3-4.

2. Opponents have scored touchdowns in its last eight goal-to-go situations against the Patriots.

3. If Gronkowski has 100 yards receiving, it will just be the sixth time in his career he’s gone over 100 yards in back-to-back games. The last time he did it was last year, also against the Steelers.

4. The Patriots haven’t scored in three of their last five third quarters. Since Week 4, they have just three third quarter touchdowns and overall are getting outscored 74-57 coming out of halftime.

5. Since 2001, the Patriots are 145-12 when they win the turnover battle.

Prediction

Patriots 31, Steelers 27

This is a really hard game to pick, but in the end we like the Patriots because of the likelihood that Roethlisberger and/or Mike Tomlin makes a mistake when it matters most. After a poor showing in Miami, expect the Patriots to play a mistake-free game and that will be the key to stealing a win on the road. It should be another classic between these two teams with so much on the line.

Related: Patriots expecting good atmosphere in Pittsburgh on Sunday: 'It’s always popping'

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