A stunning upset in Miami ended New England’s eight-game winning streak and dropped the Patriots behind the Pittsburgh Steelers for the best overall record and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. It also put the Patriots into a must-win situation to keep their hopes for the No. 1 seed alive when they visit the red-hot Steelers on Sunday.
“This is the game everyone has been waiting to see,” Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell said. “It’s the No. 1 and 2 teams in the AFC going at it head-to-head. This is obviously a game that a lot of people, even before the season started, probably circled on their calendars.” Pittsburgh, which clinched the AFC North title last week, has done its part to build the hype for Sunday’s showdown by running off eight consecutive victories, including the past three by a scant total of seven points. New England coach Bill Belichick did not want to hear talk of his team possibly looking past the Dolphins on Monday night, instead focusing on how to slow an offense that features the NFL’s leading rusher (Bell) and receiver (Antonio Brown). “They can do it all. They have great skill players. They can run the ball. They can throw it, throw it long, throw it short, run after the catch, extend plays,” said Belichick, who has won four in a row against Pittsburgh, including a 36-17 victory in last season’s AFC Championship Game.
TV: 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS. LINE: Patriots -3. O/U: 54
ABOUT THE PATRIOTS (10-3): With star tight end Rob Gronkowski serving a one-game suspension, New England was 0-for-11 on third down and Tom Brady threw multiple interceptions for the first time this season while completing only 55.8 percent of his passes in the 27-20 loss at Miami. “Gronk is not only one of the most dynamic tight ends but also one of the most dynamic players in the NFL,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “Obviously his absence is a significant one, and his presence is a significant one.” The ground game had rushed for at least 191 yards in its previous two games but was stifled by the Dolphins, with Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead managing a combined 25 yards on 10 carries. New England had not allowed more than 17 points during its eight-game winning streak, but saw Miami hold the ball for 36-plus minutes.
ABOUT THE STEELERS (11-2): Ben Roethlisberger became the first quarterback in league history with three 500-yard games, rallying Pittsburgh from a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit for the second straight week in Sunday’s 39-38 win over Baltimore. A knee injury limited Bell to six carries in the AFC title game, but he has rumbled for an NFL-best 1,105 yards rushing and also has 75 receptions — 35 over the past four games. Brown, who has scored six times in the past four games, is coming off a monster effort against the Ravens with 11 catches for 213 yards to boost his league-leading totals to 99 receptions for 1,509 yards. Pittsburgh, which lost linebacker and leading tackler Ryan Shazier to a serious spinal injury at Cincinnati on Dec. 4, allowed 413 yards to a Baltimore offense ranked among the league’s bottom quarter.
1. Brady has 22 touchdown passes and zero interceptions (playoffs included) in the past seven versus Pittsburgh.
2. Brown needs one reception to become the first player with five consecutive 100-catch seasons.
3. The Patriots signed WR Kenny Britt on Tuesday, four days after he was released by Cleveland.
PREDICTION: Steelers 27, Patriots 26