For the first time this year, Saturday games grace with NFL schedule with a pair of division battles that have playoff implications. One fascinating game to check on is the Steelers-Patriots in Pittsburgh.
New England Patriots (10-3) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2)
Time: 1:25 p.m.
Line: Patriots by 3 (54.5)
Facts: In their AFC title-game game last year, NE prevailed 36-17 with Tom Brady throwing for 384 yards and three TDs... The Steelers struggled defensively last week without standout LB Ryan Shazier (spine), beating Baltimore 39-38. But on offense, Ben Roethlisberger threw for 506 yards in the only game this year in which both teams blew a double-digit lead... Pittsburgh can clinch the AFC’s top seed with a victory. New England can move into the top spot via tiebreaker... In Brady’s past seven games vs. Pittsburgh, he has 22 TD throws and no INTs... Steelers’ CB Joe Haden has been upgraded to questionable... NE’s leading sacker, Trey Flowers, is questionable (ribs).
Analysis: Forgetting about personnel and trends for a moment, what is giving the Steelers a colossal edge is the unforgiving travel schedule the Patriots have had the past six weeks with five games away from home. It started with a trip to Denver, then to Mexico City, then back home, and then to Buffalo and last week on Monday night to Miami. Now, on short rest, they’ll play at Pittsburgh, which is on normal rest off a home game. The Patriots reportedly were already gassed merely from their western journey. Over the past 30 years, the only comparable scheduling scenario with short rest at the end occurred in 1990 when the Bengals were playing their fifth straight road game and also coming off a MNF game. They promptly were pounded in Atlanta 38-17 in a pick-em contest. One more thing, Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell left early with a groin injury in the title game. He’s fine now.
Forecast: Steelers 28, Patriots 21