Patriots

Steelers take a different route, but are on track for showdown with Pats

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Steelers take a different route, but are on track for showdown with Pats

Even if there's South Florida toe-stubbage of 2004 proportions tonight, the Patriots will meet Pittsburgh late next Sunday afternoon in a game that will, in all likelihood, decide who runs the AFC this season.

Then we will learn whether the horseshoe the Steelers have had lodged in their posterior all season was permanently implanted or removable.

Sunday night, the Steelers won their eighth straight. They won it on a field goal in the final minute, as they did against the Bengals the week before and the Packers the week before that and the Colts two weeks before that.

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They allowed 152 yards rushing, made Joe Flacco look ordinary (that's an upgrade for him this season) and allowed six plays of 20 or more yards. They committed six penalties for 101 yards, blew a 14-0 lead and had to chase the Ravens down from behind. They were on the verge of being closed out all night.

So why weren't they? Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger, like him or not, is a Hall of Fame quarterback. The best-in-the-game-right-now conversation always centers on Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, but their late-game Houdini routines aren't more commonplace than Roethlisberger's.

It's just that -- because he looks like he just got up from a two-day bender -- there's a whiff of "Oh, Ben finally woke up . . . ". instead of the awe and reverence Brady and Rodgers inspire. Pittsburgh was 12 for 18 on third down against Baltimore. And that's supposed to be a good defense. Roethlisberger was 44 for 66 for 506 yards. Brown caught 11 passes for 213 yards on 18 targets.

Watching Brown, to me, is like watching Steph Curry in a way. When Roethlisberger drops, surveys, then tilts his shoulders so you know he's heaving it down the right sideline, there's an anticipation mixed with certainty that a generally low-percentage heave is going to be complete. To Brown. Who is sublime.

Cris Collinsworth said during the broadcast last night that Brown deserved MVP consideration. I personally have a hard time saying any position aside from the game-directing position of quarterback can truly be more valuable. But Brown deserves Offensive Player of the Year, for sure. Ninety-nine catches for 1,509 yards and nine touchdowns? He has 627 yards and six touchdowns on 39 catches in the last four games as he almost singlehandedly keeps the Steelers in stride with the Patriots.

And that's where the Steelers are. Somehow, despite being on the edge of an upset every week, they are 11-2 and will this week do their, "Lemme at ‘em! Hold me back!" routine when talking about the Patriots.

Which is in contrast to how New England does it. Everything about the Steelers is in contrast to New England. Where Mike Tomlin is all about emotion and swagger and chest-puffing, Bill Belichick is stoic, calculated and clandestine. The Steelers defense is a lead-pipe to the base of the skull, attack, attack, attack. The Patriots defense is quicksand. Looks benign. Still deadly (or at least has been to the last eight opponents). Roethlisberger looks like he has pastrami and cheese on his breath and will probably need a size-54 jacket when he gets to Canton. Brady's breath probably has a whiff of almonds and altoids and will look runway ready when he's inducted in 2031.

And the fanbases? You cannot help but enjoy the passion of each but they are both -- by and large -- condescending, easily offended and entitled. Which makes the runup to a game like this even better.

All the Patriots have to do is take care of business in Miami tonight and then full attention can go to the Steelers. And it should be a helluva week.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

BEST OF BST PODCAST: Can a banged-up Brady get the job done?

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BEST OF BST PODCAST: Can a banged-up Brady get the job done?

0:41 - We all know how the Patriots operate. Are they keeping all details on Brady’s hand injury quiet to mess with the media and the Jaguars? Phil Perry, Kayce Smith and Michael Holley discuss.

4:31 - The AFC Championship game is nearly upon us and while Tom Brady remains questionable for the game, his play is not the only thing that will factor into this matchup. Michael Holley, Phil Perry and Lou Merloni break down how they think the game will go on Sunday.

9:33 - Steve Buckley joins BST to discuss an excerpt from his recent column, which stated that Brady’s injury is a reminder that the Patriots should not have traded Jimmy Garoppolo. 

17:33 - The Celtics are coming off possibly their worst performance of the season. Does their dip in offense this month give us a cause for concern? Michael Holley, Tom Giles, Kayce Smith and Lou Merloni discuss.

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE EPISODE