They clinched a division title, for the sixth time in Mike Tomlin's 11 seasons as their coach, and with it a berth in the playoffs and a home game to open the playoffs. The division title they clinched was their 23rd since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger and the playoff berth they clinched was their 30th, and no other NFL franchise has as many in either category during those 48 seasons. It was their eighth win in a row this season, their fifth in five games against teams from their division, their third in a row against these same Baltimore Ravens dating back to Christmas Day 2016, and it raised their 2017 record to 11-2.
The Steelers' 39-38 victory last night at Heinz Field checked off a lot of boxes in terms of accomplishments, and it also showed them something. It showed them how they are going to have to play to beat the New England Patriots.
Yes indeed, the next opponent on the Steelers' schedule is the New England Patriots, and Round 1 of a heavyweight fight expected to go two rounds will be staged next Sunday right here at Heinz Field. Assuming the Patriots take care of business against the Miami Dolphins tonight, Steelers-Patriots I will determine the site for Steelers-Patriots II, which will determine the AFC's representative in Super Bowl LII.
In spite of all the wailing and gnashing of teeth when Mike Tomlin made that very point a few weeks ago in an interview with Tony Dungy that aired before the Steelers' game against the Packers – oh no, they're looking ahead instead of taking them one game at a time – things have turned out precisely as he predicted they would. The Steelers haven't lost a game since that interview, and neither have the Patriots, which sets up next Sunday as Part 1 of something that has seemed inevitable since the NFL released this regular season schedule back in April.
Throughout Steelers Nation in fact, this game was circled even before anyone knew what the date was going to be, because while the loss in last season's AFC Championship Game stung quite a bit, the fact the defeat was the Steelers' third one to the same team in the same round of the playoffs so far this century has become unbearable. And so as Steelers fans were so busy chastising Tomlin for acknowledging the elephant in the room a couple of weeks early, they themselves had been feeding that same elephant peanuts by the bushel for nearly a calendar year.
But none of that really matters now, because the game is at hand, and in the Steelers' case, neither the Packers, Bengals, nor the Ravens interfered with their storyline, and it seems very unlikely that Dolphins will blacken the Patriots' eye on their way to Pittsburgh for next weekend.
So, let's get to it.
A common mistake made when approaching a game against the Patriots, and let's be honest, the Patriots are only the Patriots because of their quarterback. Without Tom Brady, Bill Belichick is a fine coach; but with Brady, Belichick becomes a guy who's in every conversation that's had about the best in the business. So, let's clarify:
A common mistake made when approaching a game against the Patriots is that too much emphasis is put on stopping Tom Brady instead of looking at the bigger picture, which is how to beat Brady's team. Steelers fans are notorious for making this mistake, maybe because they have come to believe too literally in the axiom that defense wins championships. Yes, defense is important, but it should be understood that while defense is important you're not going to win this game, 13-10. Not over a team quarterbacked by Tom Brady.
Belichick's Patriots always get a lot of credit for strategy and game plans and adjustments, for a lot of the mystical elements fans embrace as they try to turn football into chess. But their recipe for success is simple, and it has been consistent for all of the 17 seasons Tom Brady has been their starting quarterback. Which boils down to: try to create a lull for the opponent in the early stages of the game, maybe for only a couple of series, and then depend on using your offensive possessions during said lull to build a lead that forces the opponent into a game within the game, called "keeping up with Tom Brady."
In that game within the game, Brady becomes almost unbeatable, because he makes such quick decisions on where to go with the football, and it's out of his hand so quickly and his throws are so accurate and the Patriots have enough weapons with which they can spread the field that stopping it becomes an impossible task. No, what the Steelers need to do next Sunday is beat the Patriots at their own game.
Beating the Patriots at their own game means scoring early and often, and touchdowns instead of field goals. Put New England's offense in the uncomfortable position of having to match score for score, and then keep up the pressure. Make Brady play from behind instead of with a multi-score lead. Make Brady have to take chances with the football. Make Brady hold the ball a little longer to allow his receivers to run deeper routes, because deeper routes are necessary when the scoreboard is telling you the yards have to come in chunks. Make Brady beat your offense instead of allowing him to pick apart your defense.
The Baltimore Ravens have a better defense than New England, much better and much more physical, even when Belichick's evil genius is factored in, and the Steelers ran 85 plays and put up 545 yards and converted 67 percent on third down and 75 percent in the red zone and owned a six-and-a-half-minute edge in time of possession and didn't turn the ball over along the way to posting a 39-38 victory last night in clinching the AFC North Division title.
Ben Roethlisberger-to-Antonio Brown was unstoppable, and Le'Veon Bell scored three touchdowns rushing and receiving. But it was more than just a three-man job, because Jesse James had 97 yards receiving; Martavis Bryant, Eli Rogers, and Vance McDonald combined for another 118 yards receiving; and Rosie Nix caught a touchdown pass. The Steelers scored the first 14 points of the game and the last 10 points of the game.
Now, it goes without saying that some of the defensive gaffes that also were a part of the game against the Ravens will have to be cleaned up, but this was the Steelers' first outing without Ryan Shazier, a dynamic defensive player for all situations, and absorbing his absence and parceling out his responsibilities should prove to be less of a shock the more games they have to do that.
Make no mistake, Brady will take advantage of their Shazier-less defense, and the advantage he takes will end up on the scoreboard more than once. When it happens, and it inevitably will because Brady is that good, the Steelers should be able to call upon a no-blink mentality they have been perfecting during weeks and weeks of being in down-to-the-wire football games.
About this no-blink mentality, Tomlin said, "It's understanding that there are going to be ups and downs within a football game, and it's less about what happens and more about how you respond to it. It's important, the choice of words there – "respond" as opposed to "react." This is a group that understands the element of that discussion, and it's displayed in how they play. They don't ride the emotional roller coaster. They're always moving on to the next play, they understand that as long as there's time on that clock we have an opportunity to turn the tide if the tide needs to be turned."
That's how the Steelers can beat the Patriots. With their offense. Just like they did to the Ravens.