By Steve Silverman
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The quality of play in the NFL has started to go up in recent weeks, and that’s not a surprise considering the importance of the games and the proximity to the climax of the regular season.
The product is almost always poor during the first month of the season, before rising to the level of ordinary in October and then hitting its stride in mid-November and beyond.
The reason for that is the change in the way teams prepare for the regular season. Two-a-days in training camp are no longer an option and hitting during the summer has become more and more of a rarity.
There you have it. If you can’t practice the game the way it is supposed to be played, then the game is going to be played poorly for weeks at a time.
But now we are at a point in the season where the level of play is fairly close to where it should be, and the highlight of Week 15 is the New England Patriots’ visit to Pittsburgh.
By most observations, they are the two best teams in the AFC and quite possibly the entire league.
Record-wise, there is no question that the Patriots (10-3) and Steelers (11-2) are the AFC chalk. Current NFC powerhouse Philadelphia has a better record than New England, but the injury to Carson Wentz and his team’s lack of postseason experience have put the Eagles in some sort of flux.
The Minnesota Vikings (10-3) have been shockingly successful with backup quarterback Case Keenum at the controls, but it’s hard to see Mike Zimmer’s team sustaining the same level of success over the final weeks of the season and the playoffs.
So let’s get back to the Pats and Steelers. They may be the best in the business right now, but both have problems that could result in a premature exit from the playoffs.
The Steelers have fewer problems, but the biggest one they have is likely to cause heartbreak in western Pennsylvania.
Pittsburgh has one of the most physical and impactful defenses in the league. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler has put together a unit that ranks sixth in yardage allowed and one that regularly punishes opponents with a hard-hitting edge that recalls some of the legendary Steelers teams of the past. The “D” is not quite at the “Mean Joe” level, but it is not that far away, either.
But that defense is almost certain to let the team down in the coming weeks. When linebacker Ryan Shazier went down with a brutal back injury in Week 13 against the Cincinnati Bengals, it may have taken with it the team’s realistic Super Bowl hopes.
Shazier is Pittsburgh’s best all-around defensive player by many miles. He is smart, athletic, nasty, and physical, and he is also the team’s leader in the locker room. Prior to his injury, Shazier had 89 tackles, three interceptions, 14 passes defensed, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery.
The players remain close to their fallen leader, but it’s not the same atmosphere in the locker room. The Steelers can draw inspiration from him, but they don’t know it yet, but they will at some point miss him badly on the field.
Some opponent should be able to take advantage of his absence. It may be the Patriots, but it also may be another team, like the Jacksonville Jaguars or Los Angeles Chargers.
Such an event would gall Pittsburgh’s intense fan base.
New England has its own issues, and while the numbers say it’s the defense, there are problems on the offensive side as well.
The Patriots looked awful over their first four games, but defensive coordinator Matt Patricia was able to rally his troops, as evidenced by the Pats giving up 17 points or fewer in eight straight games.
The yards allowed figure did not improve by much — the Pats rank 29th in that area — but Patricia’s charges found a way to keep opponents from lighting up the scoreboard.
Though the Pats had a bad Monday night in South Florida, it might have been an aberration. But the lack of a consistent pass rush has been an issue all season. Trey Flowers has a team-high six sacks, but has missed two games with a rib injury. Kyle Van Noy comes next with 5.5 sacks. The Pats don’t put enough pressure on the quarterback, and that could be a major deficiency once they get into the postseason.
The other problems are on the offensive end, where the Pats usually dominate. But when they won the Super Bowl last season, they had a big, pounding running back in LeGarrette Blount and a receiver who was nearly unstoppable in Julian Edelman.
Blount is now in Philadelphia and Edelman has been injured all season. The running back committee of Dion Lewis, Mike Gillislee, and Rex Burkhead is good, but the Pats don’t have anyone who can punish tacklers like Blount.
The Pats still have tight end Rob Gronkowski, and receivers Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, and Danny Amendola, but none of them are as good as Edelman. And on top of that, Gronkowski does not seem quite as dangerous as he has been in the past.
The huge hole in the Steelers defense and the more subtle issues the Pats face on both sides of the ball could derail both perennial powers.
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