FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Either the Pittsburgh Steelers or New England Patriots have been in eight of the last 12 Super Bowls. They’ve won five of them.
Don’t expect them to return this season, especially the Steelers.
Their 2-5 start is the worst in Mike Tomlin’s seven seasons as coach. The Patriots (6-2) lead the AFC East by two games but have played a weak schedule. And Tom Brady is having his worst statistical season since becoming a starter in 2001.
But another potential pushover comes to town Sunday. Yep, the usually powerful Steelers.
“Every game for us right now is a must win and an important, pivotal game,” Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “The standard has been set high here and the start of this season has not been something that we’re used to, so it’s been frustrating.”
The Steelers lost their first four games but were turning their season around with wins over the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens. Then they lost 21-18 to the Oakland Raiders last Sunday when they didn’t score a touchdown until the fourth quarter.
“It’s easy to point to one play potentially being the difference in the game,” Tomlin said, “but the reality is there were plenty of opportunities.”
Wasting those opportunities would be more dangerous against Brady and the Patriots, despite their subpar season.
The two-time NFL MVP threw for just 116 yards in last Sunday’s 27-17 win over the Miami Dolphins, his fewest in the past four years. His passer rating of 74.9 is a career low and 27th in the league.
“We’ve done a few decent things the last three games with getting points on the board, but it certainly hasn’t been good enough,” Brady said. “Finding the different combinations of people on the field and dependable, consistent players, that’s what good offenses are all about.”
The Patriots lost top receivers Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Aaron Hernandez from last season and played the first six games without Rob Gronkowski while he recovered from surgery.
They’re also trying to improve on third downs. They’ve converted just 9 of 49 over the past four games.
“There’s going to be usually some form of tight coverage by the defense and you definitely have an opportunity for there to be some type of blitz or pressure,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “Those are the big downs.”
Five things to watch for when the Steelers visit the Patriots:
• Poor periods: Pittsburgh has been outscored 54-19 in the first quarter, a big reason for its poor record.
“We kind of put ourselves in a hole,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s hard to get out of it.”
The Patriots had been outscored 44-9 in third periods through their first seven games, then improved with a 17-0 third quarter that gave them a 20-17 lead over the Dolphins last Sunday.
• Brady’s dominance: Facing the Steelers may be just what Brady needs to get on track. He’s 6-2 with 16 touchdown passes and three interceptions against them with a quarterback rating of 104, almost 10 points above his career average.
Just don’t expect the Patriots to draw up any running plays for the plodding quarterback, even though he rushed 8 yards for a first down on fourth down against Miami to set up the final touchdown.
“I think there are better ways to spend our time than that,” McDaniels said with a laugh.
• Turnover advantage: The Patriots have been much better than the Steelers at forcing turnovers. New England had three against Miami and has at least one in 35 straight games, the longest current streak in the NFL. Pittsburgh has just five all season.
• Get the quarterback: Brady could have plenty of time to throw, given the poor job the Steelers have done rushing the quarterback. They have just 10 sacks, tied for 30th in the NFL. Tomlin demoted rookie OLB Jarvis Jones this week because of assignment problems – and the fact that he has no sacks. Brady has been sacked 16 times in his last four games and 23 times this season.
• Running matchup: The Steelers’ 30th-ranked ground game meets the Patriots’ 31st-ranked run defense that has been weak up the middle with defensive tackle Vince Wilfork lost for the season. New England could get help if tackle Tommy Kelly returns after missing three games with a knee injury, and newly acquired Isaac Sopoaga can contribute quickly at that position.