Two weeks ago, Pittsburgh Coach Mike Tomlin spoke as though he was looking ahead to the Steelers-Patriots showdown next Sunday. On Monday night, New England played like it.

This week’s edition of “Monday Night Football” provided an unexpected prelude to the most anticipated regular-season game of the year. The Miami Dolphins were not supposed to be part of the discussion, as hype mounts for the collision of AFC powerhouses. But here we are. The Dolphins manhandled the Patriots, beating them up more thoroughly than the 27-20 final score indicated and altering the tenor and the stakes for next weekend’s clash.

The AFC became the Steelers’ for the taking in clearer fashion. If they can beat the Patriots at Heinz Field on Sunday, they will clinch home-field advantage for the duration of the playoffs. New England will have to play its regulars through Week 17 now, even if they beat the Steelers and take the inside track to the top seed.

It would be unwise to downgrade the Patriots over Monday night’s result. They played without their best pass rusher (Trey Flowers), best offensive weapon (Rob Gronkowski) and most versatile defensive player (Kyle Van Noy). They played in Miami, a special kind of hell for Tom Brady his entire career. Brady fell to 7-9 at Miami, a bizarre outlier – 16 percent of his career regular-season losses have come in South Florida.

Still, the way the Dolphins throttled New England could have only inspired confidence in Pittsburgh. The Patriots failed to convert a single third down. The Dolphins overwhelmed the Patriots’ offensive line, and their cornerbacks suffocated the Patriots’ receivers, even the explosive Brandin Cooks. The Patriots played terribly, but a fair amount of credit belongs to Miami. Jay Cutler was efficient. Cornerback Xavien Howard looked like a future star. Running back Kenyan Drake, explosive and elusive, gained 175 total yards.

That the Patriots had a relevant onside kick with a minute left is a testament to their sturdiness. But the Dolphins physically dominated them. Brady played for much of the night as if he prioritized not getting hurt over advancing the ball. The Steelers received a fresh lesson in how to beat Brady: Create pressure up the middle without blitzing. After the night left guard Joe Thuney had, Steelers defensive tackle Cam Heyward seems like a key figure.


Whatever questions swirl around New England this week, the Steelers will feel more pressure Sunday. The Patriots thrashed Pittsburgh, 36-17, in last year’s AFC championship game after leading by 27 late in the fourth quarter. The Steelers have known all offseason and all fall a potential Super Bowl appearance would run through the Patriots. In his career, Ben Roethlisberger is 4-7 against New England. He has lost four straight, and his last win came in 2011.

The game means more to Pittsburgh, and the Steelers aren’t even hiding from it. Two weeks ago, Tony Dungy asked Tomlin, in an NBC interview, to assess the matchup against the Patriots. For NFL coaches, looking ahead to lunch at 11:15 a.m. is verboten. But Tomlin felt comfortable with Dungy, a longtime friend and mentor, and acquiesced with honesty.

“Man, I’m going to embrace the elephant in the room,” Tomlin said. “It’s going to be fireworks. It’s probably going to be part one, and that’s going to be a big game. But, probably, if we’re both doing what we’re supposed to do, the second is really going to be big. And what happens in the first is going to set up the second one, and determine the location in the second one.”

The Steelers will have to make a massive adjustment from their 39-38 victory over the Ravens. The health and well-being of Ryan Shazier, recovering from spinal surgery after a frightening hit two weeks ago, is everybody’s first priority. From a football standpoint, Shazier’s absence made the Steelers’ linebacking corps look slow and helpless against the run. The Ravens rushed for 152 yards, gaining 5.8 yards per carry. The Patriots could similarly gash the Steelers using the tandem of Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead, with help from James White.

Then again, the Steelers simply could try to outscore the Patriots. Given Carson Wentz’s season-ending injury, lackluster performances from Brady and Russell Wilson, and Antonio Brown’s 200 yards receiving this weekend, Brown may have nudged his way into the MVP conversion. A wide receiver has never claimed the award, but with a big game in a win, Brown will thrust himself into the forefront.

Steelers-Patriots will decide so much. If the game that preceded it is any indication, nobody can predict how it’s going to go.

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