After winning five of their first six games and looking unbeatable with Tom Brady back under center, the New England Patriots have established themselves as the best team in the NFL. They were expected to face a difficult challenge in their Week 7 visit against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the team that sits atop the AFC North will be without its starting quarterback.
Ben Roethlisberger, who leads the league with 16 touchdown passes, will be forced to sit with a knee injury. Backup Landry Jones gets the call, making just the third start of his career.
Playing in his fourth season, Jones hasn’t seen much time on the field, and he hasn’t been very productive when called upon. Having attempted 56 career passes, Jones has a 76.0 passer rating with three touchdowns and four interceptions.
Prior to Roethlisberger’s injury and the Steelers’ Week 6 loss to the Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh was actually a slight favorite against the visiting Patriots. With Jones at quarterback, the Steelers are seven-point underdogs at Las Vegas and online sportsbooks.
Despite the injury and subsequent change in the betting odds, Pittsburgh feels they can pull off the upset.
“In all seriousness, we’re extremely confident,” linebacker Arthur Moats told reporters on Wednesday. “We’re not worried about who’s out there. We understand the next man up motto. Any position, we’ve seen guys have success. We’re anticipating Landry having success. It’s ultimately his time to shine.”
Even without their future Hall-of-Fame quarterback, the Steelers believe they can defeat a top Super Bowl contender with Jones as their signal caller. That’s exactly what Pittsburgh did just last year when Jones played the majority of the Steelers’ game against the visiting Arizona Cardinals. Arizona suffered just three losses in 2015, including one against Jones and Pittsburgh. Jones completed eight of 12 passes in a 25-13 victory.
The Patriots know all about winning despite losing a star quarterback. New England did it in each of the first three weeks of the season, defeating potential playoff teams with backups Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett at quarterback.
The blueprint is there for Pittsburgh. They can win a low-scoring game, keeping the final score below the over/under of 45.5. The Steelers will have to rely heavily on Le’Veon Bell, who is one of the league’s most explosive running backs, controlling time of possession and keeping the ball out of New England’s hands.
It’s a plan that’s much easier said than done, especially when going up against arguably the greatest quarterback and head coach in NFL history. Tom Brady has been terrific since returning from his four-game suspension, posting a 135.5 passer rating with 782 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions in two games. Rob Gronkowski looks like his old self after battling an injury in the early part of the season, and his seven-catch, 162-yard performance in Week 6 might be proof that he’s back to being the NFL’s best playmaker.
Playing in Pittsburgh, though, gives the Steelers a real chance to keep the game close. For whatever reason, the Steelers are a much better team at home than they are on the road. Having suffered double-digit losses in both Philadelphia and Miami, Pittsburgh has been dominant in front of their home fans.
After beating the Cincinnati Bengals by eight points in their home opener, Pittsburgh beat the Kansas City Chiefs and New York Jets by a combined 47 points. They haven’t given up more than 16 points in any of their home games, and they won their last four home games in 2015 by an average of 16.5 points, including a victory over the eventual Super Bowl champions.
Pittsburgh’s offense won’t replicate what it’s done at home now that Roethlisberger is out, but the defense could come close to playing at the same level. All eight of the Steelers’ sacks have come at home, as well as the team’s three fumble recoveries. The Steelers have nearly twice as many pass deflections at Heinz Field, and they are giving up just 68.3 rushing yards per game.
New England might pull out the victory in the end, but it could end up being one of their most difficult wins of the season.
Prediction: New England over Pittsburgh, 23-20