From here on out, every win will be considered the biggest victory of the season for the New England Patriots as they suddenly find themselves in a super-tight playoff race down the stretch.
Last weekend was a great way to start. The Patriots obliterated Miami, 48-28, to all but end the Dolphins' playoff hopes and put themselves in position to fight for a wild-card spot and, perhaps, a sixth consecutive AFC East title if the New York Jets should falter in December.
Don't start celebrating yet, however. With the dangerous Pittsburgh Steelers coming to town Sunday, the Patriots know nothing's guaranteed. A second consecutive loss at home could put them behind the proverbial 8-ball heading into the final month of the season depending, of course, on how their competitors do this weekend.
The Jets lead the East by a game and also hold the tiebreaker advantage since they have a better win percentage against division opponents. Right now, the Patriots are in the hunt for a wild card and would actually miss the playoffs if the regular season ended today. At 7-4, they are tied with Indianapolis, but the Colts would win the tiebreaker since they beat New England head-to-head. The Patriots would also lose out to the Baltimore Ravens, who have a better record against conference opponents at 6-3 while the Patriots are 5-4.
Needless to say, every game is huge. The Patriots know what's at stake this weekend against the 8-3 Steelers, who only lead the Ravens by a game in the AFC North but are 7-1 against AFC opponents.
"Watching the Steelers, they are a pretty impressive football team," Patriots' head coach Bill Belichick said. "They certainly do a lot of things well. You see their defense ranked at the top of the league in just about everything: rushing, passing, points, third down, red area. Nobody has gotten 300 yards against them and about half of their possessions are three-and-out. They are really solid across the board. It is no one man band."
Last year, then-rookie Anthony Smith added a little spice to the Patriots-Steelers game by guaranteeing a victory. Tom Brady torched him early and often as the Patriots rolled to an easy win.
A year older, but perhaps not a year wiser, Smith is once again hyping up the Steelers as they head into Foxboro. Will this be enough to motivate the Patriots? They shouldn't need manufactured incentive. This game is important enough on its own merits given the jumbled playoff picture in the AFC.
The key for the Patriots is dealing with Pittsburgh's intensity. Since the beginning, the Steelers have been an aggressive team built to play power football -- a reflection of the city's attitude.
"They've always been a very physical team," left tackle Matt Light said. "I think back to my rookie year (in 2001), going back and playing those guys, it was always about playing a physical team that can move around a lot and they'd hit you at every angle.
"I think for us up front, it's just a matter of recognizing what they do, trying to get a hat on a hat, and it really comes down to the physical side of it -- who can outlast the other guy. I think this is going to be a really big challenge for us offensively."
SERIES HISTORY: 20th regular-season meeting. Pittsburgh leads the all-time series, 12-7, though the Patriots have had most of their success in the postseason, winning three of four games. New England beat Pittsburgh at Heinz Field in the 2001 and 2004 AFC championship games. The Steelers were the No. 1 seed in both games. Pittsburgh has never won at Gillette Stadium and is just 3-3 in Foxboro.
AFC Offensive Player of The Week
-Matt Cassel continues to set a new standard among former backups-turned-starters at the quarterback position.
After posting his second consecutive 400-yard game Sunday in Miami, Cassel was named the AFC's Offensive Player of the Week for the second time this season (he also won it in Week 7).
Cassel completed 30 of 43 passes (69.8 percent) for 415 yards and tied a career high with three touchdowns and only one interception with a 114.0 passer rating against Miami. He led the Patriots offense to 530 total net yards (the second-highest total in team history) and also added an 8-yard rushing touchdown in the second quarter. The last player to register 400 passing yards in back-to-back games was former Tennessee backup Billy Volek in 2004.
Light Lucky To Avoid Suspension
Matt Light dodged a bullet following an impromptu brawl with Miami's Channing Crowder in which Light struck the linebacker in the head several times after the whistle. He will be fined $15,000, but not suspended.
"Obviously, I'm not happy with what my actions were and I don't think that was the way to go," Light said. "In my mind, it's a closed deal now. They've made a decision on it and we're going to move forward and get ready to play a good Steelers team."
With the way the line has played in recent weeks in terms of pass protection and run blocking, Cassel is glad the NFL didn't come down too hard on Light.
"I'm glad they didn't suspend him," Cassel said. "I love my left tackle."
Post Holiday Success
Sunday will be the ultimate matchup of teams who save their best for last.
This week's game features the league's two best late-season teams since 2001. In games played on Thanksgiving Day or later in the NFL season since 2001, the Patriots lead the league with a 48-9 record while the Steelers are second at 36-16.
Since Robert Kraft purchased the Patriots in 1994, the Patriots lead the league with 169 wins, while the Steelers are tied for second with 159 victories (Green Bay also has 159 wins).
Long winning streaks have been on the line in the last three regular-season meetings between the teams. Last season, the Patriots defeated the Steelers 34-13 to improve to 13-0 en route to the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history.
Pittsburgh ended the Patriots' NFL-record 18-game regular-season winning streak with a 34-20 win on Oct. 31, 2004. The next season, New England ended the Steelers' 16-game regular-season winning streak with a 23-20 win on Sept. 25, 2005.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady made an unannounced appearance with girlfriend Gisele Bundchen to serve dinner at the annual Goodwill Thanksgiving dinner in Roxbury and said he's "doing well."
Brady had knee surgery after getting hit in Week 1 and is out for the rest of this season and perhaps beyond as he deals with an infection stemming from the procedure.
"I am thankful to be here in Boston. It's my favorite holiday," Brady said. "It's good to be out here today and serve all these wonderful people and sign some autographs."
Roethlisberger: Tom Or Matt, Not A Hard Choice
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger appears conflicted on his opinion regarding the Patriots' situation with Brady and Cassel. At first, he gave Cassel a glowing recommendation.
"Obviously he knows that system," Roethlisberger said, "and it was just going to be a matter of time until he got his legs underneath him and got comfortable out there."
Then he backed off when asked about Cassel's back-to-back 400-yard passing performances.
"I'm not going to take anything away from him," he said. "I think he's a phenomenal quarterback like I said before. Back-to-back 400-yard games, that's awesome. Nothing against Matt Cassel, but I don't think Tom is really worried about his job. That's Tom Brady."
This week's game against the 8-3 Steelers marks the Patriots' fourth straight game against a team with a winning record heading into the contest.
The Patriots also faced the 5-3 Bills on Nov. 9, the 6-3 Jets on Nov. 13 and the 6-4 Dolphins on Nov. 23. With that said, it's likely only the Jets will qualify for the playoffs now that Miami and Buffalo are in danger of slipping further out of the race.
BY THE NUMBERS: 1 -- Fourth-quarter leads the Patriots need to hold to set the post-merger NFL record for most consecutive victories when leading entering the fourth quarter. The Patriots have won 38 straight games in which they've held the lead heading into the final quarter, a mark that is tied for the post-1970 record with New England's streak of 38 straight such victories from 2001-04.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "This isn't my first rodeo." -- Patriots LT Matt Light, when asked if he's worried about opponents trying to get under his skin in light of Sunday's incident in Miami.
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