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Patriots Replay Mon Jun 24 | 12:00 AM - 11:59 PM

Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: On the road again in Pittsburgh

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Tom Brady and the Patriots (9-4) have had a massive advantage over the Steelers (7-5-1) over the years.

Brady is 8-2 in the regular season against Pittsburgh and 11-2 when his 3-0 postseason mark is factored in.

Brady’s led the Patriots to five straight wins over the Steelers (including postseason) in which he’s thrown 14 touchdowns and just one interception.

So there is plenty of reason for optimism regarding New England’s trip to Heinz Field for Sunday evening’s big AFC showdown. History says Bill Belichick’s team should expect to win.

But there is a different, more concerning recent history that’s developed this season. That’s the way that New England has played in seven road games this fall. After last Sunday’s shocking loss in Miami the Patriots are now 3-4 away from Gillette Stadium. Even the games New England’s won on the road were often in question well into the second half against seemingly lesser opponents.

It’s also what some might call a “tough spot” for the Patriots, facing a Steelers team that’s lost its last three games and will be fighting for its playoff life in a “must-win” game.

“Everyone’s been working pretty hard. We know it’s a big challenge, nothing easy about this,” Brady said. “It’s a good team, well-coached and good in all three phases and it’s a tough place to play. We’ve had a long history with them. This is a big game for both of us so hopefully we’re ready to go. It should be a great game.”

As the Patriots count down the final hours of preparations to the final road game of the season, here are some keys to the trip to Pittsburgh.

Will Conner return? – It might not be a stretch to say second-year Steelers running back James Conner could be the key to this matchup with Pittsburgh. New England’s run defense is coming off a poor performance in Miami that saw the Dolphins run for 189 yards and a 9-yard average. The Patriots have allowed opponents to average better than 4.2 yards a carry in five straight games and 11 of 13 games this fall. Conner has filled in more than capably with Le’Veon Bell sitting out in a contract dispute, the former third-round pick rushing for 909 yards and 12 touchdowns (while adding 52 catches for another 467 yards and a score). He missed last week’s loss to the Raiders and two days of practice this week, but was officially listed as questionable for the game after returning to practice on a limited basis on Friday. If Conner plays, it will boost the home offense. If not, old friend Stevan Ridley and versatile rookie fifth-round pick Jaylen Samuels will try to pick up the slack.

It’s all on the line – Both teams have a lot to play for, but that’s not what this is all about. New England’s road struggles have coincided with the offensive line losing the battle at the line of scrimmage more often than not away from Gillette. The group faces a solid challenge in Pittsburgh. First, it must protect Brady against a pass rush that’s accumulated 45 sacks and ranks No. 2 in the NFL in sacks per pass play this fall. T.J. Watt leads the way with 10 sacks, Javon Hargrave is a factor in the middle with 6.5 sacks and overall the Steelers field six guys with four or more sacks. But the line must win in the running game, too. Pittsburgh has the NFL’s No. 6 rush defense. New England never got Sony Michel going last week in Miami. For the New England offense to be at its best, the running game needs to at least be a complementary factor. If the line can’t protect Brady or create holes for Michel & Co. to run it might be a long evening in Pittsburgh.

Gronk spiking? – Tight end Rob Gronkowski is coming off his best game of the season. He caught all eight passes thrown his way for 107 yards and a touchdown against the Dolphins soft zones in Miami. Gronkowksi has a history of eating up the zone coverage of the Steelers, including nine catches for 168 yards last December, a 23.3-yard average with a touchdown in 2016 and three touchdowns in the 2015 season opener. Talk out of the Steelers locker room is that they are going to throw some different looks at Gronkowski and not let him get deep. Questions out of New England wonder if Gronkowski’s work in Miami was a sign that he’s back to his Gronk self late in the season? If Gronkowski gets going like he usually does against Pittsburgh it would be a nice step toward a road win.

Stay on the field – The Steelers have a solid third-down defense that ranks No. 7 in the league and allows just 36.8-percent conversions. The Patriots offense has been inconsistent on third downs this season, especially on the road. Some of that has to do with success on early downs. Some of it has to do with pass protection. Some of it is the efficiency of the passing game. But Brady & Co. need to stay on the field in Pittsburgh by wining on third down more often than not.

No biggies – There is no question that the duo of All-Pro Antonio Brown and second-year star JuJu Smith-Schuster is one of the most challenging wide receiver combos a defense will face in the NFL. Belichick described them as “elite elite.” They are a big part of the big-play potential of the Pittsburgh passing attack. Both receivers have more than 85 catches, so they are going to get their receptions. But keeping them from hitting big plays and from getting in the end zone – they’ve combined for 18 touchdown receptions on the season – will be key. Stephon Gilmore must live up to his No. 1 cornerback status. Devin McCourty must be a sure-tackling safety net in the back end. The secondary must find a way to slow if not stop the Steelers star-driven passing game.

Bend but don’t break – The Steelers are going to move the ball with the NFL’s No. 4 offense and No. 2 passing attack. But, New England must find a way to keep the NFL’s No. 1 red zone offense from putting up 7 with too much frequency. Forcing the Steelers to kick field goals will give the visitors a chance, and could give struggling Pittsburgh kicker Chris Boswell a chance for more costly misses. If Pittsburgh finishes its red zone drives with touchdowns, as it has 78 percent of the time this season, it may be a long day for the New England defense. The Patriots can and must get by allowing three not seven.

Prediction: There is a lot to digest building up to this game. Past history. Recent history. The health and effectiveness of star players on both sides of the ball. The desperation factor. It’s all in play. Both teams are capable of putting up a ton of points on offense and making enough plays to slow an opponent on defense. But both teams have had inconsistencies at times on both sides of the ball. The one thing that’s been too consistent this season is New England’s struggles on the road through seven games. That factor and the question of how the Patriots secondary is going to stop Pittsburgh’s elite receiver tandem earns the home squad the nod. While there is no question this game could go either way, a 28-24 Steelers win is the prediction here. The Patriots need to prove they can play better on the road and they get their final chance on Sunday against a desperate, wounded Steelers squad.

What do you think of our keys and prediction? Let us know with a comment below!

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