Theoretically each successive playoff game should be a team's biggest challenge.
Coming off a tougher-than-expected battle with the Texans, New England certainly faces its toughest test of the season in Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the streaking Steelers at Gillette Stadium.
That's how it looks to fans and media from the outside. It's also apparently how it looks from the players and coaches on the inside of the Patriots preparation process this week.
The Boston Globe has Tom Brady saying his team has to play its best game of the year on Sunday night. The Globe also looks at the "tough challenge" facing Rob Ninkovich and the Patriots defense. Flipping the script a bit, the Globe says the rivalry with the Patriots has helped drive Ben Roethlisberger. The Globe passes along Roethlisberger's response to Julian Edelman's criticisms of the Steelers organization earlier this week. The Globe says the Patriots had perfect attendance at practice on Wednesday, though the team did have seven players listed as limited on the first injury report of the week.
The Boston Herald notes that this latest meeting between Brady and Roethlisberger has been a long time coming. The Herald writes that the differing methods of Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin lead to the same result – success. Herald *columnist Ron Borges opines on the Antonio Brown Facebook Live situation and what it might say about Pittsburgh's decision making. The *Herald has Dont'a Hightower focused on Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell. The Herald looks at what could be the next battle between Malcolm Butler and Brown. The Herald Patriots notebook focuses on the health of rookie receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who missed the last two games to a knee injury. The Herald says the Butler vs. Brown battle is a key matchup to watch on Sunday.
The Providence Journal writes that the Patriots are in no mood to "play along" with the media this week. The ProJo has Brady and Roethlisberger trading compliments. The ProJo notes that former short-time Steelers LeGarrette Blount is focused on winning and not retribution for the way his time in Pittsburgh played out. The ProJo declares that Brady's demeanor is easy to read this week, the QB knowing that the Patriots simply have to play better.
ESPNBoston.com says that Pro Bowl safety Devin McCourty – New England's highest-paid defensive player – is showing the characteristics of elite safety play. ESPNBoston.com offers that seeing Butler and Brown battle again should be another treat to watch. ESPNBoston.com notes a snappy Belichick downplaying the value of home-field advantage on Sunday night. ESPNBoston.com notes that Brady had little time for the media's questions on Wednesday and already appears in game-day mode.
ESPN.com also has Roethlisberger defending the Pittsburgh franchise to Edelman's criticism.
WEEI.com notes Edelman backtracking from his comments regarding the Pittsburgh organization earlier in the week, telling the Steelers media in a conference call that his comment was "taken out of context." WEEI.com notes oft-mocked CBS analyst Phil Simms saying the Patriots secondary is the most underrated group in the league. WEEI.com says that Michael Floyd is still working to perfect the Patriots offense. WEEI.com notes it's been a bad week of Brady-related hot takes from the media. WEEI.com declares that the Patriots "own" Roethlisberger and the Steelers. WEEI.com has former Ravens and Jets linebacker Bart Scott comparing the Patriots to Duke basketball.
CSNNE.com breaks down the challenge of trying to stop Bell. CSNNE.com has Brown's apology for his Facebook Live "distraction." CSNNE.com also notes Edelman saying "there was no maliciousness" to his comments about the Steelers. CSNNE.com also looks at Floyd trying to improve his rapport with Brady.
In what is sure to be a popular talking point this spring, NFL.com has the Patriots taking Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey with the 32nd selection in an early mock draft. NFL.com notes Big Ben saying the Patriots "are the dragon and we're trying to slay them." NFL.com picks the Steelers to beat the Patriots on Sunday, 33-29. NFL.com ranks Hightower as the No. 15 free agent this spring, behind former teammates Chandler Jones (No. 5) and Jamie Collins (No. 11).
The Washington Post writes that the Steelers will make the Patriots pick their poison.
The New York Post says Roethlisberger is a problem the Patriots haven't known this year.
USA Today declares that New England has to protect Brady from a peaking Pittsburgh pass rush.
CBSSports.com lists five reasons the Steelers can beat the Patriots.
NESN.com looks at why Blount has excelled in New England. Blount didn't want to talk about the differences between playing in Pittsburgh and New England.
*Sports Illustrated *breaks down the successful return to work of New England offensive line coaching legend Dante Scarnecchia.
BleacherReport.com focuses on Martellus Bennett and other New England newcomers in a breakdown of the Patriot Way.