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Scouting the Matchup: Expect some fireworks

WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN

The New England offense became tougher to defend once Dion Lewis replaced Mike Gillislee as the team's featured back. Lewis gives the Patriots more of a big-play threat out of the backfield, and New England's ground attack has been at its best with Lewis and Rex Burkhead getting most of the carries. New England ran for a season-high 196 yards in its first game against Miami and collected 191 yards on 35 rushing attempts against Buffalo in Week 13. Pittsburgh was gashed for 222 yards rushing against Chicago in Week 3 and 231 yards against Jacksonville in Week 5. Pittsburgh has held nine of its 13 opponents to 91 yards or less but yielded 152 and 5.8 yards per carry last week to the Ravens, its first game without middle linebacker Ryan Shazier, who suffered a career-threatening injury to his spine against Cincinnati. Look for Pittsburgh to bounce back with another week to adjust to Shazier’s absence. Advantage: STEELERS

WHEN THE STEELERS RUN

No NFL running back has had a heavier workload this season than Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell, who leads the league with 1,105 yards rushing on 283 carries. Bell, who has gained more than 1,000 yards in three of the past four seasons, has run for seven touchdowns. Bell is also a receiving threat. He's made 75 catches for 579 yards. No NFL player has more touches this year. Center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro pave the way for Bell and the Steelers run game.  New England has given up at least 109 yards on the ground in six of its last seven games. The Bills averaged 7 yards per carry in a Week 13 loss to the Patriots. Buffalo rushed for 183 yards on 26 carries in that contest. Miami’s Kenyan Drake gashed them for 114 yards on 25 carries Monday night. Alan Branch went down with a knee injury in that game, making life even tougher for the front seven against the dangerous Bell. Advantage: STEELERS

WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS

Statistically, the Patriots have the best passing attack in the NFL, and this week tight end Rob Gronkowski returns after serving a one-game suspension for a late hit on Buffalo cornerback Tre'Davious White. Gronkowski has 55 receptions for 849 yards and a team-high seven receiving touchdowns. He's been targeted 22 times on third down this season and has 18 catches that have produced 16 first downs. The biggest concern here is Pittsburgh’s pass rush, led by defensive end Cameron Heyward. The Steelers are No. 2 in the NFL in sacks - only Jacksonville has more - and have allowed more than 264 yards through the air only once this season. Heyward, who is having a career year, has nine sacks, six of which have come on third down. The Steelers secondary has been without its top corner, Joe Haden, for several weeks and that has led to more zone coverage. Haden practiced this week but his availability is in question. Advantage: PATRIOTS

WHEN THE STEELERS PASS

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger seems to have regained his form after a slow start this season. He has thrown 14 touchdown passes in his last five games after throwing seven in Pittsburgh's first six contests. The Steelers also have one of the AFC's top offensive lines, which has limited opponents to 19 sacks. Antonio Brown leads all wide receivers in catches and receiving yards, and is tied for second in touchdown receptions. He's had at least 100 receiving yards in each of his last four games. The Patriots have been getting improved play from cornerback Stephon Gilmore but remain near the bottom of the league in passing yards allowed per game. Gilmore and Malcolm Butler will have their hands full with Brown, Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster, while Bell is a mismatch for any linebacker in the passing game. Advantage: STEELERS

SPECIAL TEAMS

New England has had more than its share of big plays on special teams this season. They include Dion Lewis' 103-yard kickoff return, a fake punt that produced a first down and led to a TD in the first game against Miami and Stephen Gostkowski's 62-yard field goal. Pittsburgh kicker Chris Boswell was named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week after he made a game-winning 38-yard field goal in Pittsburgh's 23-20 victory over Cincinnati in Week 13. It was the third time in four games Boswell kicked the game-winner at the end of regulation. He has multiple field goals in nine games this season. Pittsburgh hasn't produced much in the return game, however. The Steelers rank at or near the bottom of the league in both punt returns and kickoff returns. The Patriots have been significantly better in both areas. Advantage: PATRIOTS

OTHER FACTORS

Few teams perform better at home than the Steelers, who are 98-35-1 at Heinz Field since it opened in 2001. Only the Patriots have a higher winning percentage in home games during that span (111-23, .828). Pittsburgh is 64-22 at home since Mike Tomlin became the franchise's head coach, and the Steelers are 5-1 at Heinz Field this season. The Patriots have played some of their best football on the road this season, however. New England had won 14 games in a row away from Gillette Stadium before Monday night's loss at Miami. New England is tied for sixth in turnover differential at plus-7. Pittsburgh is 17th (even). Tom Brady has won 55 games in December. No NFL quarterback has won more games in any calendar month. History suggests Brady and Bill Belichick own the Steelers, and this game will go a long way toward determining the top seed in the AFC. Advantage: PATRIOTS

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