There's a good chance it'll determine the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs and thus the venue for a potential rematch in January. It's also an early opportunity for the Steelers to tackle the bugaboo standing between them and the Super Bowl: coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots, who have won the past four meetings between these teams, including last year's AFC Championship Game.
Other NFL teams will be keeping an eye on this one, too. So I asked coaches and executives from 10 teams that have played the Steelers and/or Patriots this season: Who you got on Sunday at Heinz Field?
The result was ... a tie with five votes apiece, which seems fitting.
The case for Pittsburgh: They're simply the more talented overall team. How does a Patriots defense that just got roasted by Jay Cutler and Kenyan Drake on Monday night in Miami handle Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown? "Too much offensive skill from Pittsburgh," one AFC executive said. The Patriots' offense uncharacteristically had no answers against the Dolphins, either. They just put right tackle Marcus Cannon (ankle) on injured reserve, weakening an offensive line some coaches don't trust. And quarterback Tom Brady had a second straight poor outing, while managing an Achilles injury.
The case for New England: Losing linebacker Ryan Shazier to a spinal injury was a big blow for a Steelers defense that statistically remains among the NFL's best, but has seen rocky days. As one NFC executive said: "I saw Andy Dalton and [Brett] Hundley shred their defense, so why not Brady?" That exec and others also brought up the way Belichick and Brady respond to defeat. According to NFL Research, the Patriots are 35-6 after a loss over the past 15 seasons. They have only two losing streaks total in the past five seasons -- both two games in 2015. "They will bounce back with focus," one AFC coordinator said. "I don't know that there is a better team at moving on from a disappointing defeat." And of course, the Patriots have owned this series (and just about everything else) recently.
While Belichick won't feed into the importance of this one publicly, he knows what's at stake: A loss would cost New England a shot at home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, a path teams have taken four straight years (including the Patriots twice) to the Super Bowl.
The Five Ws for Week 15
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WHO are the Eagles getting with Nick Foles taking over at quarterback? He's not Carson Wentz, but one coach who has worked closely with Foles told me he's the perfect guy to assume the role this week on the road against the Giants. Foles, 28, has experience in Doug Pederson's offense, learning in two stints under Pederson's mentor, Chiefs coach Andy Reid. Foles has a quiet confidence about him. He took over when Alex Smith suffered a concussion in Week 8 last season at Indianapolis, helped the Chiefs win that game and won his only start the following week against the Jaguars. "Strong arm, can make every seam throw, deep cross, go ball, deep comeback that Doug has," the coach said. "Probably not as much movement pass, naked, etc. But ... very capable of making throws with velocity from different throwing [angles]. All that he lacks is the escapability on a constant basis."
WHAT are the chances Pat Shurmur is a head coach next season? (submitted by @mgssmu and @californialion) The Vikings don't want to lose their offensive coordinator, but in ongoing conversations with NFL executives and others, I get the sense Shurmur has as good a chance as anyone not named Josh McDaniels. He has fans within the league who think he'd do well with another opportunity after a lockout and franchise sale derailed his first in Cleveland. People in the Vikings' building rave about the job Shurmur has done calling plays, keeping opponents off balance and adapting his scheme to an offense that lost its quarterback after Week 1. NFL owners generally lean toward offense -- 17 of 31 current head coaches, and 11 of the 13 hired in the past two cycles, have offensive backgrounds -- and many possible/likely openings this year involve young quarterbacks who need grooming (Indianapolis, Houston, Chicago, Tampa Bay, et al.). That favors the likes of McDaniels, Shurmur, Kansas City's Matt Nagy and Philadelphia's Frank Reich and John DeFilippo, among others.
WHEN can the Packers' offense expect to be back at full tilt with Aaron Rodgers? Players I spoke to this week in Green Bay painted an optimistic picture, even with a challenging first task against the Panthers' stacked defense. But it'll be worth watching -- after just seven practices with Rodgers, and three as the starter, since he broke the collarbone on his throwing side Oct. 15 -- how often the Packers hit on the scramble drill that produces so many of their big plays. "I don't think it'll be a problem," receiver Jordy Nelson told me. "It's all reaction. It's multiple reps, year after year. It's everyone continuing to do their job and their assignment." How often Rodgers extends plays at all, given whatever risk exists coming off his injury, is another question. When Rodgers returned from another broken collarbone in Week 17 of the 2013 season, the Packers' game plan was heavy on screens, slants, etc., to get the ball out of his hand and avoid unnecessary hits. I rewatched all 43 pass plays from that game and counted only seven times Rodgers broke the pocket -- including against the Bears' zero-blitz on fourth-and-8 in the final minute, buying time to find Randall Cobb for a 48-yard game winner. Even if Rodgers doesn't do it much, it's a weapon.
WHERE is a top college coach who would want to/will/might land a head-coaching job in the NFL? (submitted by @minervastorm87) First, let's note how rare this has become. The last head coach hired from college was the Texans' Bill O'Brien, who had an NFL background, having spent five seasons as an assistant with the Patriots before leaving for Penn State. That was four years ago, following the 2013 season. In the previous cycle, there were two, Chip Kelly to the Eagles (from Oregon) and Doug Marrone to the Bills (from Syracuse), and in the two cycles before that, Greg Schiano to the Bucs (from Rutgers) and Jim Harbaugh to the 49ers (from Stanford). Going further back, Pete Carroll joined the Seahawks from USC, but he was a third-time NFL head coach. Overall, the track record of those hires (Schiano aside) is strong. The feeling is this will be a robust Black Monday, with eight to 10 openings. Yet calling around this week, I didn't hear a lot of names likely to make the jump. Harbaugh is obvious if he decides to come back from Michigan. Stanford's David Shaw gets interest every year, but hasn't reciprocated. Alabama's Nick Saban and Penn State's James Franklin come up. Among those with no previous NFL experience, multiple wired-in people told me Friday to keep an eye this year on Notre Dame's Brian Kelly. If there's an opportunity for him, the timing might be right for everyone.
WHY is Blake Bortles suddenly playing like a solid starting quarterback? Among other reasons, the Jaguars are throwing the ball a lot less -- a point of frustration within the organization, as the former No. 3 overall pick regressed from Year 2 to Year 3 (and nearly lost the job in August). Bortles threw the ball 625 times last season, which comes out to 39.1 a game, fourth-most in the NFL. This season, he's down to 31.5 passes a game, which ranks 24th (minimum 100 attempts). That's in part due to the Jaguars' renewed run threat, led by rookie Leonard Fournette, which gives Bortles more favorable passing looks. New coach Doug Marrone, who has a background coaching offensive line, believes in running the ball. And it's in part due to building the NFL's No. 1-ranked scoring defense, keeping the Jaguars out of situations where they have to play catch up and become one-dimensional. (Bortles threw at least 37 passes in a game 11 times in 2016 as the Jaguars went 3-13; this season, it has happened just twice and they lead the AFC South at 9-4.) That's not to say Bortles, 25, is now destined for superstardom, but it's a great example of how environmental factors can shape a young QB's development.
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