1. Defense is ahead of the offense The Steelers have a one-game lead over Baltimore in the AFC North, but with five games remaining, things could change. This one could prove pivotal in determining the playoff participants, with the winner getting the all-important head-to-head tiebreaker. The Steelers are winning on the strength of their defense. Pittsburgh has not allowed 300 total yards of offense in any of its 11 games this season — the third-longest streak since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. But Ben Roethlisberger (80.5 quarterback rating, 11 touchdowns, 11 interceptions) and the offense have struggled. Pittsburgh should be well rested after beating lowly Cincinnati, 27-10, on Nov. 20.
2. Read the blitz schemes Matt Cassel has certainly looked impressive the past two weeks against the Jets and Dolphins, but the Steelers’ defense will be a much sterner test. Pittsburgh mainly utilizes a zone-blitz scheme aimed to confuse quarterbacks, and Sunday will show just how much Cassel has progressed. His ability to read the defense and where the blitzes are coming from should dictate New England’s success on offense. The offensive line will also have to improve: The Patriots have allowed 35 sacks this year, tied for fifth-worst in the league, while the Steelers are second in the NFL with 37 sacks behind James Harrison (12 sacks) and LaMarr Woodley (10). Flamboyant safety Troy Polamalu is as good as ever with five interceptions, and inside linebacker James Farrior anchors the run defense with a team-high 81 tackles.
3. Keep them off the field Although Pittsburgh’s defense is first in the NFL in virtually every statistical category, the offense is 23rd in points per game (21.5), 18th in passing yards (204.3), and 24th in rushing (101.7). They had hoped to win with a solid ground game and efficient passing attack, but No. 1 running back Willie Parker has been unable to stay healthy, playing just six games this year. He is questionable for Sunday’s game. Mewelde Moore (109 carries, 432 yards) has filled in admirably. Eleventh-year wideout Hines Ward continues to be one of the top receivers in the league with 54 catches, 718 yards, and five touchdowns.