I'll admit it: I'm a little worried about the Patriots facing the Steelers this week. In fact, I would go so far as to say I'm a little apprehensive.
The Patriots have taken on all comers this season and pulled out close games against Indianapolis, the Eagles and the Ravens, as well as blowouts against other teams. It seems no matter what their opponents try, the Patriots are at least just a scoch better. But the Steelers worry me for two reasons: history and defense.
First, these two teams have a history of breaking one another's streaks. It was the Steelers who broke the Patriots' winning streak back in 2005 (18 or 21 games in a row, depending on how you're counting). The Patriots returned the favor last year, breaking up the Steelers' 16-0 streak. The Steelers have reason, furthermore, to have an extra chip on their shoulders about the Patriots: were it not for the Patriots, the Steelers might well have had at least one more championship this decade (in 2001, when the upstart Pats upset them at home) if not two (the Patriots also beat the Steelers at home in the 2004 playoffs).
Meanwhile, it's clear the Patriots' opponents are chipping away at them, week by week. They've gone from 20- and 30-point win margins to wins by a field goal in recent weeks, especially when facing top defenses. And now here comes the best defense of them all.
The inimitable Cold, Hard Football Facts lays out the facts about Pittsburgh's D in this great feature article this week. In fact, according to the CHFF analysis, not only are the Steelers the best defensive team in the league, "The Steelers of 2007 are putting up defensive numbers equal or superior to all five of the franchise's Super Bowl champions, if you can believe it."
Meanwhile, my esteemed colleague laid out the weaknesses an injury-shortened defense for the Patriots has been showing. The Patriots have still won all their games, but they've also given up quite a few points, which has been made up for by the high-flying offense. But this is a game in which the Patriots' D needs to clamp down; there's just no way the Patriots' offense is going to have an easy time of it against the Steelers and I would be quite surprised if they ran up the kind of huge point total they had been earlier this season. In fact, I think as other teams start to find effective strategies against the Patriots, those days may be behind us this year for good.
If the Pats' D is playing business as usual, that could mean game over; Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense have been overlooked in favor of Brady and the Patriots as well as Peyton Manning and the Colts, but they are looking solid this year as well.
The Patriots have their best chance to lose the undefeated season this week, I think, than any other week. Worse, the Steelers, already with a chip on their shoulders, definitely know that.
I don't like to predict wins or scores (too superstitious). But I will predict that this game will make last week's rodeo against the Ravens look tame by comparison.