|NFL Game of the Week: Steelers Travel to Foxboro to Take on Patriots|
|Written by Anthony Rome|
|Wednesday, 26 November 2008 15:48|
Game of the Week
Foxboro, MA - The subject of criticism earlier this season as he attempted to fill the shoes of the reigning NFL MVP, Matt Cassel has been anything but a liability for the New England Patriots lately.
Still, he hasn't seen anything like the Pittsburgh Steelers defense.
New England will face a team with a winning record for the fifth straight week on Sunday, when the hard-hitting Steelers open a difficult stretch of their schedule by visiting Foxborough and looking to reverse a decade of struggles against the Patriots.
Oddsmakers from SBG Global have made Patriots -1 point spread favorites (View NFL Football odds) for Sunday’s game (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 57% of bets for this game have been placed on Patriots -1 (View NFL Football bet percentages).
Cassel hadn't started a game since high school upon taking over for Tom Brady in the Patriots' season opener, when Brady went down for the season with a pair of torn ligaments in his left knee.
Despite some initial problems, Cassel has settled in at the helm of New England's explosive offense, completing 30 passes in each of the last two games while becoming the fifth quarterback in NFL history to throw for 400 yards in back-to-back games.
"I think that it is obvious that they have a lot of confidence with what this young man is doing for them," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "... I think that his numbers speak for themselves; he has a 90-plus passer rating. He is showing that he is a player in this league at that position."
Playing what Randy Moss called "hellified ball," Cassel has also thrown for three touchdowns in each of the last two games, hitting Moss on all three in the Patriots' 48-28 win at Miami on Sunday. Mostly against single coverage, Moss had a season-high 125 receiving yards.
"I'm always amazed at what Randy can do," Cassel said.
Still, it could be considerably tougher against Pittsburgh's defense, which ranks first in the league against both the pass (168.8 yards per game) and the run (66.5). The Steelers also are second in the NFL entering Week 13 with 37 sacks, led by a combined 22 1/2 from the fierce duo of linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.
Pittsburgh has held every opponent this season under 300 total yards. Cincinnati managed just 208 yards and 11 first downs in a 27-10 loss last Thursday, and the Steelers have extra rest coming off that game.
"It is a huge challenge," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "Obviously, there aren't a lot of weaknesses. There really aren't any."
Both teams enter the game with little margin for error regarding their playoff hopes. The Steelers (8-3) hold a one-game lead over Baltimore atop the AFC North, but their next four games are against opponents that entered this week at a combined 31-13. Three of the four games on the road.
New England (7-4) is at the end of a similar stretch, having alternated wins and losses in its last four games - all against playoff contenders.
After losing 34-31 in overtime at home to the Jets on Nov. 13, the Patriots remain a game back of New York in the AFC East, and though they are tied with Baltimore and Indianapolis for the AFC's wild-card spots, they're currently the odd team out due to tiebreakers.
"We have to have the rest of the games that we play," Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said.
That may depend directly on the performance of New England's defense. Key starters Adalius Thomas and Rodney Harrison have been out due to injuries, and the Patriots have struggled lately - especially against the pass.
Miami quarterback Chad Pennington threw for a season-high 341 yards on Sunday, and Ben Roethlisberger will try to put forth a similar effort Sunday.
Roethlisberger has been more efficient recently, avoiding interceptions the last two weeks - both Pittsburgh victories - after throwing a combined eight picks in the previous three games.
"I like the way we are playing," Roethlisberger said. "I think we have gone through our kind of midseason struggles and we still have found ways to win."
He may again need to operate without top running back Willie Parker, who could miss the game due to a knee injury that has forced him in and out of the lineup this season. Mewelde Moore would get the bulk of the carries in Parker's absence.
Parker ran for 124 yards in Foxborough last season, but it didn't matter much as the Steelers lost 34-13 on Dec. 9 as part of New England's 16-0 regular season. With safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark as well as Woodley out with injuries for Pittsburgh, Brady threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns in that game, specifically targeting backup safety Anthony Smith, who had guaranteed victory for his team.
Pittsburgh could again be somewhat short-handed on defense, with defensive end Brett Keisel out and cornerbacks Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden questionable.
New England has won three straight and six of seven against the Steelers, including a pair of victories in AFC title games at Heinz Field. Though Pittsburgh's defense has typically been highly ranked, the Patriots have averaged nearly 28 points in the series' last seven games, passing for more than 300 yards three times.
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Posted: 11/25/08 8:50PM ET