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New England-Pittsburgh matchup a battle of AFC heavyweights

PRO FOOTBALL

The Patriots visit the Steelers on Sunday, in a meeting of two teams with aspirations of continued Super Bowl success.

October 25, 2011|By Lance Pugmire
  • New England quarterback Tom Brady has enjoyed plenty of success against the Pittsburgh Steelers during his career.
New England quarterback Tom Brady has enjoyed plenty of success against… (Elise Amendola / Associated…)

They have represented the AFC in seven of the last 10 Super Bowls, combining to win five.

As the New England Patriots travel to play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Heinz Field, a great deal is at stake once more.

The Patriots (5-1) have the conference's best record, and the Steelers (5-2), with three consecutive victories, have an opportunity, if they win Sunday, to tighten their hold on the top spot with twice-beaten AFC North rival Baltimore arriving Week 9 in Pittsburgh.

After a week when AFC leaders San Diego and Baltimore faltered on the road — the Chargers blowing an 11-point lead against the New York Jets and the Ravens losing in a disappointing effort at Jacksonville — this stands as the AFC's heavyweight fight.

"Big game, home crowd," Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said.

New England quarterback Tom Brady is 6-1 against the Steelers, including last year's 39-26 victory, and he has thrown for 749 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions in his last two games.

He beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh in the AFC title game in the 2004 season, and he and backup quarterback Drew Bledsoe beat the Steelers in the 2001 AFC title game, although some in Pittsburgh might rank those efforts as dubious given New England Coach Bill Belichick's alleged involvement in the "Spygate" videotaping of opponents.

Tomlin said the bitterness of those losses has eased in a locker room dominated by players who weren't around back then, and now view Baltimore as the No. 1 rival.

"I'm the educator," Tomlin told Pittsburgh reporters.

The Pittsburgh focus is clearly on Brady, the two-time most valuable player who's rested from a bye week and has thrown for 2,163 yards and 16 touchdowns through six games with a passer rating (104.8) second only to unbeaten Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers (125.7).

"Every year is a new year," linebacker James Farrior told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Getting pressure on Brady will be more difficult without injured Steelers linebacker James Harrison, although nose tackle Casey Hampton could return from a three-game absence (shoulder injury).

Tomlin said he "will see real soon" how strong his defensive secondary is after being torched by Baltimore's Joe Flacco in the opener, and surrendering 272 yards and two touchdowns to Arizona's Kevin Kolb last week in a 32-20 road triumph.

A shootout is highly possible, with Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (1,937 yards, 12 touchdowns) progressing toward his winter peak and Belichick expressing concern with matching the speed of Steelers receiver Mike Wallace.

"They look good as usual … a lot of the same players, same schemes," Belichick said. "Big challenge, a lot to get ready for. Both teams know each other well, so I don't think there will be a ton of surprises here. It will come down to preparation, execution and decision making on game day."

Other games:

Dallas (3-3) at Philadelphia (2-4)

They'll already know how the NFC East leader New York Giants fared at home against winless Miami by the time they kick off in Philadelphia on Sunday night. The Eagles will either continue their climb from a 1-4 hole, or Dallas could drop Michael Vick and Co. three games back one game before the halfway mark.

Detroit (4-2) at Denver (2-4)

Who will be exposed? The Lions, as the same old Lions after a 4-0 start, or Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, as an in-over-his-head scrambler who was lucky to pull his team from the abyss of a 15-0 fourth-quarter deficit at winless Miami last week?

Washington (3-3) vs. Buffalo (4-2)

The Bills can move back atop the AFC East by winning this game, held in Toronto, coupled with a New England loss at Pittsburgh. The Redskins lost running back Tim Hightower (knee) for the season, and new quarterback John Beck didn't make people forget about Rex Grossman in loss to Carolina.

lance.pugmire@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimespugmire

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