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FOXBORO - All season long, we've operated on an assumption that the Patriots can't win the Super Bowl. It's simply too tall an order without Tom Brady.

The odds still point to that being true, but the Patriots have an opportunity to demonstrate they at least possess a Super Bowl-caliber offense this afternoon against the Steelers.

If the Pats can move the ball against the league's No. 1 defense and beat the Steelers, we may have to reevaluate their actual endgame. They may just be more than a one-and-done playoff team.

Of course, even a win over Pittsburgh doesn't guarantee they'll reach the postseason, since they're currently on the outside looking in. And no matter what the Pats do on offense, questions are going to rightly remain over their break-but-don't-bend defense, particularly now that Richard Seymour has made consecutive appearances on the injury report with toe and knee maladies.

But today's game is about the state of their offense. If they can move the ball against the Steelers, they'll be able to move it against anyone.

``They are a great team defensively,'' quarterback Matt Cassel said of the Steelers. ``They are No. 1 in almost every category from red zone to third down. They have a lot of sacks. They create pressure with their fronts. They give you multiple looks and multiple personnel groups. It is going to be quite a challenge for us this week. They are a good defense and we respect them for the type of defense they play.''

There are plenty of people who have been waiting for the other shoe to drop on Cassel, who has thrown just eight interceptions in 11 games and ranks in the top 10 in interception percentage.

Maybe his run ends today and Cassel has that four-interception game a lot of people have been expecting. Brady, after all, authored a few clunkers during his first season as a starter.

But maybe Cassel just keeps on trucking out of the spread formation, negates the zone blitz with quick passes, and moves the ball up and down the field now that he's entrusted with the full playbook Brady has been using.

``It's been impressive,'' Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Cassel's command of the offense. ``He's thrown the ball for over 400 yards, he seems to be administering the offense well. He's including a lot of people, throwing the ball to a bunch of folks and doing a nice job of it.''

The benchmarks this season for moving the ball against the Steelers are the Colts and Giants, although ``move'' is a relative term, since neither squad cracked 300 yards.

The Colts are the only team to reach even 290 against them, while the Giants churned out 282. Both, incidentally, beat the Steelers.

The Colts did most of their damage through the air, with Peyton Manning throwing three touchdowns. The Giants made their hay off the leg of John Carney, turning four field goals, a safety and a short Eli Manning touchdown into a 21-14 victory.

Pittsburgh's previous 11 games suggest the Patriots, too, are going to struggle to move the ball, but looking at it another way, today represents an opportunity to show that the Cassel-led offense ranks among the league's elite.

If the Pats succeed, suddenly the idea of playing into February isn't so far-fetched. It would then be on the defense to hold up its end of the bargain, which is by no means a sure thing, but at least the offensive side of the equation would be looking championship caliber.

Considering how things looked seven minutes into the season, that's an amazing statement.

- jtomase?@bostonherald.com


John Tomase breaks down today's Steelers-Pats matchup:

Rushing: Steelers

Passing: Patriots

Defense: Steelers

Special teams: Patriots

Coaching: Patriots

THE SKINNY: The Steelers have just a little too much defense.

SCORE: Steelers 27, Patriots 24

BOX: SCOUTING REPORT: Steelers AT Patriots:

TODAY - 4:15 p.m., Gillette Stadium, Foxboro

TV/RADIO - Ch. 4 (Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf); WBCN-FM 104.1 (Gil Santos and Gino Cappelletti)

THE RECORDS - The Patriots are 7-4, one game behind the Jets in the AFC East. The AFC North-leading Steelers are 8-3, one game ahead of the Ravens.

LINE - Patriots by 1 (over-under: 40 points)

RECORDS VS. SPREAD - Steelers 5-6; Patriots 6-5

SERIES HISTORY - Although the Steelers have an overall series edge of 13-10, the Patriots have owned this matchup for the past decade, winning six of last seven meetings, including postseason with AFC Championship Game tilts in 2002 and '05, both won by the Pats.


Patriots OFFENSE - No. 7 overall (363.1 yards per game), No. 7 rushing (131.3 ypg), No. 10 passing (231.8 ypg)

Steelers OFFENSE - No. 26 overall (305.9 ypg), No. 24 rushing (101.6 ypg), No. 18 passing (204.3 ypg)

Patriots DEFENSE - No. 12 overall (316.0 ypg) No. 13 vs. rush (100.5 ypg), No. 10 vs. pass (215.5 ypg)

Steelers DEFENSE - No. 1 overall (235.4 ypg), No. 1 vs. rush (66.5 ypg), No. 1 vs. pass (168.8)


Patriots-Steelers was one of the best rivalries in the NFL when the teams were facing off for the AFC title in 2001 and 2004. The games haven't had quite the same luster since, and this year is no exception, since the Pats are fighting just to make the playoffs, while the Steelers are looking to hold off the Ravens in the AFC North. However, there's still a ton on the line today. If the Patriots win, they take a huge step toward the wild card while at least keeping pace with Indy and Baltimore. If they lose, they fall back with the Dolphins and the Bills, with a lousy conference record that will hurt them in various tiebreakers.

1. The Legend of Troy

Much like the Colts, the Steelers' defense isn't built around the guys up front so much as the last line of defense. Safety Troy Polamalu might be even more dynamic than Colts counterpart and reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders. Polamalu can blitz, cover and do everything in between. He's unique for his ability to feint at the line, then sprint 20 yards downfield into coverage before the snap. He has the instincts of a Rodney Harrison and the athleticism of an Ed Reed, which makes him one of the most dangerous defenders in the game. The Patriots must account for him on every snap.

2. Under pressure

The Steelers like to get after the quarterback out of the zone blitz packages designed by ageless defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Most of the heat comes from outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, bookend beasts who boast 22 1/2 sacks between them. They can have subtle effects on the game by drawing the offensive line out wide, which then opens things for Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton to go one-on-one with Patriots center Dan Koppen.

3. To spread or not to spread

The Patriots have averaged almost 40 points per game over their last two games because they've thrown caution to the wind and let Matt Cassel air it out. He has responded with more than 400 yards in two straight weeks. The Steelers are a different animal, however. When they blitz, they don't leave themselves exposed in the secondary, because their cover guys, led by corner Ike Taylor, are good enough to man-up receievrs. If the Patriots become too pass-happy, Cassel could end up under siege and hurry a throw into zone coverage. Then again, spreading the field might be the Pats' best chance.

4. Make Roethlisberger roll left

Though the Patriots have yet to record an interception against Ben Roethlisberger in their three regular-season games against him, they have kept him relatively quiet, in part by stepping up on the edge when he rolls right. Like most quarterbacks, Roethlisberger prefers to roll to his throwing-arm side when scrambling. If the Patriots can make Roethlisberger roll left, he'll be unable to throw with the same authority, particularly since he's been battling a bum shoulder.

5. Get a defensive stop

Remember when the offense was supposed to be the problem and the defense was going to carry the Pats to a title? Seems so long ago. The Pats now feel they can score on anyone. The problem is they can't stop anyone. The Dolphins are not a high-powered team, yet they matched the Pats, touchdown for touchdown, into the fourth quarter last Sunday. The Steelers have given up 35 sacks this year, which means there will be an opportunity for Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel and others to make plays in the backfield.


Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: December 1, 2008

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