TNF Tonight: Patriots Set to Spoil Steelers Playoffs Hopes

Dec 3, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, under fire for the Patriots' collapse this year, leads his New England squad into Pittsburgh to play the Steelers. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 3, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, under fire for the Patriots' collapse this year, leads his New England squad into Pittsburgh to play the Steelers. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Some NFL fans may be wondering what Thursday did to deserve a dud of a game so late in an NFL season otherwise stocked with possible playoff matchups. 


But as seen in previous weeks, games that look like dung on the schedule  even those featuring backup quarterbacks — are capable of producing the wildest outcomes.


As anyone who witnessed the recent MNF contest can attest.


The biggest talk leading into this Thursday's matchup is less about Xs and Os and more about the fate that awaits two of the games most venerated coaches at season’s end. The current struggles of both New England’s Bill Belichick and Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin share a focal point — both have been unable to sustain team success following the departure of Hall of Fame quarterbacks.


But it’s not as if either coach or front office neglected the position. Each in recent years invested first-round picks in young quarterbacks they banked on to keep the franchise flush with success.


Belichick’s commitment to Mac Jones foundered, and some with ties to recent Patriots success lay the blame at the feet of Coach B and the organization. Pittsburgh’s investment in Kenny Pickett is still a work in progress but, for at least this season, did not generate the hoped-for returns.


Pickett underwent surgery earlier this week to address a high-ankle sprain and is expected to miss 2–4 weeks. This is Pickett's second leg injury of 2023, which invites questions about the young quarterback’s durability.


The numbers around these two offenses reflect the production they are getting from their quarterback play. Both are in the bottom third of the league in passing offense and total offense. The Patriots are dead last in scoring (12.3 points) and were shut out last week by an so-so Chargers defense. The Steelers average just sixteen points a game and managed only 10 against Arizona at home. Each team turns again to backup signal-callers on Thursday.


In other words, the perfect setup for a 41-38 TNF eruption. 


The two-win Patriots limp into Pittsburgh looking to play playoff spoiler. Bailey Zappe starts in place of the ineffective Jones for the second straight week. In the loss to the Chargers, Zappe did not show much improvement over Jones — other than avoiding the ghastly turnovers that assigned Jones to holding a clipboard. The Patriots’ running game improved in recent games, thanks to the efforts of RB Rhamondre Stevenson. But he is out because of a high ankle sprain suffered on Sunday. Veteran Ezekiel Elliott should receive the bulk of the carries against Pittsburgh, whose run defense is No. 22 in the league.


As for any matchup against the Steelers defense, the key is to block T.J. Watt, whose 14 sacks ranks second in the NFL (Watt also has 13 tackles for loss). Patriots left tackle Trent Brown will draw the assignment of keeping the All-Pro end off of Zappe. However, the OL’s effort last week’s effort to contain Khalil Mack and the Chargers’ pass rush, which sacked Zappe five times, should not give New England fans much confidence. 


The Steelers, meanwhile, look to rebound at home from bad weather and even worse play in last week’s loss to Arizona. That bounce back stands to be tougher in light of the news that Pickett, in concussion protocol since being injured against the Cardinals, is unlikely to play Thursday. His replacement, Mitch Trubisky, scuffled against Arizona and a repeat performance will have the Patriots sniffing an upset. 


Despite the two wins, the Patriots still bring a top-5 run defense to the table. Like New England, the Steelers’ running game found itself in recent weeks, going on five straight weeks with at least 130 yards rushing. But, as with the Stevenson injury, Pittsburgh may be without running back Najee Harris, questionable with an knee issue. 


We think New England's defense is legit and will ground the Steelers ground game. Which means Trubisky will struggle in repeated 3rd-and-longs. His counterpart backup, Zappe, with a second straight start, will settle in and survive whatever Watt-age the Pittsburgh D throws at him. The Patriots in a mini-upset. New England 23, Pittsburgh 17.

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