Two AFC squads with Super Bowl aspirations meet at Heinz Field on Sunday when the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2) host the New England Patriots (5-1). First place in the AFC is at stake, with the winner in great shape to make a run at a first round bye in the playoffs.
The Steelers hope to erase the memory of last year’s 39-26 home loss to New England on Sunday. They’ll have to play much better defensively than they did a year ago if they hope to win their fourth consecutive game. But Tom Brady and the Pats offense will get theirs, so to speak. You just can’t hold them down all game. Consequently, it will be up to Ben Roethlisberger and the offense to build off the momentum established in last Sunday’s win over Arizona.
The Steelers have an embarrassment of riches at wide receiver, so the possibility of Hines Ward not playing is not as scary to Steeler Nation as it might have been a year or two ago. Ward, who injured the ankle in the win over the Cardinals, missed his second consecutive day of practice this week on Thursday. But according to his teammates, Ward is still expected to play.
If Ward can’t go, Emmanuel Sanders will fill the void just fine. Sanders, the team’s third round draft pick out of SMU in 2010, had his best game of the season in Week 7, catching 5 passes for 46 yards and his first touchdown of the season. No one will ever block from the WR position as well as Ward, but Sanders is actually quite sound in that phase of the game for a man his size.
Hopefully Ward will feel healthy enough to play and contribute on Sunday, but even if he can’t go or is limited in his mobility, the Steelers still have Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Sanders and Heath Miller as viable weapons in the passing game. That’s more than enough to get after the Patriots’ inconsistent defense.