The Patriots have been the gold standard of excellence in the NFL since 2001. For that reason, everybody wants to beat them. Opponents up their game against New England: bad teams play well, good teams play great, and great teams play unbelievably great.
That takes us to the Steelers at Gillette on Sunday.
They're below par across the board: weathered, mentally and emotionally scattered, bogged down by a lack of chemistry and in need of major retooling over the offseason. As of now, they're 2-5 while the Patriots are 6-2. This a disproportional affair on paper, but "on paper" means nothing in this league.
If you were judging teams solely by their record, you'd think the Patriots are pretty awesome this year. They aren't. Every outing they've had (with the slight exception of their performances against the Buccaneers and Falcons) has been dreadful. If you were compiling a list of the ugliest teams of the 2013 season, the Patriots would be near the top.
You see, a 6-2 record doesn't paint that picture. Likewise, a 2-5 record doesn't mean the Steelers can't dominate on Sunday. Fact is, both of these teams are vulnerable. When both sides smell blood in the water, nobody has the advantage.
Here are three critical matchups to watch for in New England's Week 9 action.
Logan Ryan and New England's Cornerbacks vs. Pittsburgh's Receivers
When the Patriots drafted cornerback Logan Ryan out of Rutgers in the third round last offseason, they gambled on a player who mostly flew under the radar (as if the Patriots would draft any other kind of prospect).
To those familiar with Ryan's work, he was known as a skinny, scrawny guy with a fearless streak. Personality-wise, he was known to be smart and cool. Athletically, he was smooth and pure—the type of player who sought contact and hit hard. Most importantly, he had a natural nose for the ball.
But as intriguing a prospect as he was, he did little during offseason training to earn distinction. He blended in and kept his head down while other newcomers soaked up the spotlight. He had the perception of being a long-term project who would pay dividends somewhere down the road.
Well, it appears we've reached that portion of the road.
Ryan had a monster game against the Dolphins last week, notching a season-high five tackles along with two sacks (one of which was a strip sack which turned the tide of the game). He also registered a pass breakup for the second consecutive week.
He's a complete player—a cerebral defender who reads quarterbacks with extreme efficiency and takes unexpected angles on the field. He pulled off a dramatic pick-six during a preseason duel with the Buccaneers and he captured his first regular-season pick-six in Week 7 against the Jets.
Brown has 56 catches and 630 yards on the season, including an explosion against the Bears in Week 3 for 196 yards and two touchdowns. If the Patriots can contain him, along with running back Le'Veon Bell, they should be golden.
Look for Logan Ryan and fellow cornerbacks Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard to contain Pittsburgh's biggest offensive playmakers on Sunday.
Rob Gronkowski vs. Pittsburgh's Pass Defense
The problem with tight end Rob Gronkowski is that we think we know him. We don't.
When we talk about Gronkowski's "normal self," we're talking about an abstraction—a conclusion we've leapfrogged to after one season of dominance (2011).
For any player, one season of excellence illustrates his potential to be truly great, but that season alone doesn't actually make him great. That math got lost in translation with Gronkowski; everyone fell in love with him, he got a massive contract extension and now we need to be worried about his fragile body every time he takes the field.
When we say Tom Brady is (or isn't) playing up to his normal standards, that actually means something, because he's been establishing consistency for over a decade. With Gronkowski, there is no consistency and there is no normal; there is only his 2011 season.
Expectations of Gronkowski should be reduced to realistic standards. He doesn't need to be a superhuman tight end anymore; he just needs to give the Patriots what receivers Eric Decker or Wes Welker give the Broncos: show up every week, get dirty, give the team a little something to help them win, stay healthy, move on to the next game.
Nothing more, nothing less.
Pittsburgh will prepare for Gronkowski like it's 2011.
The Steelers have got a good defense, including safety Troy Polamalu and linebackers Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley. Their entire defensive unit, both at the line of scrimmage and in the secondary, will work in tandem on a systematic attack against Gronkowski, aimed at preventing him from building steam and re-establishing himself as one of the league's premier superstars at their expense.
But again, Patriots fans shouldn't be concerned with Gronkowski's premier status. It's unimportant. Moving forward, sustained health and consistent contribution of any kind is all that matters.
Look for him to abuse Pittsburgh's defense from a mortal standpoint and just enough to help the Patriots squeak this one out.
Tom Brady vs. Tom Brady
Some believe Tom Brady deserves MVP consideration for getting an inexperienced offense and a decimated defense to 6-2. Others are less concerned with the MVP race and more focused on the fact that Brady's putting up some of the worst statistics of his career.
Wherever you stand on his performance this year (1,824 passing yards, nine TDs, six interceptions), this much should be acknowledged: Brady is different than he used to be. The reason it's so hard to admit that is because it's so difficult to pinpoint exactly how he's different.
Sure, his numbers are down, but that's only a recent development through eight games. Last season, he dominated with 4,827 yards and 34 touchdowns; the year before, he had 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns. If anything, his poor statistical showing this season is likely a temporary glitch.
Furthermore, having Tom Brady at the helm still gives the Patriots a good shot of getting to the Super Bowl. There isn't a Patriots fan on this planet who would swap him out for Peyton Manning or Drew Brees or anyone else. Loyalty to Brady remains unwavering, which is how it should be.
And yet, something is different.
Going a whole game without throwing a single touchdown is something we (ironically) expect from Eli Manning, but not from Tom Brady. But, Brady was contained to zero passing touchdowns twice this season, both in Week 5 against the Bengals and Week 7 against the Jets.
Sandwiched in between the debacles of Week 5 and Week 7 was a stunning performance in Week 6 against the Saints, in which Brady pulled off one of the most remarkable game-winning drives of his career.
That three-game stretch between Week 5 and Week 7 stands as a perfect summation of Brady's 2013 season: baffling, wonderful, atrocious, head-scratching, remarkable, stunning, excellent, confusing, inconsistent, just plain awful and just plain extraordinary.
But all of this is just talk, isn't it? Talk is cheap. If winning championships is really what matters to Brady, then it's time for him to take control of this team. That isn't to say he hasn't been a good leader this year, but it's fair to say this isn't his team right now.
Really, this is head coach Bill Belichick's team right now. This ship belongs to him and his coaching staff and his whole system. The defense has been tremendous and they deserve a fair share of the credit, but really, it's great coaching and intelligent design keeping this team standing.
But coaches don't actually play this game. Eventually, without true leadership on the field, this experiment will be exposed and it'll collapse. As in recent years past, it'll happen during the playoffs, when everyone else takes their game to another level and the Patriots realize they don't have another level.
The Patriots need on-field leadership.
To me, Brady seems too irritated to lead right now. And to be honest, I don't blame him. His offense is depleted, even without the injuries. How the heck did almost every quarterback in the NFL wind up with elite talent at the receiver position, except for him?
Go down the list of elite receivers in the game: Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, A.J. Green and so on. None of them play for the Patriots. This quarterback has no elite wide receivers awaiting his passes. That's frustrating.
Strangely enough, though, Brady won three Super Bowls without any truly elite receivers. He won with guys like David Patten, David Givens, J.R. Redmond, Deion Branch and Troy Brown, who weren't necessarily superstars, but rather guys with whom Brady shared intense chemistry.
Even stranger, Brady lost two Super Bowls with a host of megaelite receivers and tight ends at his disposal. He had Randy Moss and Wes Welker in Super Bowl XLII and he had Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez in Super Bowl XLVI. Both were losing efforts.
So then, historically speaking, this 2013 offense should be right up Brady's alley.
But something's different. Tough to say what it is. He's the most important human to ever pick up a football and toss it, yet his completion percentage sits at 55.7 percent heading into Week 9. He's thrown only nine touchdowns and he's been intercepted six times.
Something is different. Either the game, the league, the team or the man has changed. Maybe the exact cause is really worth investigating. Or maybe, it's entirely unimportant.
Whatever the reason might be for this hiccup, it's time for Brady to get back on track against the Steelers. It's on his shoulders to assume command of this team now. Not just "quarterback command," but "total command."
That means keeping his attitude in order. That means keeping his temper in check. That means assuming a mastery of all the pieces at his disposal and maximizing their unique attributes and skills. That's what great leaders do, they make their good players great and their great players greater.
No doubt, he's been shortchanged this season. Blame destiny, blame injuries, blame the coach, blame anyone and everyone, it doesn't make a difference. As Brady himself said last month in an NFL.com video clip after a revolting offensive showing against the Jets: "No one's coming to rescue [us] and save the day."
Those words are absolutely true. No one is coming.
So, what's he gonna do about it?