Patriots-Steelers: New England Must Beat Pittsburgh if They Are To Be Contenders
On paper, the Pats had the easiest schedule in the NFL, which seemed like a cruel joke after the way they laid waste to their 2007 opponents.
Of course, that all changed when Bernard Pollard bent Brady's leg like a pretzel and Matt Cassel was thrust into the starting quarterback spotlight, to the horror of Pats fans everywhere.
Cassel's improvement has been greater than, even the most ardent, Patriot supporters could have predicted. Despite his solid play, the Pats have still lost four games and the dreams of back-to-back undefeated regular seasons have faded into a distant memory. A memory that was tainted by a Super Bowl loss, anyway.
The Colts, Chargers, and Steelers represented the only iron of the Patriots' schedule before the season started. Of course, now we know, the Jets and Cardinals are both significantly better than anyone expected.
The Chargers and Colts, meanwhile, are significantly to moderately worse, but that didn't stop the Pats from losing to both of them.
A lot of good NFL teams have lost to those four bottom-dwellers. (Yes, Bronco fans, I called you bottom-dwellers. That's what you get when you lose to the Raiders).
While upcoming games with the Seahawks, Raiders, Cardinals, and Bills will all be hard-fought, the Patriots should be expected to win all of them. Doesn't mean they will, but no one's moving the Pats into the top five of their power ranking for beating any of them, especially if New England loses this Sunday.
The Patriots' wins over the Dolphins and Jets, as well as their Monday night demolition of the Broncos (back when they were still considered good), sit as the three feathers in Cassel's cap. But when you look closer, they don't seem all that impressive.
Miami probably won't make the playoffs, Denver might only get in because the AFC West is so atrocious, and the Pats' win over the Jets came in Week Two, when Brett the Jet was still in his incubation phase.
Not to take anything away from Matt Cassel or his progression. He played admirably in losses to the peaking Jets and resurgent Colts, but moral victories don't get you into the playoffs.
Now, sitting at 7-4, the 2008 Patriots will have to beat the one elite team that actually lived up to their preseason billing if they want to be considered elite themselves.
It's a team they have owned for much of the decade. A team they have beaten twice in AFC Championships to get to Super Bowls. A team whose defense precedes them. A team that ended the Patriots' 21-game win streak: The Pittsburgh Steelers.
The black and gold enter Foxborough, Sunday, with the best defense in the NFL, providing the biggest test of Cassel's young career. The Steelers are ranked in the top five of most power rankings and are the highest ranked opponent the Pats have faced in 2008.
Should the Patriots win, it will put them back into the conversation of AFC contenders. If they lose, they will look more like the one-and-done Wild Card team most have them pegged as. A team who can beat the bottom half of the league, but comes up short when they face a playoff team.
Just who are the 2008 New England Patriots? We'll have a very good idea come Sunday night.
Mike Dussault is a Patriots Community Leader at Bleacher Report, and also a contributor at BostonSportz.com. His Patriots blog can be viewed here and he can be contacted at PatriotsPropaganda@gmail.com.
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