Even with Tom Brady suspended for the first four games of the regular season, the New England Patriots cruised to their 13th division title in 14 seasons, going 14-2 and winning the AFC East by a cozy four games.
The Patriots also sashayed their way past the Houston Texans in the divisional round of the playoffs, winning 34-16 in a game in which the Pats were favored by more than two touchdowns.
This all means that when the AFC Championship game kicks off late Sunday afternoon, the Patriots will be playing their first important game of the season and that should scare the bejeezus out of the Steelers.
Back in Week 8, Albert Breer of the MMQB wrote about how the Patriots were holding back early in the season, saving both their players and possibly key elements of their playbook for more important games later in the season.
As I understand it, the experience of going into the AFC title game beaten to a pulp with injuries last January has prompted New England to handle its players a little differently this season. In essence, there are games where they’ve accepted not going with a full roster. They were cautious with the oft-injured Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, who were both beat up last January, as well as Dont’a Hightower, and the suspension of Tom Brady gave him what could be termed an organic four-game break at 39 years old. So far it hasn’t hurt the team’s bottom line much—they’re 6-1—and the benefits, at least on paper, are still a ways off from being realized. It’s also fair to see where this idea could extend into on-field strategy, too, with the team tinkering or holding back its offensive or defensive calls, with an eye on the higher-stakes parts of the season.
Little did anybody know at the time, but those “higher-stakes parts of the season” wouldn’t present themselves until the AFC title game.
The Steelers are clearly a talented team, and nobody would be shocked if they beat the Patriots. But the Steelers are also entering an AFC Championship game against a team that is not only good but also very much a mystery.
Belichick always like to tinker and add wrinkles. But this year, maybe more than any previous season, he will almost certainly present formations, units, and plays that the Steelers can’t possibly prepare for because the Patriots have not used them all season.
In other words, the Patriots are now 15-2, and they have done that with Brady on the sidelines for four games and Belichick is yet to really step hard on the gas pedal.
That’s a scary notion, even for a good team like the Steelers.