Story of the Second Half: Who Gets Home Field?
By John MacKenna, Patriots Insider
When you look at the second half of the season in Foxboro, there is only one real question: Who gets home field advantage, the Patriots or the Steelers?
The only way the Steelers won't win the Super Bowl XXXIX is if the Patriots knock them off in the AFC championship game.
Under Head Coach Bill Belichick, the Patriots have drawn the ultimate blueprint for success in the NFL: Take it one game at a time, and believe that you can overcome any obstacle.
Steelers head Coach Bill Cowher has done the smartest thing he could: Copy Belichick. And, man, is it working. In the last two weeks, Pittsburgh crushed the NFL's two undefeated teams, the Patriots and the Eagles, by a combined score of 61-23.
What's more, the Steelers scored those impressive wins immediately after losing Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton to a season-ending injury. They replaced Hampton with little-known Chris Hoke and proceeded to hold the Patriots to five yards rushing on the day.
Sure, the Patriots were missing RB Corey Dillon, but the Steelers can top that. They played the Eagles without the services of starting running back Duce Staley, and his replacement, Jerome Bettis, ran for 149 yards.
In QB Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers have their Tom Brady. Roethlisberger stepped in when starter Tommy Maddox went down and has done nothing but win. Like Brady, he is intelligent, cool-headed, creative and deadly accurate.
One thing these Patriots have never had is a dominating offensive line; the Steelers have one, and that's why they are first in the NFL in rushing with a gaudy average of 160.8 yards per game.
Pittsburgh also has a truly dominating defense: first in the NFL against the rush (81.0 yards per game) and second in total yards allowed (261.6 yards). They don't break, but they also don't bend.
New England's rankings-21st in rushing yards allowed and 19th in passing yards allowed-beg the question: Why is this team 7-1?
If Pittsburgh and New England survive the Divisional Playoffs, this year's AFC Championship will be the defining game of the Patriots Era. Either the glory continues in New England, or Pittsburgh emerges as the new NFL superpower.
New England proved last year that a well-prepared team can find a way to win every single week in the second half and on through the playoffs. The Steelers noticed, and right now, it's easy to imagine the Steelers running the table.
But two good weeks does not a season make. The rivals enter the second half with matching 7-1 records, and the Patriots will get home field advantage if they win just one game more than the Steelers do.
The schedule favors the Patriots. New England has four road games left; Pittsburgh has five. New England's remaining opponents have a combined record of 25-40; Pittsburgh's foes are a combined 33-31.
New England has two games that look dangerous on paper: Nov. 28 at home against the 5-3 Ravens, and Dec. 26 at the 6-2 Jets. If they split those and win the rest, they repeat last year's 14-2 performance.
The Steelers have four tough matchups, all at the end of the schedule: Dec. 5 at 5-3 Jacksonville; Dec. 12 hosting the Jets; Dec. 18 at the 5-3 Giants; and Jan. 1 at the 3-5 Bills. Credit them with a split and they finish 13-3, and New England gets to host the big game.
Key Factors for the Patriots
Health is once again a major factor for the Patriots, and it's possible that too much damage has been done already. With all the focus on Ty Law's serious foot injury, there has been little talk about the loss of Dan Klecko. Not Klecko the reserve linebacker, but Klecko the fullback. At the time of his injury, Klecko was emerging as an important member of the offense, blocking for Corey Dillon and catching passes out of the backfield. It's no coincidence that TE Daniel Graham has disappeared from the passing game since Klecko went down, because the Patriots now need Graham's blocking on every down. Klecko's future is at fullback, but sadly for the Pats he has to wait until next year.
Klecko's absence also makes the loss of rookie TE Ben Watson that much harder to take. Brady should be completing passes to two stud tight ends while Klecko guards his back.
Also critical was the loss of right offensive tackle Tom Ashworth. In the event of an untimely injury to his replacement, Brandon Gorin, or to left tackle Matt Light, the Patriots are cooked. No team can cover every contingency, and New England took a major gamble this year by understocking itself at tackle.
Personnel Director Scott Pioli usually gets nothing but kudos for his extraordinary work, but where else can the fingers point when the team is overloaded at linebacker and threadbare on the offensive line? Too bad Tully Banta-Cain and Matt Chatham can't play tackle.
New England also was seriously set back by the loss of rookie safety Guss Scott, who would be showcasing his talents often these days.
For New England to repeat as champions, all the news from trainer's room has to be good. Ty Law and Tyrone Poole need to get back on the field and stay, and Deion Branch has to return at full speed. And, of course, an injury to either Brady or Dillon would be fatal.
Among healthy players, there are a few who need to step it up in the second half. First on that list is Bethel Johnson, who needs to rediscover his groove on kick returns and accelerate his improvement as a receiver.
The AFC East
Winning the division should not be a problem. The Jets are the only ostensible competition, and it's hard to imagine them keeping pace. Quarterback Chad Pennington is nicked up, and the combined record of the Jets' remaining opponents is a daunting 38-26. Both Miami games are in the books, and the Jets' schedule includes Pittsburgh, New England, Seattle and Baltimore.
Elsewhere in the AFC
No other team looms large in the AFC. The Colts looked like the biggest threat early on, but now they'll be lucky to win the AFC South, where they are in a dogfight with Jacksonville. Both teams are 5-3 with tough schedules ahead. Slight edge goes to Jacksonville because Indianapolis finishes with four tough games: at home against Baltimore and San Diego, and on the road against Houston and Denver. Look for both teams to finish at 11-5, with the Jaguars winning the division and the Colts grabbing a wild card.
The race in the AFC West is just as good, with San Diego and Denver both at 6-3. Each has a relatively easy second-half schedule, and the race will likely be decided in the head-to-head matchup Dec. 5 in San Diego. Prediction: San Diego wins the division at 11-5. Denver finishes 10-6 and makes the playoffs as a wild card.
In the AFC North, the Ravens won't catch the Steelers, and they'll probably miss the wild card as well, due to a tough second-half schedule that should drop them to 9-7.
John is a regular contributor to the Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: oldnslow. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "John MacKenna"
If you are reading this article via a news portal, you can find the original on PatriotsInsider.com