NFL Playoff Picture: How Steelers can exploit Patriots, 8 stats to know for Week 15

Finally, the moment we've been waiting for all year long has arrived. It's here. Two elite enemies will be pitted against each other in a fight that should determine the balance of power. And a squad that has so frequently fallen to the empire over the years will get yet another chance to end its lengthy reign.

No, I'm not talking about "The Last Jedi." I'm talking about the Patriots-Steelers Week 15 clash in Pittsburgh on Sunday, which will likely determine which team secures home- field advantage throughout the postseason. 

Entering the game, the Steelers -- at 11-2 after a few unimpressive, last-second wins -- own the top seed over the 10-3 Patriots, who are coming off a dismal outing against the Dolphins. If the Steelers win and the Jaguars lose or tie, they'll secure home-field advantage. If the Patriots win, they'll take over the top spot and be in the driver's seat. 

For nearly the entire season, we've highlighted this game as the moment that will likely determine the entire fate of the AFC's portion of the postseason. No one -- not including those affiliated with the Steelers, of course -- believes the Steelers can go into Foxborough in January and beat the Patriots with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake. That turns this week into a must-win game for the Steelers. They're at home. And they have a chance to make sure the Patriots are forced to return to Pittsburgh come January.

For nearly the entire season, I haven't given the Steelers a chance to win Sunday's game. But after what we witnessed on Monday night, when Jay Cutler out-dueled Tom Brady in a convincing Dolphins win, I'm ready to believe in the Steelers' chances on Sunday. They shouldn't be favored and if I had to bet on the game, I'd take the Patriots. But they can beat the Patriots, who are actually beatable. They're not hopeless. 

They can beat the Patriots because they have the two best skill-position players on the field. Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are good enough to carry the Steelers to victory. If Cutler, Kenyan Drake, and Jarvis Landry found a way to rip through the Patriots' defense, so can the Steelers' Killer B's.

Bell leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 1,684 and offensive touches with 358. The Steelers need to make sure he hits quota of 27.5 touches per game for a few reasons.

The first is that by running the ball effectively or by using Bell efficiently in the short passing game, they can keep their offense on the field and as a result, keep Brady away from the football. The second is that the Patriots' defense can be exploited by running backs. On Monday night, Drake touched the ball 30 times and picked up 193 yards. He did most of his damage as a runner (25 carries for 114 yards), but don't discount his contributions in the passing game (five catches for 79 yards). 

The Dolphins split him out wide and let him work in space against slower linebackers.

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NFL Game Pass

Against Patriots linebacker Elandon Roberts, Drake caught all three of his targets for 58 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.

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NFL Game Pass

The Steelers can follow the Dolphins' strategy, but they can execute it even better considering they have Bell, arguably the best all-around back in football -- as you can see below in his receptions map via PFF:

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Pro Football Focus

The touchdown below, taken from the Steelers' recent win over the Ravens, should look similar to the Cutler-Drake slant play above -- except Bell ends his reception by blasting his way through two tacklers:

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The Steelers can exploit the Patriots by using Bell against their slower linebackers. It's a matchup they'll win.

When the Steelers do put the game in Ben Roethlisberger's hands, they need to find a way to force the ball into Brown, who has worked his way into the MVP conversation by leading the league in receptions with 99 and receiving yards with 1,509. He's also tied for the second-most touchdown catches with nine. Brown suddenly has a slim chance to become the first receiver to break the 2,000-yard barrier. It'll take a superhuman effort for him to get there -- he needs to average 163.7 yards per game from here on out.

But if anyone is capable of being superhuman, it's Brown.

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The strength of the Patriots' defense is its secondary, a group that features Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore, Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty, and Duron Harmon. That's a good group. But it's also a group that got exposed by the Dolphins on Monday night when Cutler completed 65.8 percent of his passes for 263 yards, three touchdowns, no picks, and a 112.1 passer rating. The Patriots' defense had no answers for one of the worst offenses in football.

Take a look at Cutler's passing map. He lit up the Patriots wherever he decided to challenge them. 

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Key: attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns, interceptions Pro Football Focus

They let Landry turn short passes into important plays.

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NFL Game Pass

The 5-foot-7 Jakeem Grant won against Butler.

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NFL Game Pass

And keep in mind, the Patriots' already awful night could've been way worse if not for Grant's shaky hands. He dropped what should've been a 50-plus-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.

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NFL Game Pass

The Dolphins exposed a Patriots' defense that entered the game allowing 11.9 points per game during their eight-game winning streak. The Dolphins proved that the Patriots' defense isn't nearly as good as we thought. There's no doubt the Steelers' offense boasts the necessary firepower to do what the Dolphins did. 

We cannot ignore the fact that the Patriots' defense was missing linebacker Kyle Van Noy (5.5 sacks and 58 tackles) and defensive end Trey Flowers (6.0 sacks). Defensive lineman Alan Branch departed early in the game with a knee injury. There's a very real chance that the Patriots' defense will be once again shorthanded, which gives the Steelers a chance to keep pace with Brady.

It'll be interesting to see if the Patriots decide to use the blitz as much as they did against the Dolphins. According to PFF, the Patriots decided to blitz Cutler 48.8 percent of the time, which is odd considering their season average is 27.3 percent. And Cutler torched them, going 15 of 19 for 177 yards, two touchdowns, and a 140.6 passer rating against the blitz, per PFF.

The best bet is that the Patriots get back to their more typical game-plan and use the blitz more sparingly. Big Ben has a 97.2 passer rating against the blitz, according to PFF. 

The Steelers need their quarterback to keep up his high level of play. Since his five-pick meltdown in Week 5, Roethlisberger has completed 64.5 percent of his passes, averaged north of 300 yards per game, thrown 18 touchdowns and six picks, and accumulated a 100.8 passer rating. He's peaking at the right time. The Steelers' offense will need to be the juggernaut we thought they'd be entering the season if they have any hope of beating the Patriots. The good news: In their past four games, they're averaging 33.3 points per game.

The bad news: Not many teams can stop Brady and the Patriots' stacked offense. But the Dolphins did. They did that by getting physical with the Patriots' receivers at the line of scrimmage and generating pressure 35.3 percent of the time, according to PFF. Brady's pressure rate this season is 31.6 percent -- the eighth-lowest in football, per PFF. So the Dolphins forced more pressure than Brady is accustomed to.

Don't expect the Patriots to suffer another offensive meltdown. They're getting Rob Gronkowski back from a one-game suspension. He's the kind of player who is physical enough to win at the line of scrimmage. 

And the Steelers don't like to do what the Dolphins did. They prefer to sit back in their zone coverage. That didn't work out so well the last time the two teams met. In the AFC title game last January, Brady picked apart the Steelers' zone defense, going 32 of 42 for 384 yards, three touchdowns, no picks, and a 127.5 passer rating. 

They're also without Ryan Shazier, who could've been used to chase down the Patriots' plethora of capable running backs. The Patriots' offense has the advantage over the Steelers' defense, even if they mix up their coverages. In short, expect the Patriots to score points.

That's why this game is all about the Steelers' offense. They have the best receiver and the best running back in football. They need them to play like it and they need Big Ben to continue his hot streak. If that happens then the Steelers will have a chance to beat the Patriots.

Luckily for Pittsburgh, the Dolphins just showed the rest of the NFL that there's still a way to take down the empire that is the Patriots. Luckily, the Steelers have the pieces to follow their game-plan and execute it at a higher level. Feature Bell heavily as a runner and also split him out wide against slower linebackers, and feed Brown. It might seem obvious, but it's the only way the Steelers can beat the Patriots. They need the Killer B's to perform up to their peak.

Read on for eight quick stats to know for Week 15 of the NFL season.

1. Tom Brady's Achilles heel?

In mid-to-late November, Brady began showing up on the injury report with an Achilles injury. He tried to downplay how that injury would affect him, but take a look at his numbers since that injury:

There's no way to know for sure if that injury is bothering him. But anytime a 40-year-old quarterback could be dealing with an injury, it's worth noting.

Or maybe Brady accidentally consumed gluten or caffeine and that's what's actually bothering him.

2. Xavien Howard's emergence

By beating the Patriots, the Dolphins kept their season alive. They'll likely need to win out to make the playoffs, but they do face the Bills twice and the Chiefs to close out the year. So, it's not impossible.

To run the table, they'll need Xavien Howard to continue his stellar run of play.

His entire highlight reel from Monday night is worth watching. He made chasing down Brandin Cooks to intercept a Brady deep ball look routine.

3. Nick Foles vs. Carson Wentz

The Eagles Super Bowl hopes are likely over with Carson Wentz out for the season with a torn ACL. But Nick Foles is good to enough to at least give the Eagles a fighting chance. No one is going to argue that Foles is just as good as Wentz. But he's one of the better backup quarterbacks in the NFL. Not too long ago, Foles set the record for the strangest stat line in sports history with a 27-touchdown, two-interception season.

The area the Eagles will likely miss Wentz? Third downs.

This week, Foles faces the hapless Giants, which should serve as a nice warm-up game before the tough ones begin. But if Foles falters, the Eagles can always move on to Plan B:

I'm all in.

4. Jaguars' chance at history

The Jaguars destroyed the Seahawks this past weekend, picking off Russell Wilson three times and destroying his MVP candidacy. The Jaguars' defense is why they actually have a chance to wind up with a first-round bye.

They're historically good, statistically at least:

They get the Texans this week. So expect another dominant showing.

5. Michael Thomas can join Odell Beckham

The Saints are likely playoff bound and most of the credit is going toward their running back duo, their resurgent defense, and Drew Brees. Don't forget about second-year receiver Michael Thomas, though.

He's on the verge of joining Odell Beckham in an exclusive club.

Thomas could be in for a huge day against the Jets.

6. An odd Matt Ryan stat

The Falcons beat the Saints last week even though Ryan threw three picks. Here's a strange stat about Ryan and his three-pick games:

Weird.

7. Mike McCarthy in December

Well, Aaron Rodgers is back. And the Packers' playoff hopes are alive. The rest of the NFL had a chance to put away the Packers with Rodgers injured for the past two months. Instead, they let them hang around. They're now in a position for Rodgers to run the table and lead the Packers into the postseason.

Don't be surprised if it happens. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Jeff Maillet pointed out, the Packers are 35-13 in December under Mike McCarthy. Will anyone be surprised if the Packers go 3-0 with Rodgers and sneak into the postseason?

It won't be easy. They face the Panthers, Vikings, and Lions to close the year. And they'll need some help along the way.

8. Two West divisions could be decided

On Sunday, the Seahawks will host the Rams. If they win, they'll have the same record as the Rams and because they will have swept the season series, they'll take control over the NFC West. 

Meanwhile, the Chiefs will host the Chargers on Saturday. Both teams are 7-6. They're tied atop the AFC West. The last time they met, the Chiefs won. So if the Chiefs win again, they'll essentially take a two-game lead over the Chargers.

For the entire playoff picture, click right here.

CBS Sports Writer

Sean Wagner-McGough joined CBS Sports in 2015 after graduating from UC Berkeley. A native of Seattle, Sean now resides in the Bay Area. He spends his spare time defending Jay Cutler on Twitter. Full Bio

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