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Steelers’ thrilling win sets stage for showdown with Patriots

The good news is this wild ride of a season took another thrilling turn Sunday night at Heinz Field. The Steelers overcame an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit and beat the Ravens 39-38 on Chris Boswell‘s 46-yard field goal with 42 seconds left. The victory clinched the Steelers’ third AFC North title in four seasons.

The bad news is that the Steelers’ defense is a sitting duck for Tom Brady and the Patriots, who come to Heinz Field next week in a game the Steelers need to win to have any realistic shot at Super Bowl LII.

Get ready for Brady to neutralize the Steelers’ pass rush, as he always does, by surgically moving the ball up the field eight, 10, 12 yards at a time with that quick release of his. And guess who could be back on the field Monday night in Miami.

Chris Hogan.

That’s right, the guy the Steelers couldn’t cover during the AFC championship game in January.

And there’s this guy named Brandin Cooks who wasn’t even a part of that offense that hung 36 points on the Steelers 11 months ago.

Oh joy.

Can this Steelers defense stop the Patriots? Probably not.

But maybe they don’t have to.

According to Pro Football Reference, the Steelers (11-2) won a game while allowing 37 or more points for the first time in their history.

Can they do it a second time?

We figured back in August that this was the way the Steelers would have to win games. But looking at the schedule, we probably pegged Week 14 as a classic Ravens-Steelers scrum, 13-10, 20-17 perhaps. Instead, we got the highest-scoring game in the 21-year history of the rivalry, beating the 76 points the teams put up in the Steelers’ 42-34 win at Baltimore in 1997.

It’s asking a lot of any offense to score 39 points against the Ravens, who were ranked seventh defensively heading into the game. The Steelers not only did that but they torched the Ravens for 545 yards of offense, the most the Ravens have allowed since their inaugural season in 1996. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 506 of those yards, becoming the first quarterback in NFL history with three 500-yard passing games and the first one this year to throw for 300 yards against the Ravens.

The Steelers would not be Super Bowl contenders without Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and certainly not Boswell, who kicked his fourth game-winning field goal of the season.

But no one has pulled this team’s feet from the fire this season more than Antonio Brown.

With 11 catches for 213 yards Sunday, Bell has caught 39 passes for 627 yards over the past four games. He tallied 136 of those yards on five catches in the fourth quarter Sunday. That included a 57-yard play that set up a 1-yard touchdown pass to Roosevelt Nix that pulled the Steelers to within 31-29 with 9:15 left. And it was Brown who brought the Steelers into field-goal range with a 34-yard sideline grab on third down with a minute left.

Does Brown deserve MVP consideration? Yes. Will he become the first wide receiver to win the award? Who cares. The Steelers have a championship they’re trying to win.

When it comes to accolades, Jesse James earned one Sunday night. This honor has been bestowed upon him pretty much since he caught his first career pass in 2015, but he never deserved it more than he did in this game. Even though Heath Miller retired two years ago, the tradition of the deep-throated “Heeeeeaaaaath!” salutes lives on whenever James catches a pass. The tight end caught 10 of them Sunday for 97 yards, both career highs. Those 10 receptions even matched Miller’s career high. Three of them came on the game-winning drive.

Terrell Suggs, ever the Heinz Field villain, sacked Roethlisberger on the drive’s first play, planting the Steelers at their own 8 with 2:25 left. Roethlisberger found James on the next three plays, including a 16-yard pickup on third-and-13. There wasn’t much of a “Heeeeeaaaaath” chant on that one. The crowd was probably busy exhaling. But “Heeeeeaaaaath!” rained down once more when James caught a 6-yard pass on the next play. Two plays after that came the 34-yard hookup with Brown to set the stage for Boswell.

Unlike Boswell’s field goals against the Colts, Packers and Bengals, this wasn’t quite a walkoff. The Ravens still had 42 seconds to get within Justin Tucker‘s intercontinental field-goal range.

For once, however, the Steelers played like they actually had 11 defenders on the field. Their only sack of the game couldn’t have come at a better time. T.J. Watt‘s sixth of the year essentially ended the game, securing the Steelers’ first three-game winning streak against the Ravens since their last championship season in 2008.

Without Ryan Shazier and Joe Haden, the Steelers don’t have anything that resembles their defense of a decade ago. They’ve been stopping opponents when they need to in certain spots, but it’s been a while since they’ve put together a solid 60 minutes.

The Patriots (10-2), meanwhile, haven’t allowed 20 points in a game since Week 4 after allowing at least that many in each of their first four games. They’re still 30th in the league with 375.7 yards allowed per game, but they’ve allowed their opponents to score touchdowns on less than 29 percent of their trips inside the red zone over their last three games. That stinginess will be tested against the Steelers, who have scored on seven of their last 10 red zone chances over their last three games.

Traditionally, the Patriots take away their opponent’s biggest strength on offense. Perhaps they put the clamps on Brown and take their chances with Bell, who is averaging less than four yards per carry despite leading the league with 1,105 rushing yards. But they also have to account for Bell as a receiver. He caught nine passes for 77 yards and a touchdown Sunday, running routes like someone whose uniform number is in the 80s.

Stopping the Steelers might seem like a daunting task for the Patriots, but they’re not losing sleep over it. Assuming they take care of business at Miami, they don’t need to win Sunday’s game as badly as the Steelers do. The Steelers need to beat the Patriots and win one of their last two games to earn the top seed in the AFC and avoid a trip to Gillette Stadium in January. The Patriots, well, they’ve shown they can win on a big stage at Heinz Field. The Steelers, as if anyone needs to be reminded, have never beaten Brady at Gillette Stadium.

So the Steelers probably have to beat the Patriots twice to get to Super Bowl LII, because if they lose the first time, they have little chance of winning the second time.

Their best chance to win the first time is to keep Brady off the field as much as possible.

That will be up to the offense, which is finally living up to its billing.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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