This week's result all in the numbers
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What exactly will shake out Sunday at Heinz Field when the Steelers and the New England Patriots conduct their three-hour examination of each other's AFC worthiness is not easy to say, at least nowhere near as easy as identifying what you will not see.
You will not see a 6-3 final and you will not see 12-7, two combinations that came up this past weekend in NFL numerology.
The question of the week is simply this: What is the number?
How many points does Mike Tomlin's team need to beat the Patriots? In the Tom Brady Era, the Steelers never have beaten the Patriots without the number being at least 33, and that was with backup Matt Cassell struggling to answer with 10. In the only game the Steelers won with Brady on the field, the number was 34, coming on Halloween Night, 2004.
What is the target number this week, 35, 37? In November 2010, 39 would not have won it because Brady three threw touchdown passes and ran for another at Heinz Field to administer a 39-26 beating that was nowhere near that close.
Football coaches, particularly those with a defensive pedigree such as Tomlin, do not like to entertain pregame notions that suggest they might need five touchdowns to win, but the head coach said Tuesday he will not discount such a necessity.
"I would hope not," he said at his weekly news conference. "I hope I wouldn't let pride or ego or some comfort zone prevent me from considering all the possibilities. I fashion myself as being more intelligent than that. We'll see."
I had just wondered out loud if Tomlin ever thinks, "Ya know, this week I'm gonna need 41 points."
There was a notable lack of scoffing, it happens.
In the recent history of Brady-to-Canton Express, the available methods of beating New England have been limited to two. You either score a bunch of points (eight of the past 10 teams to beat Brady scored at least four touchdowns, including the Cleveland Browns, of all people, who hung 34 on New England Nov. 7 and won by 20) or you put Brady on the ground five times.
The New York Giants, staring down an 18-0 opponent in Super Bowl XLII, got to Brady five times and wound up turning an impossible David Tyree catch into a 17-14 victory. The New York Jets did the same thing -- five sacks -- in eliminating the Patriots from the AFC playoffs last season.
Tuesday, Tomlin hinted that the five-sack solution is less than full proof.
"I don't know that sacks determine success against them," Tomlin said. "If they are in [an] empty [set] all the time and the ball is coming out fast, sacks might not be part of the equation."
But just a month ago Tuesday, a third way to beat New England emerged and shockingly so because no one knew it was possible. The Buffalo Bills intercepted Brady four times and won, 34-31. Of course, I wouldn't try this at home, not with the Steelers secondary in its current incarnation. Talented as it is, interceptions have not exactly been its trump card. Four picks on Brady? You would be asking for double the interceptions in one afternoon as the Steelers managed the first seven weeks.
With the sack solution called into question and the four-pick fantasy merely that, the Steelers must turn to putting up a big number, like 41.
Most weeks, 41 will work, I've found. Done only twice in the Tomlin era, against Cleveland and St. Louis, five touchdowns and two field goals would come in very handy against New England, which has scored between 30 and 38 in every game but one.
Tomlin was not entertaining any suspicion, however, that these Patriots are susceptible to that kind of yield, never mind all kinds of empirical evidence that suggests the opposite.
"That's a function of them just whacking people," Tomlin scoffed (there is a good scoff in every Tomlin news conference). "Teams are getting way behind, and they're throwin' the ball around and accumulating some yardage. It's insignificant."
Even though Tomlin was, at that moment, finally beginning to sound like a former secondary coach and defensive coordinator, I think he is right because that is exactly the kind of circumstance in which Ben Roethlisberger piled up a season-high 387 passing yards against New England last year, with a season-high 30 completions in a season-high 49 attempts. It was highly insignificant. That all happened essentially because as the third quarter drew to its close, New England led, 23-3.
So 41 won't be easy; it is merely the best option. I'd like to say 40 would win it, but no, I really can't vouch for 40.
First Published October 26, 2011 12:00 am