As the New England Patriots prepare for their Week 15 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, which will likely decide the which team will earn the AFC's top seed in the postseason, here are some pregame story lines to keep in mind:

Playing For The Top Seed- The game will likely decide which team claims the top seed in the AFC playoff standings, as the 10-3 Pats battle the 11-2 Steelers. If Pittsburgh wins the game, they will all but lock up the top spot, being two games better than the Pats and holding the tie-breaker with a head-to-head win. If New England wins the game, the two teams will have identical records and New England will hold the tie-breaker, meaning, if they finish the season with identical records, the Pats will take the top seed.

Looking To Bounce Back- The Pats will be looking to bounce back off of an ugly loss to the Miami Dolphins on Monday night. While the Pats looked extremely underwhelming in all three phases of the game against Miami, they still have plenty to play for in Pittsburgh and will likely be getting a couple of key guys back on offense and defense. Some bad news for the Steelers, however, is that the Pats very rarely have to clunkers back-to-back. After getting their tails whipped on Monday, look for Brady and company to come out looking for vengeance.

Return Of Gronk- After missing last week's loss due to a suspension for a dirty hit in the game against Buffalo, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski will be back on the field this Sunday in Pittsburgh. Without Gronkowski, the Patriot offense failed to do much of anything in Miami, including going 0-11 on third down. The Dolphin defense took advantage of the fact that they did not have to account for the All-Pro tight end, during their game, and used a scheme of exotic blitzes to bring relentless pressure to Brady. With Gronkowski back on the field, the Pats will be able to open up their offensive playbook, utilize the middle of the field and likely hide some of their other weapons behind the difference-making offensive weapon.

A Chance To Clinch The Division- Sunday's game will also serve as a second chance for the Pats to clinch the AFC East division. After failing to do so last week, the Pats need just a win on Sunday to get their division champ hats and t-shirts. Pittsburgh clinched the AFC North division last week, with their 39-38, shootout win over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.

Getting Back on Track- After a tough week last week, in which he threw two picks and totaled just 233 yards on 24-43 passing, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will look to bounce back and get his offense back on track in Pittsburgh. Brady has a great track record against the Steelers, going 7-2 in nine regular season meetings and 3-0 against Pittsburgh in the postseason. He has put up solid numbers in those 12 games, completing 69.97% of his passes for an average of just over 294 yards per game. He has also compiled a 29-3 touchdown to interception ratio, over those games.

Top Offenses Duel- The Game will likely become a duel of two of the league's top offenses, as the Pats enter the game as the league's second ranked offense and Pittsburgh ranks fourth. New England is also fourth in scoring offense, while the Steelers are in the top 10, at number eight. The game might come down to whether Brady can utilize Gronkowski, Cooks, Lewis, Hogan and Burkhead better than Roethlisberger can utilize Brown, Bell, Smith-Schuster and Bryant.

Defense Dip- The New England defense experienced a somewhat unexpected dip in performance last week, as they gave up 27 points to Miami. Prior to that, the unit hadn't given up more than 17 points in eight straight games. The fact that the team played last week's game without starting linebacker Kyle Van Noy and top pass rusher Trey Flowers, along with losing defensive tackle Alan Branch early in the first half, could be a reason for the decline. Van Noy was not listed on the team's final injury report of the week, which signals his return to the lineup, and Flowers is likely to return after being a limited participant in practice this week. Though Branch is out with a knee injury, the return of Van Noy and possibly Flowers should help right the ship for the Pats, as they battle a potentially prolific Pittsburgh offense.

Challenge For Banged Up DBs- New England's top defensive backs, Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore both showed up on the team's injury report this week, with ankle injuries. Gilmore, who is on the team's final injury report and listed as questionable, and Butler will be asked to do a lot of Sunday, as they'll have to cover Pittsburgh full compliment of top-flight receivers, led by the dangerous Antonio Brown. If both Butler and Gilmore can play, it will be interesting to see if the injuries slow either of them down. Look for Gilmore, if he's good to go, to lock down Pitt's second option, while Butler will probably get Brown with lots of help over the top.

Prediction- The Pats don't lay many eggs and last week was certainly a rather big example of one. With that in mind, it's tough to rationalize New England getting beat twice in a row, especially this late in the season. With key guys back on both sides of the ball, the Pats should be back to their normal selves. Pittsburgh will probably get their points and add to the scoring, but with Gronkowski back the Patriot offense should be much better than they looked on Monday night. Expect a higher scoring affair, but a Patriot victory that will make the last two weeks of the season very interesting.

Pats 38, Steelers 24 






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