Amazing how in the last 16 seasons, two teams have established themselves as mainstays in the AFC playoff picture. Since the 2001 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers produced 11 playoff seasons. While the New England Patriots have manufactured 14 such seasons. In that same time period, the two teams have combined for six Super Bowl titles out of a combined nine appearances.
So you can view the Steelers and Patriots as NFL royalty, so to speak.
The two teams meet on Sunday with a Super Bowl spot on the line. What is interesting here is that the last ten meetings between the two teams have New England winning seven of those match-ups. Can the Steelers overcome the recent funk against the Patriots? Or will New England once again reign supreme? Here is the preview for Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.
What To Know About Pittsburgh
It’s a similar tale that we have seen more than once before. The Steelers stand tall above others behind their dangerous trio on offense. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has once again been effective enough to make a considerable difference. His Pro Bowl 2016 regular season was quite impressive despite being a walking medical ward. The Steelers have produced at least 367 total yards of offense in each of the past two weeks. However, both wins (against Miami and Kansas City) were mainly due to running back Le’Veon Bell gashing defenses. Bell has run for 337 yards in the past two weeks and averaged 5.6 yards per carry along the way. As a matter of fact, Bell has rushed for at least 118 yards in seven of the last eight games, including playoffs. While teams have focused heavily on Bell, big plays seem to manifest for receiver Antonio Brown. The All-Pro receiver is averaging 116 receiving yards per game this postseason.
The Steelers also have the #1 defense in the playoffs. A defense that is led by a sneaky good linebacker corps. Veteran linebacker James Harrison is tied for second in tackles with 16 during the playoffs. Where his impact is truly felt is bringing down the quarterback, where he leads the playoffs with 2.5 sacks. Inside linebackers, Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons have been outstanding performers as well. The three, along with second-year linebacker Bud Dupree, are the main reasons why Pittsburgh has allowed just 14 points per game during the playoffs. A run defense that has allowed only 56.5 rushing yards per game has been incredibly stout as well. Rookie nose tackle Javon Hargrave and defensive end Stephon Tuitt are players to watch based on their consistent activity in that department.
What To Know About New England
When it comes to playoff performances, quarterback Tom Brady is in a higher echelon. So seeing Brady throw two interceptions and complete only 47% of his passes in the Divisional Round against Houston was out of the ordinary. Nonetheless, Brady has placed the Patriots on the brink of yet another Super Bowl berth. Not having his ace tight end in Rob Gronkowski may have a little to do with the sour performance. However, that does not mean Brady is lacking in weapons. Receiver Julian Edelman is still a key cog in it all. His eight catches last week was clear evidence. Fellow receiver Chris Hogan is another prototype Patriots receiver and has been relied on by Brady at times. New England has also incorporated a slate of running backs. Leading the charge is power back LeGarrette Blount. Yet, backup Dion Lewis made the headlines with three touchdowns scored last week in three different ways.
In the defensive secondary, free safety Devin McCourty and cornerback Malcolm Butler provide that veteran reliability. The two, of course, will have all eyes on the one-two punch in Pittsburgh in Brown and Bell. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower will also be monitoring Bell. The fifth-year vet is the leader of the defense and is often overlooked. Defensive lineman Malcolm Brown has also been a bright spot for the Patriots.
The Patriots at home in the playoffs has been a mountain to climb for most teams. Even with that being the case, Pittsburgh is definitely capable of overcoming that challenge.
The offensive trio of Pittsburgh gets the spotlight but their defense has made considerable strides. It may not be star-studded, but the unit is aggressive and capable of making key stops when called upon. A pair of rookies in corner Artie Burns and strong safety Sean Davis have played solid during the postseason. On the other hand, their rookie status means they will be the focus of Brady in the passing game.
Against Houston last week, the Patriots provided a few opportunities for the Texans to make big plays. It was a clear sign of a Houston team that had little playoff experience to capitalize. Those type of big plays presented to Pittsburgh will most likely be exploited on. With a veteran-led offense, Big Ben and company will turn those big plays into points.
There is a nice chess match here between two Super Bowl winning coaches in Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and New England’s Bill Belichick. It will be wise to monitor the in-game adjustments between both. How either defensive minded head coach schematically pressures the opposing QB the most may prove to be distinctive enough.
The two teams met back in late October and the Patriots were victorious 27-16 in Pittsburgh. Blount gained 127 yards and two touchdowns and proved to be the equalizer. What was different was the absence of Roethlisberger due to a knee injury. That just goes to show how much of a difference Roethlisberger makes when inserted.
What we saw last week was unusual for Brady and the Patriots. Especially in a home playoff setting. This Steelers team is not the young Texans. They are not awestruck and wide-eyed. One thing is for sure, they will make Brady and the Patriots earn it. Ultimately, the Steelers defense makes a few game-changing plays and disrupts Brady. Enough for the opportunistic Pittsburgh offense to control the clock and dictate game flow which leads to a huge victory.
Score – Pittsburgh 26 New England 21