The New England Patriots will square off with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC championship on Sunday, January 22nd at 6:40 PM. This one could turn into a shootout as both offenses are high-octane. New England has the ageless wonder, Tom Brady, while the Steelers have two-time Super Bowl-winner Ben Roethlisberger. The Patriots have outstanding wideout Julian Edelman and rookie standout Malcolm Mitchell leading the wide receivers, while Pittsburgh has all-world wide receiver Antonio Brown. Le’Veon Bell has been a yardage machine since his return from a 3-game suspension, while LeGarrette Blount has led the NFL with an amazing 18 touchdowns. Both teams have great players at the skill position, making this a very interesting game.
Last week, the Steelers beat the Chiefs 18-16 in a game where Chris Boswell kicked 6 field goals to lead Pittsburgh to the win. This week, they need to convert in the redzone more often to stand a chance against the mighty Patriots. They have the weapons. Le’Veon Bell cruised to 170 yards on 30 carries against a tough Kansas City run defense and could do the same against a good but not great New England defense. While they are the number one scoring defense in the NFL, they are 16th in DVOA, a statistic that measures a defense’s performance against an NFL baseline. If the Patriots somehow manage to keep Bell in check, they will have to face the threat of possibly the best wide receiver in the league, Antonio Brown. Brown did have an incident in the locker room after their win over the Chiefs where he livestreamed his coach saying how much he hates the Patriots. This could prove to be a spark in an ever-growing rivalry. Malcolm Butler will definitely have his hands full with Brown. The Steelers will need their offense to get going as soon as possible to beat the 15-2 Patriots.
The Patriots are good as ever with Bill Belichick leading another dominant team. Tom Brady might have missed 4 games due to suspension, but that just lit a fire in him. He had a superb year, breaking the NFL record for touchdown to interception ratio. He threw 28 touchdowns against just 2 interceptions, but did toss 2 interceptions in the win over Houston next week. Julian Edelman will probably see a lot of targets, but Malcolm Mitchell might make his return this week. The rookie had 401 yards and 3 touchdowns, and grew into a key cog in the offense late in the season. His return will be needed for an offense that sorely misses Rob Gronkowski. Dion Lewis had a big game, with a receiving, rushing, and return touchdown. He could be a big part of the offense as well, with LeGarrette Blount providing a strong rushing attack between the tackles. The Patriots have so many weapons even without Gronkowski, which makes them a strong pick to win this game.
Here are your keys to the game.
- Get Brady Going: Last week against the Texans, Brady never got into a rhythm and finished just 18-38 for 287 yards. Big plays, especially to Edelman, helped bump his yardage total, but this week he needs to be more sound. If he gets in a rhythm, watch out. Getting Mitchell back helps his cause even more, making this a tough job for the Steelers’ defense.
- Contain Le’Veon Bell: Warning. This is much easier than it sounds. Bell has patience that has never been seen before and hits the hole as fast as anyone. Bell can also catch passes out of the backfield, making it that much harder to contain him. The Patriots linebackers will have to step up, and make their presence known in the backfield. It will be interesting to see what Matt Patricia, the defensive coordinator, dials up for the beast that is Le’Veon Bell.
- Force Turnovers: When Brady threw two interceptions against the Texans last week, the Texans couldn’t take advantage of them and lost by 18. Turnovers against the Steelers could be a nail in the coffin for the Patriots. The Steelers have a much more high-powered attack than the mediocre Texans do, and capitalizing on those turnovers will be a key to a possible win.
- Get the B’s Going: Big Ben, Brown, and Bell need to be as good as they can be on Sunday. Roethlisberger needs to find his rhythm, but sometimes just handing the rock to Bell could be the best option. There is a high possibility that Bell gashes this Patriots defense, and if they sell out against the run, there’s Antonio Brown streaking down the field for a long gain. Getting those three going is the biggest priority for Mike Tomlin and his crew.
Prediction: I think that this will be a close, high-scoring affair, but Tom Brady leads the Patriots to another Super Bowl Appearance.