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AFC Championship Game primer: Steelers-Patriots

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Background


A conference championship matchup of this magnitude has the full cachet of a heavyweight title bout during the prime of Muhammad Ali's career.

The duel for a ninth Super Bowl.

Since Ben Roethlisberger was drafted in 2004, the Patriots (.765) and Steelers (.661) boast the two highest winning percentages in the league. New England (17) is the only team with more playoff wins than Pittsburgh (13) in the last dozen years. For the 10th time since the turn of the century, the Super Bowl will feature one of these two organizations.

Do you fancy marquee quarterbacks?

Tom Brady (23) and Roethlisberger (13) rank first and second in postseason wins among active quarterbacks. This will be just the third playoff game in history featuring opposing QBs with multiple Super Bowl rings. Brady is making his 11th career start in a conference title game. The Steelers (16), 49ers (15) and Cowboys (14) are the only teams with more appearances in the conference championship game, per NFL Research.

Think Green Bay and Atlanta are rolling?

As impressive as the Packers and Falcons have been since the beginning of December, neither AFC superpower has lost since Week 10. The Steelers and Patriots are a combined 17-0 since Nov. 14, each ranking in the top-five in every major offensive and defensive category over that two-month span. In fact, New England hasn't trailed in a game since Week 12, going 361 minutes and 56 seconds of game time since they last faced a deficit -- the longest streak in 11 years.

Can the surging Steelers go into Gillette Stadium and slay the AFC's end boss, the most successful coach-quarterback combination of the modern era?

Players under pressure


Patriots offensive line: The Broncos advanced to the Super Bowl last season by battering Brady to the tune of 17 hits behind an injury-ravaged offensive line. Although this year's pass protection has improved steadily throughout the season, Brady took eight shots from a Texans defense that sent edge rushers through the interior of New England's front line. It's no coincidence that Brady turned in his worst performance of the season last week, matching his interception total from the previous 12 games combined.

The way to beat any quarterback is with consistent pressure in his face. It just seems like that's the only way to throw Brady off his game. The Patriots are just 2-4 (.333) in postseason games when Brady absorbs at least three sacks as opposed to 21-5 (.808) when he is sacked two or fewer times. One advantage in the offensive line's favor: Brady has toyed with Pittsburgh's defense in the past, posting a higher TD-to-INT ratio (19:0) and passer rating (127.5) against Mike Tomlin than any other coach he has faced at least three times.

Steelers wide receivers: One of the most aggressive teams in the league has gone conservative of late, content to ride the hot hand of Le'Veon Bell and play ball-control offense to complement a suddenly stingy defense. That approach worked against overmatched playoff teams such as the Dolphins and Chiefs, but Todd Haley will have to open his offense to keep up with the Patriots' multi-faceted attack.

"It's important we get consistent contributions from guys not named Antonio Brown," Tomlin said in early November. Although Eli Rogers is credible in the slot, the Steelers aren't getting enough production from the outside rotation of Cobi Hamilton, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Demarcus Ayers. Meanwhile, deep threat Sammie Coates remains an afterthought after breaking two fingers at midseason.

You don't need me to remind you that Brown has manufactured his own pressure this week. On top of that, he's going to have to contend with top cornerback Malcolm Butler in shadow coverage. Brown was the only star receiver this season to get the shadow treatment from Butler, who held his own in their Week 7 clash with Landry Jones under center.

Matchup to watch


Le'Veon Bell vs. Patriots run defense: It's a testament to the extraordinary nature of Bell's historically great two-month stretch that he headlines this category over two of the most successful quarterbacks of the 21st century. In this good old-fashioned matchup of unstoppable force vs. immovable object, the magic number is 90. The third-ranked Patriots run defense has not allowed a 90-yard rusher in 24 games. The Steelers, on the other hand, are 9-0 this season when Bell rushes for at least 90 yards.

Peaking at age 32, behemoth defensive tackle Alan Branch leads a New England defensive front that has limited the fearsome foursome of Bell, David Johnson, LeSean McCoy and Jay Ajayi to an average of 75 rushing yards this season. The January version of Bell is a different animal altogether, though. He just became the first player in NFL history to rush for at least 150 yards in each of his first two career postseason games. He leads the NFL in carries per game, touches per game, rushing yards per game and scrimmage yards per game. As if the uniquely talented back isn't imposing enough, he's running behind an unsung offensive line that ranks first in yards before contact (3.2) and fewest run plays stuffed (13), per NFL Research.

Prediction


Both of these defenses have stiffened throughout the season, peaking in December and January. Since their respective winning streaks started, though, neither has been tested by a prolific offense with a special quarterback directing the show.

Led by a trio of superstars, the Steelers are a well-balanced outfit with no glaring weakness, capable of beating any team. The Patriots, on the other hand, have the luxury of leaning on the NFL's No. 1 scoring defense to complement the greatest quarterback to ever stalk the gridiron.

Just as important, Bill Belichick has concocted two of the most notable running-back game plans in NFL history, designed to thwart Thurman Thomas' Buffalo Bills and Marshall Faulk's "Greatest Show on Turf." If Pittsburgh's grinding ground attack has a weakness, there's no better candidate to find it and exploit it.

When in doubt, tip your hat to the Patriots' staggering 16-3 (.842) home playoff record under Belichick and Brady.

New England Patriots 30, Pittsburgh Steelers 27
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