After watching nearly an entire season of football, I'm convinced the Pittsburgh Steelers are the team to beat in the AFC.
The Patriots have been able to hide their 32nd-ranked defense behind an offensive juggernaut that rolls up 30.9 points per game. Tom Brady and Co.'s ability to seemingly score at will forces opponents to abandon their traditional game plans. However, the Patriots' inability to get stops in critical situations raises serious doubts about their title chances.
1. The Steel Curtain is still championship-caliber. A defense deemed too old and slow prior to the season has continued to rank as one of the league's stingiest units. The Steelers lead the league in total defense and pass defense, while allowing the second-fewest points.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has been instrumental in the unit's superb play by tweaking his blitz-heavy tactics to feature more man pressures with press coverage to suffocate opposing passing games. With their corners aggressively jamming receivers at the line, the Steelers have been able to disrupt the timing of the routes on the outside and give their dynamic rush tandem of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley more time to wreak havoc off the edges. As a result, the Steelers are only allowing 5.7 yards per pass attempt, which leads the league. More importantly, they have the ability to create negative plays off sacks and pressures that ultimately alter the game.
2. Big Ben is clutch. In a quarterback-driven league, it is essential to have a signal caller who can win games on the strength of his arm, and few in the league are better than Roethlisberger. While his style is far from what we are accustomed to seeing at the position, Roethlisberger's masterful improvisational skills in the pocket frequently produces big plays. His knack for eluding oncoming rushers on blitzes while keeping his eyes focused downfield puts defensive coordinators in a quandary when creating game plans for the Steelers. If they sit back in coverage, Roethlisberger is capable of picking them apart with pinpoint throws to receivers sitting down in open areas. If the defense opts to pressure, his ability to escape and create with his feet or arm leads to game-changing plays.
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Roethlisberger has directed 26 game-winning drives in his career, including 20 fourth-quarter comebacks. Tom Brady has 34 game-winning drives and 24 fourth-quarter comebacks in his 12-year career. With Brady as the only other established clutch performer in the AFC field, it is hard to bet against Roethlisberger leading the Steelers to a win with the ball in his hands and the game on the line.
3. The Steelers' offensive personnel is capable of thriving in any style. Pittsburgh can spread the field with four- and five-receiver sets that feature two of the most explosive playmakers in the league (Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown). Wallace, with 71 receptions, 1,182 yards and eight touchdowns, is the vertical threat capable of blowing the top off coverage, and Roethlisberger loves to target him on early down situations to take advantage of single high safety looks. Brown, who has 63 receptions for 1,018 yards and two touchdowns, is a terrific runner in the open field, and the Steelers feature him extensively on crossing routes and quick screens. In addition, he gives them an added weapon in the kicking game with his electrifying return skills.
Rashard Mendenhall is the X-factor who gives the Steelers offense the balance that others in the AFC lack. With 890 yards, he is within reach of his third straight 1,000-yard season, and is coming off an 18-carry, 116-yard effort that suggests he is beginning to kick it into high gear heading into the postseason. In the playoffs, an offense must have the ability to generate points from the passing game, while running out the clock with a punishing ground attack. The Steelers might be the only offense capable of doing it consistently in the postseason.
4. The Steelers' playoff experience gives them a significant advantage. The fact that the Steelers have been to three Super Bowls in the past six years is a tremendous asset. The veteran core has experience making title runs from a lower seeding, which will give them confidence if they are unable to secure the second seed in Week 17. The prospect of winning three road games will not appear as daunting a task, as the Steelers did just that in 2006 when they entered the postseason as the sixth seed. Roethlisberger, Ward, Troy Polamalu and a handful of other veterans played prominent roles on that squad, and they will be able to relay their experiences to the younger players.
Those younger Steelers can learn from their Super Bowl run last season. Playoff wins are hard to come by, and the value of understanding the thin margin of error can be a huge benefit. With all that playoff experience to draw from, there is no doubt Pittsburgh has an edge over its AFC counterparts heading into the playoffs.