AFC Championship Game
(3) Pittsburgh Steelers at (1) New England Patriots
Steelers: After their game in Kansas City, there was a positive and a negative that I took away from everything. The positive was their defense and how they basically kept the team in the game. The negative was their offense and how they couldn’t capitalize on any opportunities when they were they were there. Despite that, they still found a way to win the football game on the leg of Chris Boswell as he kicked six field goals and kept the Steelers in the game. They’ve now won nine games in a row and are rolling and it helps when you have key guys healthy. I’ve stated all year that if they want to make a nice run, they need Le’Veon Bell to be at 100 percent and when he is, you get big games from him and it makes you sit here and say to yourself, what could the Steelers have done if he hadn’t been injured in their last two playoff appearances. He’s so much fun to watch and the trio of Bell, Ben and Brown could be the best offensive trio in the league today. What’s also impressed me has been the defense which has been up and down and when you think of the Steelers, they will always be known for having a solid defensive unit. At the beginning of the year, they were very up and down and struggled to stop the run. Jay Ajayi had a big game on them and so did Ezekiel Elliott. Since then, they’ve really clamped down and stopped the run. The linebacking core is the heart and soul of the defense. James Harrison is 38 years old and still, plays at such a high level. The Steelers are looking to get to their ninth Super Bowl in franchise history and they’ll have to beat a team that’s had their number over the years.
Patriots: They’ve put together another great season. In their first four games, we simply saw the brilliance of Bill Belichick and the Patriots as they won three of their first four games while Brady was serving his four-game suspension. Brady comes back, plays in twelve games and he doesn’t miss a beat. He throws 28 touchdown passes and a league low, two interceptions and leads the Patriots to an 11-1 record, another AFC East division title, a first-round bye for the sixth straight season and the top overall seed in this year’s playoffs with a 14-2 mark. That’s remarkable. Last week against Houston, I wasn’t impressed with how the Patriots looked. It could’ve been because of the week off and at times, the team with the bye can come out the gates rusty, but something just seemed off. The offensive line struggled to protect Tom Brady, LeGarrette Blount was stopped and the defense struggled to shut down the run and Brady threw two picks, all of what he threw the entire season. Despite that, the Patriots won the football game because the defense made plays when they had too. Knowing them, they will look at the tape from last week, Belichick will yell at them and go over what they can correct and in typical Patriot fashion, they’ll be preparing for the next opponent. Brady will start in his 33rd career playoff game, which is absolutely remarkable and it’s all been with one team. He and Belichick have had great success together as a tandem. With a win on Sunday, this would be the franchise’s ninth appearance in the Super Bowl and the team’s seventh during the Belichick era.
Steelers Player To Watch: Eli Rogers– When your two best playmakers are guys by the names of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, those are the first two guys that Bill Belichick will try to eliminate those two and of course, force you to get the ball to someone else. Eli Rogers has been another nice target for Ben and on Sunday, I look for Todd Haley to get him going early on and line him up in the slot to draw Logan Ryan to defend him. If Rogers can move the chains and make crucial catches when necessary, this will set up some great opportunities for the Steelers offense, they will control the ball and put points up on the Patriots defense.
Patriots Player To Watch: Rob Ninkovich– He’s one of the guys you don’t hear much about on that defense. The Patriots allowed the Texans to control the time of possession last Saturday and it’s very important they don’t allow a high octane offense like the Steelers do the same thing. Ninkovich isn’t the same guy he once was, but he still makes a play or two that could ultimately impact the game. He’ll be key in containing Ben Roethlisberger and stopping Le’Veon Bell.
Steelers Keys To The Game: When they are in the red zone, three won’t cut it. Luckily, the Chiefs hurt themselves in that game last week. The Steelers need to come away with six points because if they don’t, time will run out on their season. Stopping Blount and limiting Dion Lewis is also a very important key. Blount had a huge game against them in their first meeting and Dion Lewis had the best game of his career. Lastly, pressure Brady early. They have the speed to do it.
Patriots Keys To The Game: I’m attacking safety Mike Mitchell any chance I get. He’s a good hitter and can make a tackle in some open space, but is vulnerable in coverage at times so don’t be afraid to get that mismatch, use Bennett over the middle. Trey Flowers needs to be big time. He’s excellent at stopping the run and the best running back in the league just happens to be in town on Sunday which leads me to number three, stopping the run and forcing the Steelers to pass it. Alan Branch and Malcom Brown had big games last week, they’ll need another one.
Prediction: This is the third time that the Steelers and Patriots will meet each other in the AFC Title Game and New England has been victorious the first two meetings. They met this year and the Steelers were without Roethlisberger who was sidelined with a knee injury. The Steelers offense couldn’t get much of anything going. Both teams are different now compared to then. The Steelers will have a key guy on the field and the Patriots will be without Gronk who’s sidelined with a back injury. I like the Pittsburgh Steelers to win this game and represent the AFC in Super Bowl 51. Steelers 24 Patriots 21.