6:40 PM EST, CBS – Line: Patriots -6, Over/Under: 51
AFC Bluebloods battle today at Gillette Stadium, as the New England Patriots host the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game, their third meeting on this stage since 2001. Between them, these teams have accounted for nine out of the last fifteen AFC Championships, while going on to win six Super Bowl Titles in that span, making this one of the more decorated matchups in recent memory. It ‘s easy to lose the Steelers (11-5, 1st in NFC North) in the midst of New England’s dominance of the last sixteen years, but Mike Tomlin’s charges have been one of the more persistent threats to their opponent’s crown, qualifying for the Playoffs ten times, while reaching the Super Bowl on three occasions, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy twice (2005 and 2008). Many have felt throughout the campaign that Pittsburgh was going to be the team to challenge Tom Brady and Co. all along, mainly due to their prolific Offense, for after all, if you’re going to beat the Pats, you’re going to need to outscore them. Granted, this may sound like heresy after their narrow 18-16 slugfest victory on the frozen tundra of Arrowhead Stadium last weekend, where the visitors had to settle for a playoff record six field goals despite racking up 389 Total Yards against the Chiefs. Tomlin saw his team join some rather interesting company in the process, becoming just the ninth team in NFL History to win a Playoff Game without scoring a single touchdown. Needless to say, anyone who has watched this unit perform when healthy could tell you that scoring touchdowns is not something that has proven to be difficult; the Steelers averaged 24.9 points (10th Overall) on 383.6 Total Yards (7th Overall), including 273.6 yards through the air (5th Overall) on 6.8 Net Yards per Attempt (8th Overall), and another 110.0 yards on the ground (14th Overall) on 4.3 Yards per Carry (15th Overall). It was another productive season for Ben Roethlisberger (64.4% 3,819 YDS, 6.99 NY/A, 29 TD, 13 INT, 66.6 QBR), who despite sustaining a number of injuries (as he typically does) causing him to miss some time, managed to continue his spectacular rapport with Antonio Brown (106 REC, 1,284 YDS, 10 TD), comprising one of the most lethal passing combinations in the league today. Simply put, no Receiver has been more prolific over the past four seasons than Brown, who since 2013 has hauled in a ridiculous 481 receptions for 6,315 yards, and forty-three touchdowns, with no player ever producing more receiving yards in a four-year span in NFL History. Who cares if this guy can’t pay attention during a postgame speech? All he does is make plays. Speaking of making plays, by far and away the biggest reason for Pittsburgh’s run to this point has been the play of Le’Veon Bell, who has redefined the Tailback position in 2016. On the season, the versatile All-Pro has carried the football 261 times for 1,268 yards and seven touchdowns, while proving lethal in the passing game with seventy-five receptions for 616 yards and another two scores. Oh, and did we fail to mention that he only played in twelve games this season (lost three due to suspension)? The 24-year old is in line to make himself an awful lot of money during the Offseason, as he became the first player in NFL History to average over 100.0 rushing yards and 50.0 receiving yards in a single campaign. And while we all get lost in this talk about how well the likes of Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan have been playing over the past two months, you could make a grand argument that no player has been hotter than Bell in that period of time; the Steelers come into today’s contest winners of nine straight, with Bell averaging 146.5 yards on the ground, scoring eight touchdowns, while posting another 32.4 yards through the air during that span. He trampled all over Kansas City’s Defense to the tune of 170 yards on thirty carries, and even created problems for the Patriots’ top-scoring Defense back on October 23rd, where he amassed 149 All-Purpose Yards on thirty-one total touches in a 27-16 defeat. It should be noted that Roethlisberger missed that game after suffering a slight broken bone in his knee the week before at Miami, and Bell still managed to move the chains at will in the face of New England loading the defensive front in an attempt to slow him down.
Meanwhile, another year and another trip to the AFC Championship Game for the Patriots (14-2, 1st in East), who with today’s game are participating in the league’s penultimate postseason weekend for the sixth straight term, which is yet another NFL record by the way. While hardly the most imposing team that Bill Belichick has had in his seventeen years in Foxboro, Massachusetts, you wouldn’t know it given the outrageous consistency with which this group operates. Always greater than the sum of their parts, New England was once again ranked among the league’s best on both sides of the football, scoring 27.6 points (3rd Overall) on 395.5 Total Yards (4th Overall) and committing the fewest turnovers in the NFL (eleven), while relinquishing a league-low 15.6 points (1st Overall) on 326.5 Total Yards (8th Overall). We’ll get into Tom Brady and Co. in a moment, but this team’s play on the defensive side of the ball has been very impressive this season, considering they parted ways with arguably their two most talented players before midseason; Belichick sent Chandler Jones (who led them in sacks in 2015) to Arizona over the Summer, while unloading fellow Linebacker Jamie Collins in a deal with Cleveland back in October, left a unit that was completely devoid of star power to pick up the pieces. Then again, are we at all surprised that one of the finest defensive minds in the history of the game was able to cultivate this unit into one of the league’s best? If you were, SHAME ON YOU!!! They were very difficult to run against, yielding just 88.6 rushing yards (3rd Overall) on 3.9 Yards per Carry (8th Overall), including a league-low six rushing touchdowns (1st Overall), while protecting against the deep ball, permitting a solid 6.0 Net Yards per Attempt (6th Overall). Hell, with thirty-six sacks, they even managed to manufacture a serviceable pass-rush without any household names. At the end of the day, it’s about points, and no Defense gave up less than the Patriots, which when combined with their prolific cohorts on the offensive side of the ball is quite the recipe for success. Even without Tom Brady (67.4% 3,554 YDS, 7.76 NY/A, 28 TD, 2 INT, 83.1 QBR) for four games, and All-Pro Tight End Rob Gronkowski (25 REC, 540 YDS, 3 TD) sidelined for the final seven outings, this group just continues to create and take advantage of mismatches, shifting gears on a week to week basis. If they need to throw the ball, they’ll spread you out with a litany of Receivers, and if they need to get physical, they’ll put an extra Tight End or Tackle on the field and run it down your throat. Given the circumstances, it was much more of the latter this season, as LeGarrette Blount (299 CAR, 1,161 YDS, 18 TD) reaped the rewards of so many Goal Line opportunities, leading the league with eighteen rushing touchdowns, coincidentally a career-high for the veteran Tailback. But let’s be honest, this is all made a helluva lot easier with the presence of Brady, who even at the ripe old age of thirty-nine is playing like he’s still twenty-nine. The two-time MVP once again stands on the precipice of immortality, one win away from what would be he his seventh Super Bowl appearance and potentially his fifth Lombardi Trophy, which would be the most among starting Quarterbacks in NFL History. At first glance, one would have to like his chances of at the least securing the former, given his considerable portfolio against the Steelers; in nine career meetings, Brady has beaten Pittsburgh seven times, completing 69.6% of his attempts for an average of 314.0 yards per game, with twenty-four touchdowns to just three interceptions, and has defeated them in their two lone postseason meetings, the 2001 and 2004 AFC Championship Games. Furthermore, in this season’s aforementioned 27-16 victory at Heinz Field, the twelve-time Pro-Bowler put on a clinic completing all but five of his twenty-six attempts for 222 yards and a pair of touchdowns.