Pittsburgh Steelers @ New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium, Forborough, Massachusetts
Sunday, January 22, 2017, 6:40 p.m. (ET)
Tom Brady vs. the Steelers secondary. This is a rather obvious one, but that doesn’t make it any less key. While Pittsburgh’s secondary has improved a lot over the course of the season, what with the emergence of both first round pick, corner Artie Burns and second round pick, safety Sean Davis as starters, two rookies going up against a quarterback like Brady may be a match-up that decides the outcome of the game. This isn’t a vintage New England passing attack, especially without all-world tight end Rob Gronkowski, but it was still good enough to finish fourth in passing yards during the regular season. Obviously, there are many factors that could determine just how stellar the Steelers secondary performs on Sunday–including how well the front-seven slows down the Patriots very formidable running attack, led by former Steeler LeGarrette Blount, who had 1,161 rushing yards during the regular season–and if the defense doesn’t win those sub-battles, the big one against Brady could make for another AFC Championship game loss to the Patriots.
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The Steelers Win If…
Naturally, the Patriots defense, which is mostly overshadowed by the offense, does a lot of things well–including limiting points (New England was number one in that category, allowing 15.6 points per game). However, the Patriots have yet to face an offensive attack as explosive and complete as Pittsburgh’s. In quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers have a “Big three” that is unequaled in the NFL. Pittsburgh also has maybe the best offensive line in football, especially during the team’s nine game winning streak. In those nine games, not only has Bell rushed for an incredible 1,172 yards, but Roethlisberger has only been sacked nine times. Sure, Pittsburgh is lacking in complementary weapons, with the likes of Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Sammie Coates and tight end Ladarius Green contributing little to nothing in 2016, but the offense is still a two-dimensional force that’s going to be hard to stop, even for New England. With that in mind, if the offensive line can continue to perform the way it has over the past two months, the Steelers should be able to score more than enough points to win.
As for whether those points really will be enough or not will depend on how well the defense gets after Brady, and make no mistake, the defense MUST get after Brady in-order for the Steelers to have a realistic chance in this game. The good news is that while Keith Butler’s unit only generated a close to underwhelming 38 sacks during the regular season, 31 total sacks have been produced during the nine-game winning-streak, which leads the NFL over that span of games. James Harrison is playing out of his mind at the age of 38, and 2015 first round pick Bud Dupree looks like a star in the making. Ryan Shazier already is a star, while Lawrence Timmons has found the fountain of youth and is playing as well as he ever has over the past two months. Those four linebackers will be key to getting to Brady. If they do, it could b a great Sunday for Steeler Nation.
The Steelers Lose If…
You’re not going to play catch-up against New England on the road. The key word in that last sentence is “road,” where Roethlisberger has struggled for several years, but especially during the 2016/2017 season. If Pittsburgh falls behind by two or more scores early, the chances of a comeback are slim-to-none. Needless to say, one or two ill-timed interceptions by Roethlisberger, who’s certainly thrown his share as of late, could, no WOULD be the difference in this game.
As for the defense, the Patriots only allowed 24 sacks during the season, while Brady threw two interceptions to go along with his 32 touchdowns. If the pass-rush doesn’t generate any pressure on Brady, there is no way Pittsburgh can win this game.
Bell has rushed for 337 yards in the past two postseason games. While the Patriots are number three against the run, this is Bell’s game to win or lose. Ride the Bell.
What’s At Stake
Is this even worth mentioning?
Line: Patriots -6
O/U: 50 1/2
Money Line: Patriots -260/Steelers +210