This hasn’t been the easiest NFL season to watch in terms of quality, but we’ve all paid our dues and have been rewarded with a Championship weekend that is going to feature two premier games with four teams that will be playing at an incredibly high level.
The New England Patriots welcome in Pittsburgh Steelers to Foxboro in a Sunday night matchup to determine who will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. It is going to be a wild matchup, and the Patriots will be dealing with their most daunting challenge of the year.
The Steelers ended the regular season 11-5, which was good enough to win the AFC North Division title. Their Wild Card game was an emasculating route of the completely outmatched Miami Dolphins. They then traveled to Kansas City in the Divisional Round and came out with a win in a defensive slugfest that saw the Steelers’ Chris Boswell successfully kick six field goals. Pittsburgh now arrives in Foxboro riding high on the backs of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, who have combined for 569 (!) yards of offense over the Steelers’ two playoff games. They have been playing at a ridiculous level, and will need to continue that pace if Pittsburgh wants to earn another Super Bowl berth.
It is hard to judge the Pittsburgh Steelers on their record. While they only finished 11-5 and still came close to finishing second in their division, four out of their five loses came in the middle of the season when they were battling injuries, including one that held Ben Roethlisberger out for two games. Since their November 13th loss to the Dallas Cowboys, the Steelers have won nine straight games, and have put themselves in striking distance of the Super Bowl. Having Bell, Brown, and Roethlisberger on the field at the same time is an absolute nightmare for opposing teams. Their success has been backed up by underrated play from a hard nosed, aggressive defensive unit.
Many people have been looking back at the matchup between these two teams back in October to try to predict how this one will turn out. While I think there is a measure of merit to that, it does not fully encapsulate this matchup because both teams have changed significantly since that game. The Patriots defense has improved dramatically, but they have lost Rob Gronkowski. The Steelers have Ben Roethlisberger back, but have to travel to a hostile environment in Foxboro instead of enjoying home field advantage.
The Patriots are going to need to be creative offensively to have success against the Steelers. The biggest weakness for Pittsburgh is their defensive backs. If the Chiefs had a legitimate quarterback, and not just a game manager, then they would have been able to put up a lot more points by burning the Steelers corners and safeties with shots down the field. While that isn’t necessarily New England’s style of offense, they will be able to make adjustments to take advantage of mismatches. The Patriots running game will also be crucial. In their first matchup, LeGarrette Blount ran for 127 yards on 24 carries. However, in the Steelers two playoff games they have given up a TOTAL of 113 yards on the ground. The Patriots will need to establish a ground game with Blount and Dion Lewis. This will enable them to control the tempo of the game, as well as suck in the Pittsburgh defense to bait them with play action.
While many people will be focusing on Tom Brady and the Patriots skill players, the real success of the New England offense is going to hinge upon the play of their interior offensive line. Joe Thuney and David Andrews were utterly abused by the Texans defensive line and linebackers in the Divisional Round. Brady had little time to throw, and was unable to step up and move around throughout the pocket. The key to defeating the Patriots is middle pressure (see: Super Bowl 42, 46), and the Steelers have the defensive front to do it. Between James Harrison, Bud Dupree, Lawrence Timmons, and Ryan Shazier, Andrews and Thuney have their work cut out for them. The only thing that they might have going for them is that the Steelers front works more on size and strength rather than finesse moves, which is what the Texans employed. If the Patriots center and guards and hold their ground, and not overextend, they should be able to slow Pittsburgh’s defenders down.
Defensively, the Patriots are going to face a daunting challenge. Le’Veon Bell is easily the most patient runner I have ever seen. He sits behind the line of scrimmage, waiting for a hole to open up, and then he has enough acceleration to burst through the hole for fine yards before he is even touched. Antonio Brown is an incredible route runner, and is extremely evasive in the open field. The only thing I caution with Brown is that his stats over the past two games are much more easily criticized when comparing the film. Against Miami, Brown took a screen pass fifty yards for a touchdown that was more thanks to the downright pathetic play by the Dolphins secondary. Then in Kansas City, Brown had a number of long catches while being covered by linebacker Justin Houston. While Houston is an incredible player, Brown is going to beat him off coverage 10 times out of 10. Now, none of those things make Brown any less dangerous. However, the Patriots may be more able to fine a strategy to stop him.
Stopping Le’Veon Bell is going to require discipline on behalf of the New England front seven. They will need to be patient like he is, and not get washed down by the Steeler’s offensive line. The best way to beat Bell is by comparing it to the play of defensive lineman during a three man rush. In that situation, the lineman are more focused with timing up the QB throws and jumping to try and deflect the ball, rather than putting their heads down and diving forward. That is the patience that the Patriots will need to have, so that they prevent Bell from taking advantage of holes. They will need to be content with giving him 2-3 yard gains while knowing that they are preventing 5-6 yard gains. Stopping Antonio Brown is a little more straight forward. The Patriots will need to have Malcolm Butler follow him around the field, receiving help from safeties and linebackers depending on the formation. Butler will not be able to completely eliminate Brown. He is just too good of a receiver. However, if he can limit Brown to just short completions rather than the 30-40 yard bombs that other teams fall prey to, the Steelers offense will lose some of its accustomed rhythm.
The Steelers offense is stellar with their Big Three; their problem is that it drops off significantly after them. New England will be successful if they can slow down Bell and Brown and force the Steelers to look to their third and fourth options.
This is going to be an intense matchup. There are story lines galore, and a lot is on the line for both teams. The Patriots are going to come into this game focused and determined after an embarrassing showing last week against Houston. It will not be easy, but the Patriots are going to advance to their seventh Super Bowl appearance.
New England 27 Pittsburgh 26
Until next time- B$
PS. Roger Goodell is going to be attending the NFC Championship game in Atlanta….after already attending last week’s Divisional Round game in Atlanta. He is clearly still scared to come to Foxboro because he knows the way that Patriots fans will treat him after the witch hunt that was Deflategate. The Steelers should be thanking Goodell profusely, because if he had attended the game then they would have had no shot at winning. The crowd would have been beyond wild, reaching levels even Seahawks and Chiefs fans didn’t think possible. Now that he’s not going, Pittsburgh still has a chance.