(AP) The Steelers and Patriots meet Sunday evening in the AFC championship game. Here’s a primer.
When the Steelers (13-5) have the ball
Pittsburgh’s best chance — some would say its only chance — is to get its big three of QB Ben Roethlisberger (7), RB Le’Veon Bell (26) and All-Pro WR Antonio Brown (84) going from the start and never stopping. Bell has come up with enormous performances in his first two playoffs games, rushing for 167 yards vs. Miami and 170 against Kansas City. His patience to find a hole and then his burst through it, combined with slick moves and power, make him the perfect postseason back.
The offensive line, led by C Maurkice Pouncey (53) and RG David DeCastro (66), has been stout in its run blocking and will need to continue that as the Patriots attempt to neutralize Bell. LB Dont’a Hightower (54) and DT Malcom Brown (90) could be keys against Bell.
Brown is the NFL’s most dangerous offensive threat (and Facebook video poster). If CB Malcolm Butler (21), FS Devin McCourty (32) and a pass rush featuring a bunch of players, including the emerging Trey Flowers (98), can disconnect Roethlisberger to Brown, the Steelers are in trouble.
A standout against the Chiefs was TE Jesse James (81) over the middle and Pittsburgh will need similar contributions. It also must get into the end zone rather than settle for field goals.
When the Patriots (15-2) have the ball
It always starts with Tom Brady (12) for New England. He comes off a so-so (for him) performance against Houston, which will motivate the four-time Super Bowl champion even more.
Even without Rob Gronkowski, Brady doesn’t have a problem finding targets: WRs Julian Edelman (11), Danny Amendola (80), Chris Hogan (15) and newcomer Michael Floyd (14). Plus TE Martellus Bennett (88), who has capably filled Gronk’s roles. It will be critical for Pittsburgh to create pressure on Brady with the pass rush from LBs James Harrison (92), Lawrence Timmons (94) and Bud Dupree (48). If Brady gets time, it could mean a long night for CB Artie Burns (25) and S Sean Davis (28), both rookies, and the rest of the secondary.
New England’s stout ground game behind LeGarrette Blount (29), Dion Lewis (33) and James White (28) gets a boost from an unheralded blocking unit led by RT Marcus Cannon (61) and C David Andrews (60). If the Steelers can’t make the Patriots an unbalanced attack, they likely are doomed.
Pittsburgh’s Chris Boswell (9) set a league mark with six field goals last week. Oddly, his 21 made FGs during the season were the fewest among the remaining kickers. But Boswell has seven postseason field goals.
Brown (84) can be a force on punt returns, but otherwise the Steelers aren’t, uh, special on special teams. P Jordan Berry (4) ranked 17th in net average.
Veteran K Stephen Gostkowski (3) is among the NFL’s most reliable in all situations. He also still recalls missing a PAT in the conference championship game last year.
P Ryan Allen (6) ranked seventh in net average and the coverage squads are solid. New England is unafraid of using Edelman or Amendola on punt runbacks. Coverage man Matthew Slater (18) is an All-Pro.
Mike Tomlin has seen his Steelers develop from a defense-first team – what else would they have in the home of the Steel Curtain? – to an explosive, offense-oriented club. Extremely popular with his players, he’s taken Pittsburgh to the playoffs in seven of his 10 seasons in charge and is 1-1 in Super Bowls.
Tomlin’s teams tend to be streaky and resilient. His strengths are in getting his players to peak at the right time, and his aggressiveness.
Still, his resume pales in comparison to Bill Belichick’s. Another AFC title in the Patriots’ sixth straight trip to the conference championship game would get him to a seventh Super Bowl. No coach has managed that. A fifth NFL championship would be a record in the Super Bowl era.
Belichick’s strength in these matchups is finding ways to diminish the contributions of an opponent’s most dangerous weapon. The likelihood is he’ll concentrate on stopping Bell, who can control the clock and the tempo with his runs.
Brady would love to stick it to the NFL for the “Deflategate” suspension. New England also is going for several Super Bowl-era records.
Pittsburgh hasn’t won a title since the 2008 season and is on quite a roll with nine straight victories, five on the road — though nowhere as tough as Foxborough.
Copyright 2017 The Associated Press.