The New England Patriots enter Sunday’s AFC Championship game as favorites against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Spreads have ranged from five to six points, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Patriots will dominate the Steelers and beat them by a touchdown. It’s sure to be a close game – one that should be filled with offense with two of the top quarterbacks starting for each team.
The Patriots have a handful of concerns entering this game, particularly with the Steelers’ high-octane offense. From Ben Roethlisberger to Le’Veon Bell to Antonio Brown, the Steelers are loaded on that side of the ball.
They’re not the only ones who should worry the Patriots, though.
Tom Brady’s recent playoff struggles
The Patriots? Worried about Tom Brady not playing well? It’s not a huge concern, but it might be in the back of New England’s mind. In his last two postseason games, both of which were against top defenses (Houston and Denver), Brady has completed 45 of 94 passes for three touchdowns and two interceptions. Prior to those two games, Brady had never completed below 50 percent of his passes in a single postseason game.
Again, there’s little reason to worry about Brady throwing up a clunker and faltering in the big game, but the Steelers’ defense is much improved and plays with a great deal of speed. Not to mention, Ryan Shazier is on a tear with four interceptions in his last four games.
The Steelers will hit Brady and get pressure on him, which is often his kryptonite. Will Brady throw four picks and blow the game? No. But his recent struggles against good defenses should be a minor concern.
Covering Antonio Brown
The Patriots did a good job limiting DeAndre Hopkins in the Divisional Round, but he and Brock Osweiler aren’t the duo that Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown are. In their first meeting this season, Brown caught seven passes for 106 yards – good numbers that look even better when realizing Landry Jones was playing quarterback. Malcolm Butler is close to being a shutdown cornerback, and he’ll be stuck on Brown in this one.
He’ll likely get some help from safeties over the top, shading Brown’s way, but Butler will be put on somewhat of an island against Brown. If he doesn’t play well, Brown will make the Patriots pay. And when AB gets the ball in his hands, he’s slippery and can take a slant to the house.
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The single biggest threat to the Patriots on Sunday is Le’Veon Bell. He’s the best running back in the NFL right now, and it’s showed in his 337 rushing yards the past two games. If Bell gets it going early, the Patriots could be in trouble. It’ll take the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands and keep the Patriots’ high-powered offense on the sideline, which is the key to beating New England.
The Patriots’ defense is outstanding, but Bell has improved greatly since the last time they met, as has the Steelers’ offensive line. Bill Belichick is the best at eliminating a team’s best asset, but that will be difficult to do with Antonio Brown on the outside, too. It’s a matter of pick your poison, and stopping Bell should take precedent over Brown.