Entering the season, 16 AFC teams vied for a spot in the conference championship. Now, we’re down to just two, and the remaining teams should come as little surprise. Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger are two of the best quarterbacks in all of football, and when it comes to maintaining success in the NFL, it typically comes down to the quarterback position.
As good as these teams are, though, only one will advance to Houston where they’ll take on either the Falcons or Packers. Both franchises have been here before and made it to the Super Bowl, so inexperience won’t be an issue. However, it’ll be the Patriots moving on, and here are three reasons why.
Jason BridgeJason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports
New England’s run defense is stout
As crazy as it might sound, the Patriots actually got better against the run after trading away Jamie Collins. They finished the year No. 3 in rushing yards allowed, while also allowing just 3.9 yards per carry. Those are both exceptional numbers, and it’ll be huge for them on Sunday if they can continue to shut down the run the way they have in the second half of the season. They’ve allowed 100 rushing yards in a game just twice since Week 12, proving to be strong against the run.
We all know just how good Le’Veon Bell is, and he’s undoubtedly the Steelers’ biggest weapon – more so than Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown. He’s been Pittsburgh’s most reliable offensive player this season, particularly in the past two months. Bell comes into this game averaging 168.5 rushing yards per game in the playoffs, not only setting the Steelers’ single-game postseason rushing record in his first attempt, but surpassing it in his second game. Few teams have discovered a way to limit his unworldly production, but the Patriots might be one of the first.
Dont'a Hightower is one of the best and smartest linebackers in the league, and his primary assignment will be to stop Bell. He’ll need to be patient and not break to the open lanes right away, otherwise Bell will change directions and bounce it to the outside. Bill Belichick will game plan to stop Bell and make Roethlisberger beat him, which he won’t do.
Charles LeClaireCharles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
LeGarrette Blount and the running game of the Pats
Tom Brady deserves every compliment and bit of praise he receives. No one is going to doubt that, but it’s time to recognize the job LeGarrette Blount and the running game has done for the Patriots this season. Despite averaging just 3.9 yards per carry, the Patriots finished seventh in rushing yards. Why? Because they ran the ball more than 29 other teams. New England had the third-most rushing attempts (482) in the regular season, which translated to 1,872 yards, most of which came from Blount.
Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels are notorious for switching up their game plans to keep the defense on its toes. The Steelers are likely expecting Brady to throw it 40 times in an effort to keep pace with their own high-powered offense, but that doesn’t have to be the case for New England. They can come out and run the ball early, and they should. It will set up the play-action pass for Brady and keep the defense guessing on whether New England will run it or throw it.
That’s the sort of thing you get when you’re balanced on offense, as the Patriots (and Steelers) are. Blount is a workhorse back who can tote the rock 25-30 times a game, with his best work typically coming late in games when the defense is worn down. Not to mention, the Patriots have Dion Lewis, who’s a scatback with outstanding elusiveness and versatility. Ryan Shazier will be preoccupied with him every time he checks into the game, thus opening up the middle of the field.
The Patriots probably have a more balanced team this season than they have in the past, and it’s taken a bit of pressure off of Tom Brady. That doesn’t mean he’s not a huge part of their success, of course. He is. But as evidenced by their dominant win over the Texans, he doesn’t have to be perfect in order for the Patriots to succeed. In this game, however, he’ll need to be much better than he was against Houston, and he will be.
While he’s struggled in his last two playoff games (three touchdowns, four interceptions), those were against the top defenses in the NFL at the time. While the Steelers are no Cleveland Browns, their defense isn’t nearly as dominant as Denver’s or Houston’s. Brady should have a good amount of time to stand back in the pocket and pick apart the defense, largely thanks to the improved play of his offensive line. His tackles, Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon have done a great job protecting Brady this season, and that should continue on Sunday.
If Brady gets good protection, he’s going to pick apart the Steelers’ defense. And when he’s able to make his throws on time, he’s typically very accurate and puts the ball in a spot that allows his receivers to gain additional yardage after the catch. There’s a reason he’s lost just three playoff home games compared to 16 wins.