The 11 most important players in the AFC Championship
The Steelers and Patriots will meet in Foxborough on Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. It’s set to be one of the best AFC Championship games in recent memory with plenty of history and star power on the field. From Tom Brady to Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown, there will be no shortage of playmakers in both huddles.
Not all of them will have an impact on this game, but these 11 players certainly will. They’ll decide the outcome and will prove to be the most important guys on the field.
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Maurkice Pouncey, C, Steelers
Pouncey is an integral part of the offensive line, both literally and figuratively. He does a great job of sealing off blocks while Le’Veon Bell patiently waits for the hole to open up. Pouncey also gets to the second level fairly often, which allows Bell to get to the second and third levels of the defense. Malcom Brown is playing well for the Patriots right now, so he’ll be one of the primary guys Pouncey has to get to.
Dion Lewis, RB, Patriots
Lewis had a career day against the Texans, and a record-breaking one, at that. He scored three touchdowns -- one rushing, one receiving and one on a kick return, proving how versatile he is on the field. He’s a shifty runner with outstanding elusiveness, and that will be on full display Sunday.
Tom Brady will use him as a chess piece out of the backfield, attempting to reveal Pittsburgh’s coverage and expose the defense. Lewis has a chance to be a very impactful player, one that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin compared to former Patriot Kevin Faulk on Wednesday.
Dont'a Hightower, LB, Patriots
The Steelers’ best weapon, Le’Veon Bell, will be a difficult matchup for the Patriots. His patient running style isn’t one seen around the NFL, and it takes discipline on the defense’s part to slow him down. Hightower is one of the best linebackers in the league, and he’ll be the primary defender keying on Bell.
He has to remain as patient as Bell is in the hole and not give away his gap assignment too early, otherwise Bell will make him pay. Hightower will be a big part of the defensive game plan for Bell this weekend.
Nate Solder, OT, Patriots
The Patriots’ left tackle had a lot of help against Jadeveon Clowney last week, and he played fairly well for the most part. Solder will have to continue doing a good job protecting Tom Brady’s blind side against the Steelers. The Patriots can’t afford to let James Harrison and Bud Dupree make Brady uncomfortable and disrupt the offense’s timing.
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Ryan Shazier, LB, Steelers
Shazier has an interception in four straight games, becoming the first Steelers player to do that in a season since Troy Polamalu in 2008. He’s showed off his coverage skills to go along with his ability to stuff the run both up the middle and on the edges. There’s no questioning Shazier’s athleticism, but his football IQ and awareness will be tested on Sunday against Tom Brady.
He’ll have to read Brady’s eyes and make instinctive plays, while also covering Dion Lewis out of the backfield in the passing game. This will be Shazier’s toughest test yet.
Julian Edelman, WR, Patriots
Julian Edelman’s production has taken off of late. He’s caught 16 passes for 288 yards and one touchdown in his last two games, emerging as a true No. 1 receiver for Tom Brady. Without Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots need a reliable go-to receiver, and Edelman has been exactly that recently.
The Steelers’ secondary has played better in recent weeks, but matching Edelman’s quickness in the slot will be a challenge. Artie Burns is a blazer, but he might not have the quick-twitch movements to stay with Edelman in the middle of the field.
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Malcolm Butler, WR, Patriots
Malcolm Butler figures to see plenty of Antonio Brown in coverage on Sunday, just as he did back in October when these two teams met. However, that game was with Landry Jones at quarterback. With Roethlisberger back in the fold, passes thrown Brown’s way will be much more on target and in spots where Jones simply couldn’t put it.
If Butler can limit Brown’s production, it’ll be a huge win for the Patriots. It’ll force Roethlisberger to go elsewhere with the ball, targeting receivers who aren’t nearly as talented as Brown, obviously – considering how few receivers actually are. In their first meeting, Butler allowed five catches on nine targets for 94 yards and an interception.
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Antonio Brown, WR, Steelers
Brown has come up huge in the postseason, catching 11 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns. He’s a third of the three-headed monster the Steelers boast on offense, and he’ll certainly be a handful for the Patriots to contain. The Patriots are the best at eliminating a team’s best weapon, but with Bell and Brown both on offense, it’ll be a difficult decision to make.
Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers
Roethlisberger is averaging just 203 yards through the air in the playoffs, which isn’t exactly impressive. Fortunately, Le’Veon Bell has picked him up and carried the offense, but Roethlisberger won’t be off the hook Sunday. Any time you’re playing the Patriots, you have to be nearly perfect. That’s not to say Roethlisberger can’t make a mistake or two, but he can’t afford to throw for 190 yards and two interceptions and still expect to win the game.
Roethlisberger will play a key role in this game despite not being a huge factor in recent weeks. If he wants to match Brady and beat the Pats, it’ll likely take 250 yards and two touchdowns. So yeah, he’s important.
Le’Veon Bell, RB, Steelers
The Steelers have struggled to move the ball through the air the last two games, averaging just 203 passing yards per game. They won both of them, of course, largely because of Le’Veon Bell’s play. He’s become the centerpiece of the offense, rushing for 337 yards and two touchdowns in the playoffs.
He’s a weapon on the ground, but he also splits out wide and catches passes as a receiver. Bell should be the focal point of the Patriots’ defense on Sunday, centering most of their attention on him. New England’s secondary is solid, so if Bell can’t get it going early, the Steelers will be forced to throw the ball.
Tom Brady, QB, Patriots
Tom Brady has not played well in his last two playoff games, throwing three touchdowns and four interceptions. He’s also completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes in his last two playoff starts after never doing that once in his postseason career. By no means does that indicate Brady isn’t a good quarterback, or that he can’t get the job done, but he needs to have a great game against the Steelers for the Patriots to win.
Pittsburgh’s offense is high-powered and puts up points in bunches, so Brady will need to keep pace with one of his typical postseason performances.