It’s time to play for all the marbles in the AFC. Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and the rest of the third-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers head to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough to face Tom Brady and the top-seeded New England Patriots.
Last week, New England beat the Houston Texans, 34-16, to return once again to the title game. This marks the fifth straight championship game appearance for Brady’s bunch. The Steelers needed two games to get here, topping the Dolphins, 30-12, on Wild Card Weekend, and then the Chiefs 18-16 last week.
The Steelers have lost the last three meetings against New England, including an October meeting this past season. That day, Brady threw for two touchdowns and LeGarrette Blount ran for 127 yards, leading New England to a 27-16 victory. Pittsburgh actually hasn’t faced the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in the playoffs yet, and the one time they faced off in New England in January was in 1997, and the result was a 28-3 loss to Bill Parcells’ squad at the time. In the overall series between these two teams, Pittsburgh has won 15 of 29 games, but just 1 of 3 in the playoffs.
Pittsburgh is going to have to avoid a shootout against this team. That might sound counterintuitive with quick strike threats like Bell and Antonio Brown on their side. But Brady is at his best going up and down the field against his opponents. He figures out the weak spot and, no matter who his receivers are in a given season, exploits it. The Steelers will not be able to keep up in a track meet at Gillette Stadium. They need to use Le’Veon Bell and a controlled offensive gameplan to keep Brady off of the field.
It clearly won’t be too big a stage for Le’Veon Bell. In his first two career playoff games, Bell has averaged 168.5 yards per game on the ground. Feed him the football. He has averaged 77.5 rushing yards per game against the Patriots. Bell has the ability to change the game for the visitors.
On defense, the Steelers must get to Tom Brady early and often. You can say a lot of great things about him, but one thing he isn’t is a scrambler. When you knock him off of his spot, he gets uncomfortable and makes mistakes. The success that Houston had against Brady last week was when they pushed him around. Bud Dupree, James Harrison and company have the ability to get to Brady and make it count. They are going to have to.
Bill Belichick has made a career out of taking away a team’s most lethal weapon. That weapon he must remove from this one is Bell. The young man is averaging over 168 yards per game this postseason. If Bell is playing as well as he as so far, it’s going to open up the entire Pittsburgh offense and make things very tough for the home team. Bell must be taken out of this game.
On offense, New England must keep on doing what they do. Wear the defense down with the short/intermediate game to Julian Edelman. Pound it on the ground with Blount. When that offense is clicking, the opponent is so tired by the end that they eventually lose the game going away.
Point Spread: New England -6 Moneyline: New England -225, Pittsburgh +190 Over/Under: 51
This one has the potential to be a special way to round out Championship weekend. If any team has the ability to beat New England, it’s the Steelers. They have the tools on both sides of the ball to get the job done. However, in the end, Brady has been destined for another Super Bowl ever since returning from his suspension. That is exactly where he will end up, but it will be a close one.
Pick: Pittsburgh Steelers: 27, New England Patriots:30