Here’s a look at five players who could decide the winner of Sunday’s 2017 AFC Championship game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots.
With the winner of the 2017 AFC Championship game deciding who will be lucky enough to earn a trip to Houston for Super Bowl LI, it’s time to take a look at five key players who could decide the winner of this highly anticipated game between the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers. Everyone knows guys like Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger will be two of the main deciding factors, but what about the potential unsung heroes that could end up being the true difference maker?
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This is the time of year where heroes emerge out of nowhere for their beloved teams when needed the most as one final game will decide whether the Patriots or Steelers will represent the AFC in Houston two weeks from now. Both of these teams were strong favorites to win the Super Bowl at the beginning of the season, and when seeing the history between New England and Pittsburgh over the years, chances are this championship game is going to be one epic showdown.
The Patriots may have won the first meeting between these two teams back in Week 7, but it’s a much different situation this time with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Not to mention, the Steelers were at a disadvantage the first time since Big Ben was forced to miss the game due to a knee injury.
Besides Brady and Roethlisberger, which players should fans keep an eye on heading into Sunday? Starting off with Chris Hogan, here’s a look at five players who could help decide the winner of this weekend’s AFC Championship game.
Dec 24, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan (15) reacts after catching a pass for a first down against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
5. Chris Hogan, WR – Patriots
Normally, Julian Edelman is the wide receiver that benefits from seeing the most passes from Tom Brady on offense. But Chris Hogan is one to keep an eye on heading into Sunday’s game against the Steelers. After spending the first four years of his career with the Buffalo Bills, Hogan has turned into one of the most underrated additions for the Patriots, as he’s been able to take advantage of having Brady at quarterback.
During the team’s first playoff meeting against the Houston Texans, Hogan came up big for the offense by catching all four passes thrown his way while finishing with 95 receiving yards. In fact, Hogan has quite an impressive streak going over the last two games in which he’s caught all eight passes from Brady, and the team hopes to see this success carry over into the AFC Championship game.
With Pittsburgh’s defense focusing most of their attention on the whereabouts of Edelman, there’s a good chance Hogan will be heavily relied on in New England’s passing game. Even if he only caught two passes for 25 yards during the first meeting against the Steelers, the circumstances are much different this time around for Hogan and the Patriots with a trip to Houston on the line.
Jan 1, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell (34) rushes the ball against Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree (48) during the first quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
4. Bud Dupree, LB – Steelers
What’s been the biggest difference for the defense of the Steelers since the middle of the regular season? Without question, the main difference has been the return of Bud Dupree, as the former Kentucky star has played a big role in the Steelers winning each of their last nine games.
Only time will tell when it comes to whether that streak will continue against the New England Patriots, but after seeing how successful the Houston Texans were when it came to applying pressure to Tom Brady, Pittsburgh has every reason in the world to feel confident. In fact, the Steelers should be thanking the Texans defense for showing Brady is capable of being stopped after the future Hall of Famer matched his interception total from the regular season (two) during the Divisional Round.
With five sacks in the nine games, including playoffs, he’s played in since returning from injury, expect Dupree to lead the way on defense once again for Pittsburgh against New England. It certainly won’t be easy, but the Steelers defense seems up for the challenge since keeping Brady in check is going to be the only chance this team has of reaching the Super Bowl.
The good news for the Patriots is after leading the league with 18 rushing touchdowns, LeGarrette Blount should be well rested for Sunday’s meeting with his former team in the Pittsburgh Steelers. Thanks to Dion Lewis emerging for three total touchdowns against the Houston Texans, Blount didn’t receive the heavy workload as originally expected in the Divisional Round, but the important factor is the Patriots went on to win the game.
As for the AFC Championship game, don’t expect that to be the case again since New England will need all of the help they can get wearing down Pittsburgh’s defense. After only receiving eight carries last weekend agains the Texans, don’t be surprised if Blount receives more than 20 carries this time around like he did when these two teams met in the regular season.
Back in Week 7, Blount finished the game with 127 rushing yards to go along with two touchdowns on 24 carries against the Steelers. Of course, the Steelers’ defense has been playing at a much higher level since the first meeting with healthier key players, which is why the Patriots will need all of the help they can get from Blount in the ground game.
For weeks, the Steelers have been waiting for Jesse James to have that big breakout performance in the passing game, and it finally happened in the Divisional Round against the Kansas City Chiefs. One week after only hauling in one catch against the Miami Dolphins, James came up big as a reliable target for Ben Roethlisberger against the Chiefs after catching five passes for 83 yards.
Now, Pittsburgh hopes to see another strong performance from their beloved tight end as James could benefit from New England’s defense focusing most of their attention on other key superstars like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. He may not have been the most consistent receiver in the passing game throughout the regular season, but the argument can also be made that James was never needed as much when seeing some of the other dangerous weapons Big Ben has been fortunate enough to have on offense.
A road game in Foxborough is never an easy task, and the level of difficulty reaches a whole new level when it involves the postseason. After failing to find the end zone against the Chiefs, the Steelers realize that formula isn’t going to work against the Patriots, and there’s nothing the team would love more than to see a player like James earn his first touchdown since Week 4 against the New York Jets.
If the New England Patriots have any intention of defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, Bill Belichick knows the defense will need to figure out a way to contain Antonio Brown in the passing game. Luckily for Malcolm Butler, the cornerback has the fun of making sure that happens, which is obviously easier said than done.
There’s a reason why Brown is considered one of the top receivers in the league, and it’s been on display over the previous three games as he’s managed to catch 21 passes while finding the end zone three times. Even during the regular season, Brown’s quickness and speed made him impossible to defend at times as this year marked the fourth season in a row the wideout made over 100 receptions.
Brown was heavily targeted in the regular-season meeting between these two teams after catching seven of the 11 passes thrown his way while finishing with 106 receiving yards, but also keep in mind Ben Roethlisberger was forced to watch that game from the sidelines. With Big Ben running the show under center this time, Butler will certainly have his hands full once again since Brown is expected to receive a majority of the targets.