Pats Preview: AFC Championship
As the New England Patriots prepare for their AFC Championship round match up with the Pittsburgh Steelers, which is scheduled for 6:40 PM on Sunday night, here are some pregame story lines to follow:
Gotta Play Better- While the Pats scored 34 points in their divisional round thumping of the Houston Texans, the offense never truly got going. The offense must play better and find a way to hit it's stride against the Pittsburgh defense, as the Steelers offense is much stronger that what the Texans were running out there. Luckily for New England, the Pittsburgh defense does not present the same threat that Houston's does. Expect the Pats to come out with a concerted effort to get themselves moving forward from the start of the game.
Not The Same Match Up- This title game battle is not the same match up as these two teams' first clash earlier this season in Pittsburgh. That game that was won 27-16 by the Pats was played without Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was out after suffering an injury the week prior in Miami. Instead Pittsburgh backup Landry Jones was under center, which allowed the Patriot defense to focus more on other aspects of the high-flying Steelers offense. The Patriots also played that game with top tight end Rob Gronkowski, who led the team with 93 receiving yards and had a big touchdown to put the game out of reach. With Roethlisberger in and Gronkowski out, the Pats will have some work to do to keep their edge, Sunday.
Stopping Bell- In their regular season meeting, the Patriot defense, which finished the season ranked third against the run, did a pretty solid job of slowing down Pittsburgh's ever-threatening running back Le'Veon Bell. On 31 touches, Bell gained 149 yards from scrimmage. That means that the Pats defense actually had a nice day, limiting the big-time offensive threat to under 150 total yards. New England will have to do more of that solid work against Pittsburgh's top threat, if they want to limit the Steelers' scoring opportunities. Bell has been on a torrid pace through his first two career postseason games, however. In two playoff games, Bell has carried the ball 59 times for 337 yards and has eclipsed franchise playoff game rushing records in each game. It will take a supreme effort, but if the New England defense can limit Bell's effectiveness it could make all the difference in the game's outcome.
No Big Plays- If the Pats are able to limit Bell, the next thing they'll have to do defensively, if they want to give themselves the best chance to win, is limit the big plays. With Roethlisberger at quarterback and Antonio Brown at the receiver position, the Pittsburgh offense is more than capable of stiking quick and striking often with big plays. The Patriot defense must limit the big plays. If they do so, it could be tough sledding for the Steelers, who struggled on multiple red zone trips last week and had to settle for six field goals. The Pats defense is the type of unit that plays to limit big play opportunities and is one that is content with allowing plays to materialize underneath and then making strong tackles for little yards after catch. If New England can keep their defensive principles and do what they normally do, Pittsburgh could be in real trouble trying to score.
The Lewis Factor- Regardless of what crazy and amazing plays he pulls off on the field, Patriots fans should be worried about one stat, and one stat only, when evaluating Dion Lewis' contribution to the team. That stat is 14-0, as in the Pats are 14-0 when Lewis is suited up and playing for them. A good amount of that success can be attributed to the fact that Lewis allows the offense to be much more versatile, with his multi-dimensional skill level. For instance, when the Pats put LeGarrette Blount in the game, the opponent can pretty much bank on the fact that he will only be getting the ball in a true running situation. Similarly, when the team's pass-catching back James White is on the field, the opponent can plan that he will be utilized as a receiver. When Lewis is on the field, however, the opponent must stay on their toes. Lewis has the ability to not only run the ball, but carry the load and take the ball down the field between the tackles. He also catches the ball well out of the backfield and has the lightening-quick speed to make any defender miss in space. He has had a bit of an issue holding onto the ball, as evidenced by his two fumbles last week, but he is such a threat when the ball is in his hands. We'll have to wait until the end of the game to see if the Lewis Factor is the difference for the Pats once again.
Could Be A Factor- Rookie wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell has missed the Pats last couple of games, as he has been nursing a knee injury. While he started the season slowly, Mitchell became a real option and key weapon in the New England offense down the stretch. He is listed as questionable for the game, but if he is able to give it a go Mitchell could become a big factor in the game. If Julian Edelman and the backs are able to do their job of gashing the Pittsburgh defense in the middle of the field, Mitchell could team up with Chris Hogan as a downfield duo that can hurt the Steelers' secondary, once they cheat up to help the linebackers.
Going For 3-0- The Pats will be looking to advance to 3-0 over the Steelers in the AFC Title game, if they secure a victory Sunday night. New England has beaten Pittsburgh twice already in the game before the Super Bowl, both during the 2001 and 2004 seasons. After each victory the Pats have won the Super Bowl, so a win Sunday could bode well for the team's chance in Houston.
Brady Over Ben- Both team's enter the game with experienced, winning quarterbacks, as Tom Brady has four Lombardi Trophies on his mantle, while Big Ben has two of his own. When it comes down to it, however, Brady has the better chance of the two at being the difference in the game. With so much predicated on Le'Veon Bell, Ben has been pushed to the back a bit this season and hasn't been his usually solid self this year. Brady, on the other hand, has been nearly unstoppable, going 12-1 so far this year and putting up ridiculous numbers across the board. Not only has Brady been tremendous this season, but he also has a long history of tearing up the Pittsburgh defense. In 11 career starts against the Steelers, including two in AFC Championship match ups, Brady has picked apart Pittsburgh with relative easy. His 26 touchdown to three interception ratio combined with his 69.39 completion percentage, 286.2 pass yards and 114 quarterback rating averages show that he flat owns the Steelers. So, if the past is any indication, Brady will be having his way with the Pittsburgh defense.
Prediction- The Pats and Steelers both have offenses capable of doing whatever they want, so the score in this one could be high. While the Steelers defense has gotten better as the season has gone on, they are not the Houston Texans. Expect the Pats, led by Brady, to pick and choose what they do Sunday, as the bounce back from a less-than-stellar first playoff performance, last week. Though the Pats should be able to have an easy go at getting their offense rolling, it might be tougher for Pittsburgh to score, as they struggled to find the end zone last week against the Kansas City Chiefs and the Pats boast the best scoring defense in the league. With all that said, expect the Pats to put the clamps on an explosive offense, while scoring on a somewhat suspect defense.
Pats 37, Steelers 20