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A tale of two franchises: 3 Keys to Victory in Steelers vs. Patriots AFC Championship game

Pittsburgh and New England bring sharply contrasting approaches to the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.

The Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots are two of the most successful franchises in NFL history, with a total of 10 Super Bowl trophies between them. But in terms of their approaches to the game, there hardly could be a greater divergence between these teams and their respective organizations. Pats Head Coach Bill Belichick is a dispassionate control-freak who’s a stickler for the details of his team’s preparation and performance. You’ll see many descriptions of Belichick but, much like the legendary Chuck Noll, “players coach” certainly would never be found among them. In fact, some observers openly question whether Belichick actually possesses anything resembling an actual personality. The Patriots probably could hire a robot to bring more warmth than Belichick does to interviews and post-game press conferences.

By contrast, Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin is an emotional leader who clearly has developed a strong, personal connection with his players. While some have mistaken Tomlin’s exuberance for mere “cheerleading,” the Steelers coach has proven time and again that he knows how to summon the best efforts from his team, particularly in crucial matchups. Otherwise, we’d never be talking about this 9-game Steelers winning streak which, during the past two months, has carried them from near-oblivion to a shot at reaching Super Bowl LI.

Apart from stylistic differences, their respective records leave no doubt that both Tomlin and Belichick are astute football strategists. But as for their basic strategic approaches in game-planning, the Steelers and Patriots are practically polar opposites, and this distinction begins with their quarterbacks. Since the day when Ben Roethlisberger first won his starting job, Pittsburgh’s offense has always been predicated on No. 7’s remarkable arm strength, accuracy and his uncanny ability to escape pressure and extend plays. Conversely, Tom Brady has developed such a thorough mastery of his offensive scheme that opponents seldom succeed in stopping the Pats as they drive methodically down the field. Big Ben is known as a guy who will beat you equally either with the deep, laser-like pass or the 2-minute, desperation rally. But Brady wins mainly by keeping the opposing defense in a constant state of anxious uncertainty about what’s coming next.

Regardless of the deep dislike harbored by Steelers fans for New England, it seems foolish to deny that the Patriots clearly are the best team that the Black-and-Gold has faced this entire season. With a 14-2 regular-season record, the Pats finished head and shoulders above all of the other AFC teams. Even when they appeared to stumble at times during last Saturday’s playoff matchup with the Texans, they still won the game by a margin that equals the total number of points scored by the Steelers in Kansas City. And the Texans ranked No. 1 during the regular season in total defense.

Beyond Brady’s superb command of the Pats’ offense, a couple of other factors also help to explain why this unit is so potent and dangerous. Whether running or throwing the ball, New England essentially runs an offense-by-committee. This is the reason why Steelers fans continue to scratch their heads at the sheer array of “no-name” players that Belichick and Brady involve in their offense from year to year. For example, everyone in the NFL today knows about Le’Veon Bell and Ezekiel Elliott, but besides LeGarrette Blount, how many members of Steelers Nation could name the Pats’ other two running backs, each of whom has contributed to the Pats’ success this season?

Adding up the total rushing yards of Blount, Dion Lewis and James White, three players that New England platoons throughout the game to ensure ever-fresh legs, we come up with a grand total of 1,610 yards and a per-carry average of 4.2 yards. The two Patriot backs not named LeGarrette have also combined for 77 receptions totaling another 645 yards of offense, which compares favorably to Bell’s regular season receiving total of 616 yards.

New England’s offense also leans on a variety of designated receivers. With Steelers-killer Rob Gronkowski sidelined for the season, tight end Marcellus Bennett snatched 55 receptions for a total of 701 yards during the regular season. Wide receiver Chris Hogan added 38 catches for 680 yards. Injured for a substantial portion of the season, Danny Amendola returned in last week’s game against the Texans, notching 21 snaps as a warm-up for the showdown with the Steelers.

But when you talk about the Pats’ passing attack, Julian Edelman is the one player who truly stands out. Finishing the regular season at No. 4 among all NFL receivers, Edelman’s 1,106 receiving yards are only 184 yards less than Antonio Brown’s. But unlike Brown, Edelman’s principal role on the Pats is to sustain drives rather than to catch TD passes. Whereas Brown grabbed 12 TD passes during the regular season, Edelman notched only three. But in New England’s last two games, Edelman played his best football of the entire season, with 151 yards receiving against Miami and 137 yards versus the Texans. Despite the fact that Brady throws to a variety of receivers, Edelman clearly represents his favorite target and a player that any New England opponent needs to control.

Let’s take a look at the Steelers’ 3 keys to victory in this crucial AFC Championship game:

Key No. 1: Big Ben must play his best and avoid turnovers

Experience shows that, once you fall behind the Pats and Tom Brady early in a game, it’s extremely difficult to stage a comeback. That’s why Roethlisberger needs to play his best game of the season and take full advantage of his red-zone opportunities. In contrast to their previous playoff games, the outcome on Sunday rests squarely on Ben’s broad shoulders.

Key No. 2: Stuff the run

New England’s entire offensive scheme is set up by their ground game, which typically leaves them in manageable second- and third-down situations. The Steelers’ defense needs to force Brady to pass more frequently than he prefers.

Key No. 3: Pressure Brady

Brady was pressured successfully last Saturday by an aggressive Texans’ defense, and the result was two interceptions—matching Brady’s total number of picks during the entire regular season. Given the speed of Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree and Lawrence Timmons, plus the sheer power of James Harrison, the Steelers ought to be able to use the blitz sparingly to apply pressure to No. 12. There’s really no other option when facing New England, because we all know what happens when Brady has ample time to throw.

Historically, the Steelers and Patriots haven’t been involved in many razor-close games, so it seems likely that this AFC Championship Game will follow the same script of one team claiming a clear advantage by the start of the fourth quarter. Based on what we’ve seen of the Steelers’ offense this season, Ben and company will need to be aggressive right from the opening possession and avoid taking their foot off of the gas throughout the game.

Conversely, if Pittsburgh commits turnovers or special-teams gaffes that translate to short fields for Brady, you might as well ring up those points. Besides playing error-free football, Big Ben also needs to prove he’s a match for Brady when it comes to finishing drives and putting points on the scoreboard. This might seem like a tall order, but it’s certainly not beyond the capabilities of a Steelers team substantially improved since its previous meeting with New England.