The chance to compete for the ultimate prize in the NFL hinges on the outcome of a game in Foxboro, Massachusetts, Sunday evening. The home team has been a roadblock for the Steelers’ Super Bowl aspirations for all of Ben Roethlisberger’s professional career, and the Steelers have never won the AFC Championship game by beating the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and company are talented, versatile and focused on winning, with a long history of division, conference and Super Bowl trophies to show for it. The Steelers will need to do more than just stand toe-toe and match their intensity. Let’s take a look at how the Steelers can either punch their own ticket to the Super Bowl or send the Patriots there.
Why the Steelers will win:
- Offensively, to paraphrase Keyshawn Johnson, the Steelers need to just give Le’Veon Bell the damn ball. The Patriots expect it and are game-planning for it, but the Steelers need to do it anyway. The Steelers’ offensive line is playing at an extremely high level right now, thanks to their individual pedigrees and more importantly because they have bought in to what Coach Mike Munchak is preaching. The results speak for themselves. Bell’s running style, coupled with the blocking of the men up front have accounted for Bell first beating Franco Harris’ playoff rushing record in the wild card round, then beating the new record against Kansas City in the divisional round. Despite the Patriots having arguably the best defense in football, Bell should find success against them, and Todd Haley should plan for Bell to get 30 or more touches.
- Sticking with the offensive line, they will also need to be excellent in pass protection. If they continue to give Ben Roethlisberger time to throw, and Big Ben is accurate, with his receivers on the same page, they will find success in the passing game. Antonio Brown is a tough cover for any defensive back, and while not stellar numbers, seven catches on eleven targets for 106 yards, his stats from week seven against New England-with Landry Jones throwing to him, is a solid outing for any receiver against the Patriots. With #7 throwing to him, I expect Brown to have an even bigger impact on this game.
- Speaking of Brown, he will need help. For this offense to have success, guys like Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton and Jesse James (Ladarius Green?) will have to make some plays to give the Killer B’s room to operate. If this happens and they can keep the Patriots defense from putting too many men on near the line of scrimmage to stop Bell, and keep extra defenders off of Brown, the Steelers offense will have success moving the ball and getting into the end zone.
- Defensively, the Steelers need a similar approach to the one they used against Kansas City. Get pressure on Brady and contain the running game. Legarrette Blount, Dion Lewis and James White can all make plays on the ground. Blount is a powerful runner and the Steelers will need to get him contained and wrapped up before he builds up momentum and the linebackers and defensive backs will need to keep their eyes on both Lewis and White who are threats in the passing game as well. I have heard it said on multiple outlets that Tom Brady hates getting hit more than any other starting quarterback in the NFL. Truth or not, if the Steelers can get pressure, especially sacks and hits on Brady throughout the game, they give themselves more opportunities for turnovers and three-and-outs. The Patriots will find ways to score, the key is limiting those opportunities.
Why the Patriots will win:
- I saw one thing against Kansas City that will doom this defense, and that was wide open receivers behind the Steelers’ secondary. On mulitple plays Tyreek Hill and others managed to slip behind the Steelers’ defensive backs. Thankfully, Alex Smith either didn’t see them or was under too much duress to make a play. Tom Brady will not miss these opportunities. If Chris Hogan, Dion Lewis or James White find themselves uncovered like this and Brady is untouched, he will make that throw and they will put points on the board.
- The Steelers cannot afford turnovers against the Patriots. Regardless of the situation, inaccuracy by #7, bad routes or miscommunication with receivers, if Roethlisberger throws interceptions the Patriots will capitalize. Avoiding the likes of Trey Flowers, Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich is no easy task. If the offensive line can’t protect or Ben holds the ball too long, these men will, at the very least, disrupt the passing game.
- Once again, the Steelers’ biggest nemesis from this season, special teams, will have their work cut out for them. Dion Lewis is a solid return man who took a kick back 98 yards last week for a score against Houston. If the Pittsburgh return coverage units fall back to the listless unit that showed up too often throughout the regular season, Lewis will make them pay.
The Steelers can go into Gillette and punch their own ticket to Super Bowl 51. This is a team that keeps finding ways to grind out wins. I believe that this is the year that Pittsburgh finally knocks Brady and company out of the playoffs—something they’ve been unable to do for far too long. They will need a complete, mistake-free game from all three units to accomplish this, but I believe Mike Tomlin knows how to get the best out of this team, pom-poms or not, and the 2016-2017 Pittsburgh Steelers will break through for the biggest win of the season to this point.