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Yes, the New England Patriots are as good as their record indicates

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Ignore the rhetoric that downplays New England’s success.

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

If the Pittsburgh Steelers defeat the New England Patriots in Sunday’s AFC Championship game, it will give them their first-ever playoff win against Tom Brady. Brady indisputably is the Steelers’ daddy, owning a 9-2 lifetime record against Pittsburgh and a staggering 19/0 touchdown/interception ratio over his last six games against the Steelers.

(Go read Eric’s story for more on this)

Don’t be fooled by any rhetoric that downplays New England’s success because their schedule supposedly was “weak”: they are absolutely the NFL’s best team. Even though their schedule technically was one of the weakest in the NFL, the Patriots dominated their opponents, posting a 14-2 record (11-1 with Brady) and leading the NFL with a 12.0 point-per-game scoring differential—Atlanta finished second with an 8.6 differential.

New England’s success starts with Brady, of course, but keep in mind that the Patriots began the season 3-1, with Brady serving the most ridiculous suspension in NFL history. Those wins came against Arizona (the NFC runner-up in 2015), Miami (a 2016 playoff participant) and Houston (winner of the AFC South).

Mitigating Brady’s impact is fine and dandy, but the Patriots have repeatedly proven that they can win with or without the help of their Hall of Fame quarterback.

New England’s defense is among the league’s top-10 units overall and the best in terms of scoring. Specifically, the Patriots have the league’s third-best run defense, which, coupled with the offense’s ability to score at will, could quickly force Pittsburgh to abandon the run-first game plan that has enabled them to reel off nine straight wins.

In other words, Ben Roethlisberger better be ready to outduel his longtime rival.

Roethlisberger missed Pittsburgh’s earlier meeting with New England, which the Patriots won 27-16. Brady threw for just 222 yards in that game, but completed 75 percent of his passes and had two touchdowns. LeGarrette Blount, meanwhile, gutted Pittsburgh’s front-seven for 124 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while the defense held Le’Veon Bell to just (crazy that this qualifies as “just” for him) 80 rushing yards.

In fact, one could rightfully argue that New England and Pittsburgh have exhibited extremely similar hallmarks over the second half of the season. Brady has surpassed the 300-yard plateau just once since Week 11, leading the Patriots to a 8-0 record over that time frame. Like Pittsburgh, New England is relying on its ground game and defense to hold things together. Unlike Pittsburgh, though, New England’s quarterback isn’t turning the ball over; Brady has four interceptions since Week 11, Roethlisberger has nine, plus a lost fumble. In this sense, one of the greatest postseason quarterback matchups in NFL history could come down to which guy simply manages the game better.

Now, the Patriots will be without tight end Rob Gronkowski and linebacker Jamie Collins, both of whom played a major role in New England’s win over Pittsburgh in Week 7. This could certainly play to Pittsburgh’s favor, as the Steelers could theoretically commit more resources to stopping Julian Edelman and Martellus Bennett and have one fewer star defender to game plan against. Running back Dion Lewis, who scored three touchdowns in New England’s win over Houston in the Divisional Playoff, didn’t play in Week 7 but likely will cause Pittsburgh a few headaches this time around.

The Steelers are six-point road underdogs, which seems about right given their past struggles against New England, plus the fact that the Patriots have virtually no weaknesses. But, the Steelers have exhibited very few weaknesses themselves during the second half of the season, which sets Sunday up as a titanic matchup.