Pittsburgh Steelers (13-5) at New England Patriots (15-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET, Gillette Stadium. TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson, Jay Feely.
SERIES HISTORY: 30th meeting in the series, including postseason. The Steelers lead 15-14 in the regular season, the Patriots 3-1 in playoff games. New England beat the Steelers 27-16 on Oct. 23 in Pittsburgh, although Ben Roethlisberger missed the game with injury. The Patriots have won the last three regular-season meetings and two playoff games, although those latter two came more than a decade ago. This marks the third straight playoff meeting that came in the AFC title game, with New England winning in Pittsburgh, 41-27 during the 2004 season and 24-17 during the 2001 campaign. Each of those wins came on the way to Patriots Super Bowl titles. Tom Brady is 9-2 against Pittsburgh, including 2-0 in the postseason. Brady is 4-0 against the Steelers at Gillette Stadium.
Tom Brady meets Ben Roethlisberger
KEYS TO THE GAME: The two most successful teams in AFC annals are meeting in the playoffs for the first time since Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie season in 2004, when the Patriots won the AFC title game at Heinz Field.
Both teams come in on a roll, the Steelers having won nine straight and the Patriots eight.
The Steelers are built around a strong running game and an opportunistic defense that has improved greatly since the beginning of the season.
If the Steelers are going to beat the Patriots, running back Le’Veon Bell has to touch the ball at least 30 times. He has been nearly unstoppable in the last eight games, rushing for 1,172 yards (146.5 per game). But his 337 yards in the playoffs came against the 30th and 26th-ranked rush defenses, and the Patriots, third vs. the run, will prove a stiffer test. They held Bell to 81 yards on 21 carries earlier this season.
But that came with Roethlisberger injured. The Patriots are going to have to respect the Steelers’ passing game much more in the rematch. And if the Patriots do stack the box with run defenders, Roethlisberger has to be able to make some big plays in the passing game to back them off.
Tom Brady has always had big games against the Steelers, including five straight with a passer rating of 100 or better, with 19 touchdown passes and no interceptions. This certainly could be a game where the offense opens with spread sets, Dion Lewis in the backfield and Brady looking to pick apart the Steelers with a quick passing game.
The Steelers have to shut down the running game and apply pressure on Brady. In the October game, LeGarrette Blount ran for 127 yards and two touchdowns. The Steelers’ run defense is much-improved since then and must get the job done against Blount in the rematch.
The Steelers are 5-0 in rematch games this season and they’ll have to go 6-for-6 if they want to get to Super Bowl LI. The Steelers beat their three divisional opponents the second time around and then won regular-season rematches against the Dolphins and Chiefs in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
“You are going up to the lion’s den, the dragon’s lair,” Roethlisberger said. “They are the dragon. We are trying to slay them. It doesn’t matter who it is, but they are the gold standard.”
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Patriots QB Tom Brady vs. Steelers DC Keith Butler. Brady has a career record of 9-2 against Pittsburgh, including the postseason. He topped a 100 passer rating in eight of the 11 games, including seven of the last eight. Much of that came against former DC Dick LeBeau’s defense, but Brady hit Butler’s defense for two touchdowns in October and that came after a four-touchdown effort last fall. The LeBeau disciple must find a way to scheme up the Steelers’ young defense to find more success than usual vs. Brady. Brady is coming off a disappointing two-interception performance with a 68.6 rating last Saturday night against Houston’s tough defense.
–Steelers WR Antonio Brown vs. Patriots CB Malcolm Butler. Brown caught seven passes for 106 yards against the Patriots during the earlier meeting. That was with Landry Jones at quarterback. Brown has terrific chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger and that should concern Butler and the Patriots. If the Patriots are successful in limiting Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, the Brown-Butler matchup could decide the game.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Patriots C David Andrews. The second-year former undrafted rookie had a tough night in last weekend’s win over Houston. The Texans moved players all over the front, including snaps with Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus over the center. Seeing how Andrews failed to deal with one-on-one matchups with athletic pass rushers, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Pittsburgh try a similar approach at times. Andrews must clean up his work — both in terms of line calls and his blocking technique.
FAST FACTS: The Steelers are 36-23 in the postseason, the most playoff wins in NFL history. They rank fourth in postseason win percent (.610) and have seven division titles since 2002. … Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is 3-1 in the AFC title game. He is 13-6 in the postseason, a .684 percentage that is the fifth-highest by a QB with at least 15 playoff starts. … Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell rushed for a franchise postseason-record 170 yards last week. He has 337 rushing yards in the past two games, the third-highest two-game total in a postseason. He has rushed for 1,172 yards and eight TDs in his past eight games (including the playoffs). … Steelers WR Antonio Brown had 108 receiving yards last week and is one of two players in NFL history with 100 yards in four straight playoff games. He ranked second in the NFL with 106 catches and tied for second with 12 TD catches. His 481 receptions in the past four seasons are the most in that span in NFL history. … Steelers LB James Harrison has 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble in his past two postseason games. He aims for a fifth consecutive postseason game with a sack. He has 13 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks in his past 10 playoff games. … The Patriots have appeared in six consecutive conference championship games, the most all-time. They have won eight consecutive division titles, the longest streak in NFL history. Since 2001, they have won four Super Bowls, the most in the NFL. They are 30-19 in the playoffs, third-highest winning percent in playoff history. … Patriots coach Bill Belichick has 24 postseason wins, most in league history. His four Super Bowl titles are tied with Chuck Noll for most in NFL history. … Patriots QB Tom Brady has passed for 3,148 yards, 26 TDs and three interceptions in 11 meetings (including playoffs). He ranks first in postseason wins (23), attempts (1,221), completions (756), yards (8,244) and TDs (58). … Last week against Houston, Patriots RB Dion Lewis became the first player in postseason history with a rushing TD, receiving TD and kick-return TD in a game. … Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount rushed for 127 yards and two TDs in the last meeting. He led the NFL with a franchise-record 18 rushing TDs and has seven in six career postseason games.
PREDICTION: Roethlisberger will give the Steelers a much better chance than they had in the last game, but they are up against a much tougher defense than they have faced so far. Oh, and the best quarterback in the AFC.