You wanted the best, now you’re getting the best. The AFC’s premier franchises are saddling up for what is to be one of the most anticipated conference championship games of the current era. The Patriots and the Steelers, two of the NFL’s and America’s most beloved and successful sports franchises, duking it out for the right to go to the Super Bowl is a big, beautiful slice of Americana.
Since the turn of the century, the NFL’s two most successful teams have been the Patriots and Steelers. Together these two have combined to win six of the last 16 Super Bowls, with a combined 16 AFC title game appearances. If history isn’t the best selling point, perhaps star power is. Sunday’s game features two of best quarterbacks of this era in Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger, the best running back in the league in Le’Veon Bell, and one of the most exciting players in all of football in Antonio Brown. If you’re an X’s and O’s junkie, two of the NFL’s longest tenured and most respected head coaches, Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin, will match wits with another shot at the Lombardi Trophy on the line.
This game has it all.
Kickoff: Sunday Jan. 22 at 6:40 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: New England -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Numbers Can Be Deceiving
For this matchup, throw out the book on stats, both new school and old, standards and analytics — the eye test is all we need.
The Patriots’ 15.6 points per game allowed looks outstanding on paper, a true testament to “The Patriots’ Way,” placing team accomplishment over individual glory, highlighted ever more so by the trade of star linebacker Jamie Collins to the Browns earlier this season. But that 15.6 is a deceitful stat. While still impressive, the Patriots’ defense has faced a very limited number of top-tier quarterbacks all season long. Actually, it’s hard to say that they’ve faced any top-tier quarterbacks.
As ESPN.com's Mike Reiss has pointed out, Russell Wilson is likely the best signal-caller (with Carson Palmer and Joe Flacco likely sharing second place) that New England’s defense has confronted in 2016 — a game in which Wilson had his best performance of the season (25-for-37, 348 yds., 3 TD, 9.41 ypa) in a 31-24 Seattle win. The rest of the names on the list of quarterbacks is less than stellar, featuring the likes of Ryan Tannehill, Jared Goff, Trevor Siemian, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matt Moore, Landry Jones, Colin Kaepernick, and Andy Dalton. Not exactly a modern day Murderer’s Row of signal-callers.
Forget about the Oct. 23 matchup between these two teams, a 27-17 win for the Patriots at Heinz Field. Ben Roethlisberger was held out of the game after having surgery to repair a torn meniscus; leaving the aforementioned Jones to attempt 47 passes, playing from behind in a losing effort.
Last week, the Steelers’ couldn’t fully capitalize on Le’Veon Bell’s 170 rushing yards, as the offense failed to score a touchdown against the Chiefs. After a week to readjust and refocus, with Big Ben relatively healthy and Bell running the ball as efficiently as ever, Sunday night’s matchup could be the most taxing of the season for the Patriots’ top-ranked scoring defense.
2. Return of the Curtain?
During Pittsburgh’s current nine-game winning streak, the defense is giving fans reason to cull their memories of the famed Steel Curtain defense from the 1970s. The modern Pittsburgh defense may not have a “Mean” Joe Greene or L.C. Greenwood type player that can wreak havoc on his own, but this Steelers D has the ability to create mayhem as a unit. Since the streak began, the defense has recorded 31 sacks and knocked down opposing quarterbacks twice as much.
Pittsburgh’s defensive resurgence is not good news for a Patriots offensive line that struggled to protect Tom Brady last week against Houston, allowing him to be sacked twice and hit nearly 10 times. Brady also threw two interceptions, equaling his total for the entire regular season, thanks in large part to the pressure coming from the Texans’ explosive defensive front. With the Steelers’ ability to mix blitz packages with athletic linebackers Bud Dupree and Ryan Shazier, paired with the ageless James Harrison and budding Stephon Tuitt, look for Pittsburgh to try and emulate the pressure that Brady felt last weekend against Houston.
3. Appreciate the GOAT
One could legitimately argue that Bill Belichick is the captain of the Patriots’ decade-long juggernaut and be absolutely correct in that stance. But make no mistake it’s Brady that makes New England’s era of dominance what it is. For much of Brady’s career he’s done more with less offensive talent around him than perhaps any other quarterback of his era.
Think of it this way: Brady won three Super Bowls in four seasons with only two fellow offensive Pro Bowlers (Troy Brown in 2001, Corey Dillon in ’03) in that span, all while throwing to the likes of David Patten, Kevin Faulk and David Givens as his primary targets— not exactly the Reggie Waynes, Marvin Harrisons, and Edgerrin James of their era.
When Brady was actually surrounded by better talent, like an aged Randy Moss and diminutive Wes Welker in 2007, he threw for 50 touchdowns, more than 4,800 yards, and led the league in 12 different passing categories. As well all know, Brady was a David Tyree circus catch away from being only the second quarterback in NFL history to lead his team to 19-0 undefeated season.
Now at age 39, Brady, hasn’t allowed Father Time, a controversial four-game suspension, and the loss of the most dominant pass catcher he’s ever had (Rob Gronkowski) to slow him down. In 12 games this season, Brady threw for more than 3,500 yards and 28 touchdowns, while having his second most efficient season of his 17-year career in terms of completion percentage (67.4) and QBR (83.1).
Many opposing NFL fans have grown tired of the Brady narrative, but I attest he deserves all of the accolades he’s received throughout the years —12 Pro Bowl appearances (eight straight after the age of 32), two MVPs, two All-Pro honors, countless endorsements, and several NFL records — and much more. We may never again see a quarterback, the “it” position in America’s most popular game, be so dominant for as long as Brady has been. Making it to six straight conference championship games, sitting just a win shy of a seventh Super Bowl appearance, is nothing to scoff at, but something to appreciate if you’re a sports fan.
So whether you’re rooting for the Patriots, or hoping they lose by 100 points, I say, soak in the greatness and uncommonness of Tom Brady while he’s still around. They don't make ‘em like him very often, and a win on Sunday likely cements his legacy as the greatest to ever play his position.
This game very well could feature a lot of points, especially given the two quarterbacks involved. With offense likely to dictate the outcome, the winner will be the team that limits the damage done by its opponent’s best weapon. For the Patriots, that means stopping Le’Veon Bell, not just running the ball, but from coming with big plays as a receiver out of the backfield as well. For the Steelers, they've got to pressure Tom Brady into errant throws and turnovers, as well as do a better job against the run than they did in the first meeting when LeGarrette Blount gashed them for 127 rushing yards and two touchdowns. These tasks are easier said than done, but perhaps just a little bit more difficult for Pittsburgh considering New England is a sterling 16-3 at home in the playoffs over the last 15 seasons.
Athlon Editors and Contributors Predictions
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.