Two of the NFL’s winning-most franchises meet as the Pittsburgh Steelers travel to Gillette Stadium to take on the New England Patriots, with a spot in Super Bowl LI on the line (6.40pm ET Sunday on CBS).
Just like the Falcons and Packers, whose NFC Championship showdown we have previewed, this is a game that will feature two teams that have already met this season. In the NFC preview, I argued that the Packers are a different team since that loss and that goes double so for the Steelers in this AFC Championship decider.
Placing much stock in that earlier meeting won’t do us any good when it comes to deciding our betting picks and predictions. One of Pittsburgh’s best assets, QB Ben Roethlisberger (pictured), missed the game with injury in what turned out to be a 27-16 week seven home loss for the Steelers. Roethlisberger is healthy now and like the Packers, the Steelers are playing like you wouldn’t believe. Pittsburgh is riding a nine-game winning streak coming into this one and while they are not favored to win with the chief United States facing online bookies, no one should be surprised if they do.
Roethlisberger, Brown, Bell, Repeat
I must sound like a broken record because every time I preview a game involving the Steelers, I mention this nearly unstoppable trio. I could talk about other things, like Pittsburgh’s outstanding and athletic inside linebackers and the role they’ll play against New England’s Dion Lewis, but that won’t decide the game. Like all Steelers’ games, it is this trio, which happens to be the best in the NFL, that has constantly been the difference maker. I would be remiss then not to talk about them and the impact they’ll have on Sunday night.
Roethlisberger has been one of the great quarterbacks in the game for some time now, dating back to when he won a Super Bowl in his second year in the league. Not many can say they’ve done that.
Big Ben as he’s affectionately called, has retained that consistency and has garnered the reputation as being one of the hardest guys in the game to take down. He has been able to use that to his advantage over the years, helping the Steelers create a great running game and opportunities for big plays down the field. With Roethlisberger on the field this Steelers team has been riding high and while he’ll face the league’s best defense in terms of points scored per game, Big Ben is enjoying another top notch postseason. He has the third highest playoff completion percentage and second highest yards per attempt in his career.
Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown has been a tried and true formula that has led to the Steelers’ success over the past few years. One of the best receivers in the game, Brown is both a deep ball threat and a yards after catch master. He torched the Miami Dolphins in the wildcard round with two long touchdown receptions and followed that up with another 100-yard receiving game against the Kansas City Chiefs. In the regular season, Brown finished second in both touchdowns (12) and receptions (106).
One player who should not be forgotten is Leveon Bell, who is the biggest reason the Steelers haven’t lost a game since the 10th week of the season. He is proving to be the MVP of the postseason.
Bell missed the first three games of the season. It was important to get that out of the way, because despite missing that time, he still finished 5th in rushing yards and 2nd in rushing yards per game (105.7). He had just the seven touchdowns in the regular season but his postseason numbers have been ridiculously off the charts. In just two games, he’s rushed the ball 59 times for 337 yards. That’s an average of almost 170 yards per game. Additionally, none of those runs were big break-out 50 yarders, meaning his stats hold up and his consistency is bar none.
Bell is the key and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I doubt he’ll need another 170 yard game against the Patriots, but he is the hot hand right now. As long as Bell continues to produce there is absolutely no reason not to feed him the ball and run the offense around his contributions.
Best Defense in the NFL?
When it comes to limiting teams to the fewest points per game, look no further than the Patriots as being the best team in the NFL.
That wasn’t exactly what most people expected at the beginning of the year. In fact, no one probably did. New England’s best quality is Tom Brady and the offense, not normally defensively. That being said however, when it comes to the postseason, there is a more familiar name on top in terms of points allowed and that’s the Steelers.
In addition to scoring a lot, the Steelers D has been lights out, limiting both Miami and Kansas City to under 20 points. Now, they will face a much tougher challenge against Brady and his own supporting cast. Guys like Dion Lewis are a bit of a matchup nightmare which is something neither Miami nor Kansas City provided. Lewis has filled in masterfully, with top pass catcher Rob Gronkowski going down with an injury. Against the Houston Texans last week, he became the first player in postseason history to score a touchdown on a kick return, reception and rush, in the same game.
The Steelers will need to get creative to find a way to stop this dual or even tri-threat back.
Our AFC Championship Preview’s Steelers at Patriots Betting Predictions & Picks
If we look at the betting lines from the most trustworthy and honest offshore sportsbooks, the Patriots are six point home favorites. It opened at 4.5pts, so the money has been coming for New England but that is somewhat of a generous spread given the way the Steelers have been playing and the winning streak they are on. Then again, the Patriots have won their last eight so they’ve been playing pretty well too.
In fact, all of the playoff teams have and that’s what makes this weekend seem like it will be one of the best in recent memory. In the previous preview, I picked the Falcons to topple the Packers and to cover the spread en route to becoming the NFC’s Super Bowl representative.
For this preview’s betting prediction and pick, I believe it will be the Steelers joining them. They can pull off the road upset thanks to the trio, but mostly thanks to Bell. New England really doesn’t have anybody that can stop him and if Bell has room to run, Roethlisberger will have room to make plays for Brown. For our AFC Championship game picks we are going with the one: