When you look at the right way a football team should be built and the right way an organization should be run, it’s no surprise to see the Patriots and Steelers facing off in the AFC Championship game this Sunday (6:40 p.m., CBS).
While these two teams haven’t played each other in the playoffs since the 2004 AFC title game, both teams remain two of the most consistent units in the NFL.
Since 1994: the Patriots are first in wins (281), and the Steelers third (252); the Patriots are first in Super Bowl championships (4), while the Steelers are tied for third (2); the Patriots are first in conference championships (7) while the Steelers are tied for second (4); and the Patriots are first in playoff victories (26), with the Steelers tied for second (20).
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Those things happen due to great ownership, coaching, and quarterback play – all of which both teams have had for a while.
And on Sunday, they’ll meet with a trip to Super Bowl LI on the line.
Antonio Brown was in the news for all the wrong reasons this week after live broadcasting his coach Mike Tomlin's postgame locker room speech, in which Tomlin referred to the Patriots as a--holes. Dumb move on Brown's part? Yes. Will it have any effect on Sunday's game? Not at all. But Brown himself most certainly will.
Earlier this season against the Patriots, Brown caught seven of 11 targets for 106 yards, including a 51-yarder. The season prior against the Patriots, he caught nine of 11 targets for 133 yards and a touchdown, though that touchdown came in the final seconds of a game that the Pats had in the bag. The numbers may not dictate it, but Malcolm Butler has definitely held his own against Brown, and if he can do that again, Ben Roethlisberger will have to get really creative . . . or lean even heavier on running back Le'Veon Bell. That isn't such a bad thing. Bell has been a monster the second half of the season, rushing for over 100 yards in seven of his last eight games, including 170 and 167, respectively, in two playoff games. The Patriots' third-ranked rush defense has never been more tested.
Two hands for safety
The Patriots pride themselves in playing a tight game in all three phases. One thing you can usually count on is them finishing near the top of the league in turnover differential. That was again the case this season, as they finished plus-12, third best in the NFL. Of course, a huge reason for that is the fact that they only threw two interceptions all season. Add in nine fumbles and the 11 total turnovers were tied for the fewest all season by any team. But that doesn't mean they've protected the ball all that well. New England actually fumbled the ball 27 times this year, tied for the second-most in the NFL. It's also tied for the second-most under Bill Belichick, and you have to go back to 2001 to find a Patriots team that fumbled more (29). Tom Brady threw two interceptions and Dion Lewis fumbled twice against the Texans last weekend (yes, Lewis also scored three touchdowns). One of Lewis' fumbles gave the Texans a short field for a touchdown. The Patriots can't afford to put the ball on the ground and risk a turnover against a Pittsburgh team extremely capable of making them pay.
Best of the best?
Take a look at the four quarterbacks remaining in the playoffs: Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, and Aaron Rodgers. Not coincidentally, they are four of the best quarterbacks in the league. Yes, football is a team sport, but almost all of the time (aside from a couple historically good defensive teams) it’s going to come down to quarterback play.
There are some out there who think the Patriots have the worst offense remaining of the four teams. That can be argued. But nobody behind the walls of Gillette Stadium would take any of the other options at QB, despite how good they may be.
“With a guy who’s been there, done that, experienced about every situation you can experience and he’s had a great deal of success in doing so, just having him out there gives everybody on the field a great deal of confidence,” Pats captain Matt Slater said of Brady.