By Larry Fine
(Reuters) – In a match-up of NFL royalty, the New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady host the Pittsburgh Steelers in Sunday’s AFC title clash with the winner earning a record ninth trip to the Super Bowl.
Both teams have been on a tear, with the Patriots riding an eight-game winning streak, while the Steelers and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have claimed nine straight.
“It’s a big challenge for us,” Brady told reporters. “We have to play our best game of the year.”
During the regular season the well-balanced Patriots ranked third in the NFL in points scored (27.6 per game), led all teams in allowing 15.6 points per game and are a six-point favorite for Sunday’s game.
Pittsburgh ranked 10th in both categories but have gelled in the second half of the season and boast an extraordinary triple threat on offense in Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown.
A harsh tone for the clash was struck immediately after Pittsburgh beat the Chiefs in last week’s playoff game in Kansas City when Brown posted a video of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin’s clubhouse speech online.
The video, sure to bring Brown some punishment by the club and the league, captured Tomlin using profanities in referring to the Patriots.
Tomlin later expressed “regrets” for the bad language, but did not feel it would adversely affect the game or his team.
“You’re not going to creep in the back door in New England and win a football game and creep out of there with an AFC championship,” he said. “I’m not worried about our team’s ability to deal with the potential distractions.”
The teams have since been tossing bouquets at one another.
“They’re good at everything … a very explosive and dynamic team,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “It’s the two best teams in the AFC. We’re glad to be in the game, proud to be playing in it. We earned it, they earned it.
The quarterbacks, meanwhile, hold a mutual respect.
Earlier this season, Roethlisberger asked for and received an autographed jersey of Brady’s that now hangs in his office.
“I think he’s one of, if not the greatest, quarterbacks of all time,” two-time Super Bowl champion Roethlisberger said.
Brady, winner of four Super Bowl rings, will be in his 11th conference championship game since 2001.
“Ben’s an incredible player,” Brady said. “I love the way he plays. Very tough, very hard-nosed.”
(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)