AFC Championship Game Preview

The AFC Championship Game features two future hall-of-fame quarterbacks, and two teams with deep championship pedigrees.

Since you may hear this stat 4863101613 times over the next week, let’s get it out of the way first. The Pittsburgh Steelers and New England have combined to play in 14 of the last 16 AFC Championship games. How’s that for for conference supremacy?

So, needless to say, the AFC title game is a match-up of conference elites, as the Pittsburgh Steelers travel to Foxboro to face the New England Patriots. The Steelers went into a hostile environment and beat the Kansas City Chiefs 18-16 at Arrowhead Stadium this past Sunday. New England advanced to the the AFCCG by outlasting the scrappy Houston Texans, 34-16 Saturday.

So, which of these exciting squads will represent the AFC in Super Bowl LI? We’ll give you the breakdown on the match-ups, strengths and weaknesses of each team. I’m just breaking down the squads…I’ll leave the picking to Big Al!


2017 AFC Championship Game Info

When: Sunday, January 22, 6:40 PM (CBS) | Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, MA


PITTSBURGH OFFENSE

bellThe Steelers’ offense features the most potent set of ‘triplets’ in the NFL. Two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is playoff-tested and is at his best in the clutch. Wide receiver Antonio Brown is the NFL’s premier pass-catcher and is nearly uncoverable one-on-one. The straw that stirs the drink, however, is running back Le’Veon Bell. Be prepared to hear the words ‘complete’ and ‘patience’ repeated ad nauseum in regards to Bell this week. If these three get into a grove, Pittsburgh can rack up points on anyone.

Outside of Brown, the Pittsburgh receiving corps doesn’t contain any individual standouts. Eli Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Coby Hamilton and Sammie Coates are all solid and fulfill specific roles. Look for Rogers and Hamilton to make timely catches in crucial moments. Tight Ends Jesse James, David Johnson and Xavier Grimble combine for a formidable group of blockers and pass-catchers. Uber-athletic tight end Ladarius Green may not play due to being in concussion protocol. If he’s available, he’s a major threat in the passing game.

Veteran DeAngelo Williams backs up Bell, but rarely sees the field these days, as Bell seemingly never exits the game.

The Steelers’ offensive line ranks among the best units in the NFL. Led by center Maurkice Pouncey and guard David DeCastro, this group excels at opening holes for Bell in the running game and protecting Roethlisberger on pass plays.

This offense will definitely move the ball. The key is whether or not they convert drives into touchdowns. Settling for field goals on a regular basis will not cut it against the Patriots.


PITTSBURGH DEFENSE

shazierOne of the more improved units throughout the course of the 2016 NFL season, the Pittsburgh defense has become one of the steadiest defenses in the NFL. Upfront, the Steelers’ defense begins with Stephon Tuitt. He is the biggest threat to getting pressure on the quarterback up the middle. Rookie defensive tackle Javon Hargrave has held his own as well and can wreak havoc as a run game penetrator and pass-rusher. Reserves Daniel McCullers, L.T. Walton and Ricardo Matthews all good jobs of spelling the starters without considerable drop off.

The strength of the Pittsburgh defense, as usual, lies at linebacker. Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons, on the inside, are two of the best at their position. Shazier, perhaps the fastest ‘backer in the league, has 4 interceptions in the last 4 games. On the outside, the ascending Bud Dupree and the ageless James Harrison consistently apply pressure on passers.

In the secondary, two rookies have made their presence known. Cornerback Artie Burns and safety Sean Davis are emerging as legit playmakers on the backend. Cornerback Ross Cockrell and nickelback William Gay are solid as well. The emotional leader is free safety Mike Mitchell. He is fiery, but must be careful of crossing the line into careless.


NEW ENGLAND OFFENSE

lewisIt goes without saying that the Patriots’ offense begins and ends with the success of Tom Brady… but I’ll say it anyway. Brady is already in the conversation of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history and he’s showing no signs of showing down. He’s highly capable of carving up the Pittsburgh defense, regardless of how much they’ve improved.

The New England backfield is a versatile group. LeGarrette Blount is the power back and clock-grinder. Dion Lewis and James White are scatbacks who thrive in the passing game. Lewis is also a dangerous return man. All kinds of mismatches are created from this trio.

At wide receiver, Julian Edelman is the go-to-guy on most occasions. He’s perpetually open and Brady always has a way of finding him, especially when it matters most. Chris Hogan is the big-play guy of the bunch. He’s a slick, precise route runner with a nose for the end zone. Hogan has been dealing with a thigh injury that’s with keeping an eye on this week. Danny Amendola had been slowed by injury as well and may be limited. Recently acquired Michael Floyd has been marginally effective, bit he’s a major talent to watch out for.

The biggest omission from the New England offense is obviously tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is on injured reserve. Martellus Bennett is just as imposing and nearly as dangerous in this offense.

The offensive line, while better than last year, is still a group that can be taken advantage of. Houston gave this line fits last week and Brady was hit more than the Patriots ever like to see.

The New England offense is varied, complex and surgical from week to week. As Brady goes, so does the entire unit. He’s due for a big game, and he may need it to outscore Pittsburgh.


NEW ENGLAND DEFENSE

highThe New England defense is the NFL’s stingiest in points allowed per game, so this will be strength-on-strength this week.

On the defensive line, the interior guys, Alan BranchMalcolm Brown and Vincent Valentine all shine against the run. Brown can get after the quarterback as well. The Pats don’t have one dominant pass rusher, but the have depth and send it in waves. Trey Flowers is the leading sacker and is a young player on the rise. Chris Long, Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich will all make their presence felt in some regard.

Dont’a Hightower is a rock at linebacker. He’s highly effective in all aspects of the game. Kyle Van Noy has been productive since being acquired via trade mid-season. Shea McClellin and Elandon Roberts add depth and speed.

The secondary is led by cornerback Malcolm Butler and safety Devin McCourty. Both are among the elite at their respective positions. Logan Ryan and Eric Rowe have been superb as of late as the 2nd and 3rd corners. Strong safety Patrick Chung is one of the most underrated players in the NFL, and a steadying influence on the backbend.

The matchup against the Pittsburgh offense will be strength vs strength. Bill Bellichick loves to take away the offended best weapon…bank on that being Bell.


X-FACTOR

In-game adjustments will be paramount in this game. Bill Belichick and staff are sure to start the game dialed in on taking away Bell and Brown in the Steelers’ offense. And Pittsburgh will be set on finding ways to get pressure on Brady. The ways to accomplishboth feats is to mix up your schemes and keep the offenses on their toes. Both of these defenses are solid, but neither is absolutely impenetrable. So, they must be varied in how they attack, cover and disguise their intentions.

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