It took 256 regular season games, but we’ve finally whittled down the 32-team NFL field to just 12 teams that have rightfully earned their place in the 2016-17 NFL playoffs. As we did for the first two rounds, we’ll be breaking down both conference championship games right here, with a special emphasis on the most important things, like who might win, why, and most importantly, by how many points. All lines and spreads are courtesy of Westgate Sportsbook.
As unpredictable as the NFL can feel at times, didn’t this feel pretty predictable?
I think we all wanted to believe that the Raiders really had a shot at capping off their miraculous season with a Super Bowl appearance (victory, even?). Or that an Andy Reid-led team would finally find its way back to a Super Bowl. Or that defense — and only defense — could bring Houston to… well, Houston for a Super Bowl berth in their own backyard.
But deep down, in that dark, cavernous corner of your mind, you knew better.
We all knew better.
We knew the Patriots would be here, and that the Steelers were the most complete team in the AFC outside of the New England area, and would likely find their way into the AFC Championship game yet again.
And I’ll be honest, I’m pretty pumped about it.
Sure, the Patriots have been in the last six AFC Championship games, and the Steelers have appeared in five this century, and at least one of them has appeared in 14 of 17 championship games played since the 2000-01 season, but parity be damned! This is going to be a great game.
Pittsburgh Steelers @ New England Patriots – Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET
Spread: Patriots -6
Spread: Even though the Patriots and Steelers met this year, it’s hard to glean much from the Patriots’ 27-16 road win back in October considering Ben Roethlisberger was sidelined with a left knee injury suffered the week prior.
On top of that, the Steelers’ defense has undergone a massive transformation from a porous unit on the ground and through the air to a relatively airtight one that has stymied opponents regularly on their nine-game winning streak.
The Patriots’ defense has been much improved from last year’s iteration for much of the season.
Let’s get the most interesting note of the way first: Ben Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl winner and sure-fire Hall of Famer once he hangs up his cleats, has never beaten Tom Brady in Foxboro.
Big Ben is 1-4 against the Patriots on the road, with his lone victory coming against backup QB Matt Cassel in 2008 when Brady missed most of the season due to a torn ACL.
Home field will be a factor, regardless of how many terrible towels make the trip to Beantown.
Another huge factor? Which team can stop the run and control the clock.
When these teams met the first time LeGarrette Blount gashed the Steelers to the tune of 127 yards and two touchdowns, which in turn made for an easy day for No. 12 and kept the Steelers defense off balance much of the afternoon. Brady will — as always — be the focal point, but count on the Patriots attempting to establish the run early and often as they did the first time they saw the Steelers.
The Steelers will obviously have the same goal in mind: keep the ball out of Brady’s hands with a steady dose of Le’Veon Bell. After the Steelers’ last loss — nine weeks ago to the Dallas Cowboys — Bell has been unstoppable. Aside from a 93-yard rushing performance against the Bengals in Week 16, Bell has rushed for a minimum of 118 yards in every other game of the Steelers’ eight-game win streak.
The Patriots boasted the third best run defense in the league this year, allowing an average of only 88.6 yards per game, but the Giants were tied with the Patriots in run defense and they still allowed Bell to run for 118 yards on 29 carries.
The Ravens finished fifth — just behind the Giants and Pats in the category — and allowed 122 yards on the ground along with a touchdown to Bell, proving the Steelers can get the job done against the stingiest of run defenses as well.
But, the Patriots are the best at clogging things up in the red zone and allowed a league-low six rushing TDs all year. On top of that, they don’t give up big plays on the ground or through the air. They only allowed three rushes of 20 or more yards all season, and one of 40 or more, the best in the league in both categories, so it won’t be an easy go for Pittsburgh by any means.
Aerially, these teams are stunningly similar in efficiency, but worlds apart in terms of their approaches. The Patriots lack a star the likes of Antonio Brown on the outside and operate with more of a ‘death by paper cuts’ approach; methodically carving their way down the field to multiple targets until they reach the end zone. The Steelers, meanwhile, run through their stars, especially Brown, who finished in second in receptions (106) and touchdowns (12) in 2016 and top five in receiving yards with 1,284.
Defending the pass, both teams were marginal at best, which could give us some offensive fireworks in this one.
So as you can see, the ‘edge’ for either team is hard to find when you look between the lines. Outside the lines, there’s a decided edge for New England. Home field, history, and a head coach that’s the best of all time.
That’s why I’m going with the Patriots to win it, but not by the six-point margin oddsmakers have them favored by. Steelers +6
Total: In an era where high-powered offenses rule, with two of the best QBs in the league going at it for a chance to go to the Super Bowl, I’m expecting a high-scoring, back-and-forth affair that Tom Brady will find a way to win. Over 51
Final: Pittsburgh Steelers 27, New England Patriots 31