Categories: NFL

2017 AFC Championship Preview: Can the Steelers Upset the Patriots?

The New England Patriots are right where everyone expected them to be, as one of the top preseason Super Bowl contenders have boasted the best Super Bowl odds for months now and are in position to make good on the oddsmakers backing them.

Tom Brady and co. enjoyed a fantastic 2016 regular season, as the Pats went 7-1 upon Brady’s return from a four-game ban and ended the year at 14-2 with the best record in the league. When it was all said and done, the Pats had some impressive wins on their resume, while their only loss with Brady was against a healthy Seahawks defense.

New England has looked the part of a title contender throughout the year, as they’ve produced the 5th best offense in the league in terms of total yardage and the top scoring defense, as well. No one remaining in these playoffs has better coaching, more experience or better balance across the board.

In addition, there is a narrative out there that the Pats have some unfinished business to tend to. Not only did New England come up short in the AFC title game just last year, but Tom Brady is sure to continue playing with a chip on his shoulder after being handed a four-game ban for something he claims he never did.

A lot seems to be working in New England’s favor as this weekend’s AFC Championship approaches, but that doesn’t mean we can write off the Pittsburgh Steelers so quickly.

As experienced and balanced as the Pats are, they very well could meet their match this weekend. Ben Roethlisberger has been just as impressive in the playoffs, as he’s gotten the Steelers to three Super Bowls (2-1 in those games) and boasts an elite 13-6 record in the playoffs, overall.

Big Ben won’t be rattled and the Steelers already have the look of a Wild Card darling after winning their last two games. Roethlisberger won’t be alone, either, as the Pats have to deal with Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and a rising Steelers defense.

The Mike Tomlin locker room comments could come back to haunt the Steelers in the end, but on the surface, it looks like we’ve got one heck of a showdown on our hands in the 2017 AFC title game.

Steelers vs. Patriots Odds

Before we jump into the game itself, let’s consider how Vegas is looking at the AFC Championship game under a broader scope. New England has been the heavy favorite to win it all for much of the year, and that hasn’t changed one bit. Heading into this weekend’s AFC title game, the Pats still remain the team with the best Super Bowl 51 odds, per Bovada:

  • Patriots (+150)
  • Steelers (+425)

There is a pretty big gap here, as the Steelers face arguably the toughest test to get to the Super Bowl and come in with the worst Super Bowl odds of the remaining four teams. They aren’t massive underdogs to win this game, but it can’t help that they sport the worst Super Bowl odds coming into it.

Steelers vs. Patriots Spread

  • Steelers (+6)
  • Patriots (-6)

The good news for Pittsburgh is the spread isn’t insane for the AFC Championship game. The oddsmakers still like New England to win by almost a touchdown, but the Steelers have proven over the course of the season they’re good enough to either keep this thing close or even stage the upset.

Before we dive into the game and gauge how likely it is the Steelers beat the spread or actually win, let’s consider some interesting ATS data:

  • New England was 12-3 ATS overall this year
  • New England was 6-2 ATS at home this year
  • New England was 10-3 ATS as favorite this year
  • New England is 14-3 ATS in their last 17 games, overall
  • Pittsburgh was 10-7 ATS overall this year
  • Pittsburgh was 5-3 ATS on the road this year
  • Pittsburgh was 0-2 ATS as underdog this year
  • Pittsburgh is 5-0 ATS in their last 5 road games
  • Pittsburgh is 7-1-1 ATS in their last 9 games, overall

The numbers feel pretty split, as both teams have been solid against the spread this year and both have had success as home and road opponents.

MoneyLine

  • Steelers +190
  • Patriots -230

Whether you bet against the spread or not, a straight up bet could be in order this weekend, especially if you feel good about a Pittsburgh upset. It’s certainly plausible, and a mere $500 bet could bring back a cool $950 over at a site like Bovada.

New England is the favorite for a reason, but they offer a much lower payout. That same $500 bet would only get you back about $217 if the Pats pulled off the win. If you’re going for a straight up bet this week, roll with the Steelers as the upset pick. Otherwise, avoiding straight up betting would be the best move.

Total: 51

This is a pretty high Total to deal with when we look at these two teams, mostly because we just never know what they’re going to give us. New England does have a great offense, but their scoring defense was also tops in the league and could end up limiting the Steelers.

That’s an even greater fear when you look at what Pittsburgh did last week (six field goals and zero touchdowns). That won’t fly in a road upset bid and if Big Ben and co. aren’t on top of their game, they could lose a low-scoring game to the Pats.

New England can win games whatever way they need to, and the method here could be to grind the clock out with their running game to make sure Le’Veon Bell doesn’t run all over them. New England’s defense kept the Steelers in check in the first meeting (16 points allowed), as well, which is worth noting even though Ben Roethlisberger missed that game.

This is a tough Total to deal with, but considering New England’s defense and Pittsburgh’s offensive regression last week, we might favor the Under.

It’s also worth pointing out that the Pats went 8-9 when it came to the Over this year and the Steelers hit the Over just five times. Combine everything together, and 51 might be a bit too high for this game.

Pittsburgh Steelers Breakdown

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a very interesting team, as they are certainly battled tested after winning the AFC North and now come in hot with two straight playoff games. In fact, following a three-game skid earlier this year, they’ve turned things on and haven’t lost in nine straight games.

Pittsburgh doesn’t always win in any one way, either, which might make them more dangerous than anyone the Pats could face. The Steelers can tear you apart with their explosive passing game, run all over you with Le’Veon Bell or let their defense take over with sacks and turnovers.

They have all of the trimmings a Super Bowl contender requires, as Big Ben has been to the big game thrice before, Mike Tomlin has one title under his belt and they can compete at an elite level in every facet of the game.

If you’re looking for the downside, it resides with Pittsburgh’s erratic offensive (Big Ben has thrown 3 picks already in this playoff run) and a defense that prior to the playoffs wasn’t necessarily elite. Pittsburgh also lost in this same matchup earlier this year, and that was even at their own stadium.

While there are negatives to consider, the Steelers have what it takes to upset the Pats and move on for a shot at their 7th NFL title. Of course, things may need to break just right to make it happen.

Pittsburgh’s 3 Keys to Victory

  • Feed Le’Veon
  • Pressure Brady
  • Protect Big Ben

Bill Belichick usually does a terrific job at limiting the opposition’s best weapon, but it feels like a tall order to shut down Le’Veon Bell. Bell has been on a tear all year, but he’s specifically been ridiculous in these playoffs, where he’s posted back-to-back 160+ yard days.

Bell dropping 160+ rushing yards for the third straight game seems like a reach, but if the Steelers want to march into Foxborough and get the win, he may have to come close. Pittsburgh will have to at least try, too, as the Steelers can’t afford to get one-dimensional on offense, both so they can move the ball and put up points, as well as keep Tom Brady off the field.

When Brady is out there, the Steelers need to make sure he doesn’t enjoy himself. Brady is at his worst when under constant pressure, and we even saw just last week how he can struggle when he gets knocked around all day. Pittsburgh certainly has the talent and coaching to take advantage of that, while their season numbers (9th in the NFL with 38 sacks) suggest as much.

On the other side again, the Steelers can’t let the same happen to Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben can often flip the script on a good pass rush by extending a play and taking shots down the field, but he’s been banged up more and more over the years and maximizing that part of his skill-set is increasingly becoming more difficult.

That doesn’t mean Big Ben can’t burn the Pats for trying to rattle him, but the ideal approach will be to keep him well protected, run the football and make sure whatever action he engages in down the field is more on his own accord, rather than a desperate reaction to an effective pass rush.

Overall, the Steelers are in good shape if they can run the ball and keep Brady for firing on all cylinders. If even just those two keys can happen, they’ll be in this one until the end.

New England Patriots Breakdown

It’s very tough to go against the Patriots, as they’ve been the top Super Bowl pick all year, and by many they were the top pick well before the season started. The Tom Brady suspension didn’t even slow them down, as they went 3-1 without their starting quarterback and never missed a beat offensively.

When it was all said and done, the Pats were the best team all year by record (14-2), won their division and earned the top seed in the AFC. That granted them home field advantage, which looks like quite the asset after they went 7-1 in Foxborough during the regular season.

New England will be without star tight end Rob Gronkowski, but they’ve made it through half of the season without him and have developed enough of a strategy to feel confident in winning a title sans their best offensive weapon.

That doesn’t mean it will be easy, but the Pats do have plenty of weapons behind Tom Brady, with Martellus Bennett filling in nicely at tight end and Julian Edelman spearheading a very solid supporting cast. That’s just on the offensive side of the ball, too.

The Pats might even be better defensively, where they finished the regular season at the #1 scoring defense and also fared well against the pass (12th) and were elite against the run (4th).

On top of everything that points to New England from 2016, a look back at their history shows us this is a place they’ve been at, are comfortable with and know how to advance. The Steelers do, as well, but they have to do so on the road against a Patriots team that has enjoyed more success when you put the eras (Belichick/Brady vs. Tomlin/Roethlisberger) against each other.

Pittsburgh is a viable threat, but everything considered makes the Patriots the logical favorite.

New England’s 3 Keys to Victory

  • Stop the Run
  • Keep Steelers Guessing
  • Force Big Ben to Unravel

The number one priority for the Patriots will be to not let Le’Veon Bell dictate this game. That could be very difficult to do when you look at the dominant run he’s on so far in these playoffs, but it’s pretty crucial.

Flat out shutting Bell down will be tough, but two things work in New England’s favor: they do sport one of the best run defenses in the league and they actually did just that the first time they faced the Steelers (81 rushing yards, 3.9 yards per carry).

Bell did have over 140 total yards and Big Ben wasn’t even in that game, but for the most part the Pats did enough (on the road, mind you) to keep Bell from completely running wild in a pretty big game. The run defense will be keyed up more than ever, of course, and should be ready for Bell to get plenty of touches.

On the other side, the Patriots can’t get predictable and they need to be in attack mode. The Steelers have a pretty talented pass rush and can definitely get to Tom Brady if the veteran passer doesn’t get rid of the ball quickly and decisively. We know given the Pats’ system and Brady’s elite play that he can and probably will, but that will be key in this matchup.

In addition, merely switching it up could be big by itself, as the Steelers do not have an invincible defense. The Pats will want to run the ball, set up screens and get their short area passing game going, but taking shots to really spread an athletic defense out could be huge. Whatever they do, the Patriots will want to be as unpredictable as possible and keep the Steelers guessing. The less comfortable Pittsburgh is, the less likely they are to freely tee off on Brady and keep the New England offense grounded.

Lastly, the Pats are going to want to do all they can to see Big Ben blow this game. There are usually two outcomes for Roethlisberger – he lights you up, or he comes undone. He can also often overcome a shaky performance or come through in the clutch, but the best course of action is to take away his running game and make the game all about him having to be perfect.

That’s a tall order on the road against a good defense, so if Roethlisberger is relegated to dropping back more than he really wants to, sacks and turnovers could start piling up. We saw him struggle last week against an elite defense (1 sacks, 1 INT and 0 TDs), so keeping him out of his comfort zone will be a top priority.

Overall, this really feels like New England’s game to lose. They have the home field edge, they’ve beaten the Steelers already this year and they have the edge pretty much across the board when it comes to the numbers game. If they stick to these three keys, they should be able to get a win.

Matchup History

The Steelers and Patriots have clashed quite a bit over the years, facing a total of 29 times, with the Steelers holding an ever so slight 15-14 advantage. It’s been mostly New England lately, of course, as they beat the Steelers at Heinz Field earlier this year and have ripped off three straight wins in the series.

This weekend’s showdown will mark the fifth time these two franchises have collided in postseason play, while the Pats lead the way in the playoff series, 3-1. The Steelers have not had a ton of success against Tom Brady and co. during the Ben Roethlisberger era, going just 3-7 versus the Pats since he took over under center.

Steelers vs. Patriots Prediction

This is an incredibly difficult game to assess, as both of these franchises have terrific histories in the playoffs. However, one does look like the clear pick over the other, as New England is extremely tough to beat in Foxborough and Tom Brady is specifically an incredible 19-7 in playoff games that aren’t the Super Bowl, 6-4 in the AFC title game and perhaps most importantly for this game, 17-3 in the playoffs under Brady at home.

Quite simply, the Pats don’t lose much in the playoffs at their own field and when a trip to the Super Bowl is on the line, more often than not, they punch that ticket. The fact that New England lost in the AFC title game a year ago even bodes well for them here, as the Patriots are 2-1 in the conference championship game when they lost in the same game the year prior.

Numbers aside, the Patriots are the better team when it comes to the eye test, they had the best record all year and they have been the top Super Bowl favorite for almost the entire season, as well. The Steelers are a fun flier bet to run the table or win this game, but they probably aren’t the right one. Expect a close game initially, but for Brady and co. to pull away late.

Pick
Patriots
30
Steelers
17
Kevin Roberts

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Kevin Roberts

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