AFC CHAMPIONSHIP Pregame Stretch: Steelers at Patriots

If New Englands takes Bell away, do Steelers have the QB and defense to make them pay?

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP: Pittsburgh Steelers (13-5) at New England Patriots (15-2) at Gillette Stadium, capacity 66,829; Sunday at 6:40 p.m., CBS

Announcers: Jeeeeeeem and Pheeeeeeel. Annoyance factor: Off the charts, unless… There’s only two things worse than Jeeeeeeem and Pheeeeeeeel doing a Steelers game. One is when the opponent is the Patriots and Jeeeeeeeem’s fandom becomes transparent. Two is when the opponent is the Patriots and they are winning. In that regard, this could be a very long night. But, but, but… suppose the Steelers were winning. Novel concept, we know, but how much fun would that be to listen to the dazed confusion in their voices? Information courtesy www.the506.com.

Weather – or not?: Cloudy, high 30’s. Looks like weather thankfully will be a non-factor this week. Now, a final word on last week’s “ice storm” and how it was handled. First, there is no doubt that if a major metropolitan area gets 0.5” of ice, any scheduled professional sporting event would be canceled. But, as always, with weather, the devil’s in the details of the “if.” In this case, forecasters were brutally wrong, first issuing a watch for up to 0.75″ inch of ice, then a warning (which is supposed to me this weather is imminent) for 0.5” then changing that warning to 0.25″ before the actual storm delivered 0.10″ or less. Even in a profession that is known for inaccuracy, that’s a huge whiff. Should the Chiefs and the NFL have trusted that forecast? If we were talking about snow, which is much easier to deal with, absolutely not. But when the potential threat is ice, we think you have to err on the side of caution. Information courtesy www.weather.com.

How they rank (final regular season): New England offense: 4th passing, 7th rushing, 3rd ppg; Pittsburgh defense: 16th passing, 13th rushing, 10th ppg; Pittsburgh offense: 5th passing, 14th rushing, 10th ppg; New England defense: 12th passing, 3rd rushing, 1st ppg; Sacks: New England 16th (34); Pittsburgh 9th (38); Sacks allowed: New England 5th (24), Pittsburgh 2nd (21). Comment: It speaks volumes about Bill Belichick’s approach to football that the Patriots excel statistically in all categories. That’s an indicator to total team football, which is something that is brutally hard to accomplish in the salary cap era.

Referee: Terry McAulay. Competence factor: Top notch. McAulay is a pro’s pro who’s done three Super Bowls and multiple Steelers games this season. In the last one, the Giants accused the Steelers of deflating footballs (‘member that?) and Odell Beckham deemed McAulay’s work “horrible.” Speaking of horrible, Dean Blandino’s mixed crews have bordered on that throughout the playoffs so far (from Ed Houchuli’s crew huddling 10 times in the Giants-Packers game to Ol’ Blind Pete Morelli ruling a 15-yard forward pass a fumble in last week’s Texans-Patriots game). We hope this isn’t the game one of those crews goes off the rails completely (unless it works in the Steelers favor, of course) but we will note Sunday’s seven officials worked on six different crews during the regular season. Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com and www.profootballreference.com.

The last time: The Patriots sent the Steelers into their bye week with a 27-13 loss in Week 7 that featured Landry Jones and Antonio Brown outgaining Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, but saw the latter duo connect for the play of the game, a 36-yard TD midway through the third quarter that broke open a one-point game. Of course, we won’t see Jones or Gronkowski this Sunday, but the Patriots will have Dion Lewis and playoff football is a whole different animal in any event. Brady is 6-2 all-time versus the Steelers when Ben Roethlisberger starts at quarterback, including a 41-27 win at Heinz Field in the 2004 AFC Championship game. However, this will be the first playoff meeting between the teams when Brady (hopefully) does not know the Steelers defensive signals in advance.

The line: Patriots -6. Smarts say: The Patriots (and the Browns) were the closest things to sure things this year in the betting world (in totally different ways, of course) and the Steelers have a huge public betting following so you’d expect this line to be very stable and it has been. Opening at -5.5, bumping that half point in the first hour or so and then standing pat (get it?). The over/under of 51 means something like New England 28-22. Information courtesy www.dannysheridan.com and www.pregame.com.

Key matchup: Steelers OLBs James Harrison and Bud Dupree vs. Patriots Ts Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon. Why: Everyone knows the way to rattle Tom Brady is to put pressure in his face. That’s how the Texans did it on Saturday night, harassing Brady into his worst performance of the year. The Steelers have tried this in the past with inside backers blitzing through the A gaps and it hasn’t worked because they don’t have the secondary to back it up. In fact, Brady has torched them again and again by going to his hot read on the “fire zone” blitzes. Torched them to the tune of 942 yards, 10 TDs and 0 interceptions in their last three meetings. Nope, there’s gotta be another way to skin this cat and that starts with the two OLBs who’ve helped turn the Steelers season around with enough outside pressure to elevate the team from the worst pass rushing squad in the NFL to a very respectable one. One problem, though, at the same time as Harrison and Dupree have been elevating their play so have Solder and Cannon. Whichever up-and-coming duo wins the battle Sunday evening could go a long way toward deciding this one.

Player on the spot: Ben Roethlisberger. Because: How has Bill Belichick become the most successful coach in history? By consistently and successfully game planning to take the opposing offense’s biggest threat away. Who is the Steelers biggest offensive threat? Why, it’s Le’Veon Bell, of course, meaning that finally — in this season where we’ve noted so many times how pedestrian Roethlisberger has been and wondered so many times how long that Steelers can continue winning with such pedestrian quarterback play — it’s push come to shove time if the future Hall of Famer wants another ring. Against Kansas City, Roethlisberger almost threw an interception to Chiefs nose tackle Dontari Poe on the game’s first play and improved only slightly from there. At least five of the team’s seven red-zone failings can be traced directly to a poor Roethlisberger throw or decision. Now, we’re not talking the need for five TDs or anything like that this Sunday, we’re talking 280 yards, three TDs, zero INTs and a bunch of third-down conversions. That’s the kind of game it likely will take from Roethlisberger for Pittsburgh to play in Houston on Feb. 5. We think he’s got it in him, especially with the way he’s been playing the “aw shucks, I’m not even in the same conversation with Tom Brady” card this week.

Playoff picture:

+ The winner of the Steelers-Pats festivities will meet with red-hot explosive Green Bay or red-hot explosive Atlanta in Super Bowl LI in Houston. At the time of this writing, the over/under in the Packers-Falcons game is 61, which is about as high as we’ve ever seen an NFL line and those were the year of 18-0 Patriots. The Falcons opened a lot of eyes by physically hammering Seattle last Saturday only to be one-upped by Aaron Rodgers heroics Sunday against the Cowboys.

+ Wow, is Dak Prescott an impressive leader in addition to his considerable football talent! His performance against Green Bay last week and with media and teammates afterwards had us almost believing his positive qualities might one day outweigh all that bad Jerry Jones juju and lead the Cowboys back to the promised land. Almost.

+ On the flip side of that, we haven’t seen a team handle defeat as poorly as the Chiefs did last week in quite a while.Whining, name calling, delusional analysis, selective memory. They rolled all of the standards out. Not that we’re breaking news here, but that team is going nowhere but home in the playoffs the next few years.

+ The sixteen kickers in the NFL postseason combined to go 33-for-33 on field goals through eight playoff games (16 team games, the equivalent of a full NFL season). That means the clock is ticking and one of the four damn fine kickers left — Chris Boswell, Stephen Gostowski, Matt Bryant and Mason Crosby — is overdue to miss this weekend. If Bryant and Crosby get through the early game spotless, we better all take a deep gulp for the nightcap.

Facebook LIve fiasco:

+ Yes, Antonio Brown is a textbook narcissist, but he’s also a shrewd businessman, so it came as no surprise, really, that Brown had actually been paid $250,000 to use the Facebook Live platform instead of one of the competing products. You’d videotape your locker room, too, if someone was paying you 250k to do it.

+ It seemed to us Mike Tomlin was more cautionary than caustic in his press conference remarks and really upset about two things: 1) That his profanity was broadcast and his kids heard it, and 2) That, no matter the motivation, Brown put his own goals before the team’s goals. There are a lot of times when those goals overlap (hence Tomlin’s “we’ll punish him, not us”), which has allowed Brown to largely skate on his me-first antics, but this wasn’t one of them.

+ We did not see nearly enough mention that this was not the first time Brown had broadcast live from the locker room post game and that Tomlin had actually appeared in at least one of those other live broadcasts (although whether he knew it was a live broadcast or not is debatable).

Quick hits:

+ Martavis Bryant went public last week for the first time since his one-year suspension, consenting to an interview and video story with Sports Illustrated. Bryant has been living, volunteering (at a local hospital), training and coaching high school football in Henderson, Nevada, a Las Vegas suburb, abandoning his California beach house in the process (and, he says, the California lifestyle). The video showed a guy who looks more mature, shows an understanding of his predicament and how he got there and who is in frighteningly (and we mean frighteningly) good shape. The interview, though, contained some red flags in our eyes. First and foremost was Bryant’s reticence to apologize to any of his teammates about what’s happened, saying they are all adults. That’s true, but we’re not aware of many rehab or self-help paths that don’t begin with an apology to people you wronged.

+ Pro Football Focus’ year-end ratings are out and they match up to what our eyes have been telling us about the Steelers offensive line and its ascension to elite status. PFF grades the entire unit as third best in the league behind the Titans and Cowboys and pegs Ramon Foster (not David DeCastro, whose pass blocking hurts his PFF grade) to have been the second-best guard in the league, behind only Marshall Yanda, in the 2016 season while Marcus Gilbert rates as the 8th best tackle on either side.

+ At the time of this blog’s posting it seems very unlikely Ladarius Green will play in the AFC Championship game, having missed Thursday’s Steelers practice due to the stomach virus that’s sweeping through the Pittsburgh locker room. We guess is still technically possible Green could go through a full practice Friday and be cleared Saturday to play (that clearance comes from an independent neurologist and is the final step of the NFL’s concussion protocol), but that would be very unlike how Mike Tomlin has run the team this year. However, it is the AFC Championship and Tomlin has started playing starters on special teams so who knows? How valuable Green would be is best illustrated by the number of times last Sunday we saw Jesse James wide open behind the Kansas City linebackers and very SLOWLY and METHODICALLY catching the ball only turn and see no one within 10 yards of him, allowing him to SLOWLY and METHODICALLY tiptoe upfield before being SLOWLY and METHODICALLY tackled. Amen Brother Jesse for catching the ball to begin with and getting what he can, but those are plays where Green is loping down the field. The Steelers drafted James as a project and he’s certainly moving in the right direction, but it’s been excruciating at times to see what’s open in the middle of the field for Pittsburgh’s offense and have one tight not quite able to take full advantage and the other not physically able.

The pick: What else to say? We think the Steelers are a very good team that hasn’t played a great game in a while. We think the Patriots are a very good team that plays great regularly. If they play this game 10 times, the Pats probably win seven. But they only play it once.  Here’s an interesting thought to leave you with: If the Steelers finally manage to vanquish the dreaded, cheating, sickeningly good Patriots Sunday, can you imagine the joy in Pittsburgh and in the Steelers locker room (and around the NFL)? And in the wake of that is there any way they could remain focused enough to win the Super Bowl? My friends, against all logic, we’ve got a feeling we’re going to find out… Steelers 33-29.

Last week: Well, well, well, we nailed our pick last week of a Steelers two-point win to leave us 12-6 straight up and 9-9 against the spread for the year.

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