Super Bowl LI is nearly upon us. Once we’re done navigating Conference Championship Weekend we’ll know which two teams will be in the big game.
This Sunday represents the biggest step in the NFL postseason outside of the Super Bowl, as this Sunday’s games will determine which teams will represent their respective conferences. The second of the two games has the New England Patriots hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers for the right to represent the AFC.
We’ll have two proven and postseason-tested quarterbacks in this game in the form of Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady. The two have nine Super Bowl appearances and six Super Bowl wins between them. We’ll also get a prime matchup of Pittsburgh’s explosive offense against a New England defense that allowed an NFL-low 15.6 points per game in the regular season.
Now, we’re going to take an in-depth look at the AFC Championship Game and the latest odds—courtesy of OddsShark. We’ll also be making our predictions and examining some of the latest storylines heading into Championship Sunday.
AFC Championship Game
What: Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts
When: Sunday, January 22
Time: 6:40 p.m. ET
National TV: CBS
Line: NE -6
Prediction: 28-20, Patriots
Steelers Dealing With Illness
It appears the Patriots aren’t the only foe the Steelers will be battling this week. As they prepare to head into Foxborough, the team is also battling the flu.
According to Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com, “up to 15 people” have suffered setbacks this week because of the illness.
If you’ve ever dealt with the flu, you know how difficult it can be to work, engage in physical activity or even concentrate. It’s difficult to believe that this won’t impact at least some of the preparation for the affected Pittsburgh players.
However, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin insists the team will be prepared by Sunday.
“I’m just thankful that I’ve stayed out of the line of fire,” Tomlin. “We’re not making excuses. There won’t be. We’ll be there, we’ll be ready to play, this is just part of normal things that happen over the course of a season”
Hopefully, everyone on Pittsburgh’s roster will be healthy by game time.
Patriots Still Not Over Deflated-Football Scandal
While many of the Steelers are sick because of the flu, many members of the Patriots organization are still sick over the infamous deflated-football incident and its repercussions.
As a result of Deflategate, the Patriots lost a first-round pick in the 2016 draft, a fourth-round pick in the 2017 draft and were fined $1 million. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was also handed a four-game suspension for being “generally aware” of ball tampering.
After a series of appeals, Brady’s suspension was finally enacted this season and New England played the opening month without him. Patriots owner Robert Kraft, as one might imagine, still seems bitter about the entire ordeal.
Kraft recently said the following, per the New York Times (via Phil Perry of CSN Northeast):
Sometimes, the league really messes up, and I think they really messed this up badly. But we’ve all agreed to subjugate our right to disrupt everything. I mean, we can, but we’re a partnership. There’s jealousy, there’s envy, there’s stupidity. Sometimes, life is unfair, and you have to suck it up and move on and not use it as an excuse.
New England only lost one game while Brady was sidelined, and the team still ended up with the AFC’s No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Therefore, there isn’t any reason for the Patriots to look for excuses this season. Still, while few in the organization will admit it, some aspect of revenge will likely be a motivating factor this weekend.
As if Brady and Co. need more motivation than a seventh trip to the Super Bowl.
Ground Game Will be Key for Both Teams
The quarterback matchup between Brady and Roethlisberger is going to garner much of the attention heading into this game. However, there’s a good chance the matchup is actually decided on the ground.
We already know about Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell and his ability to take over a game. Just look to last week’s 170-yard performance against the Kansas City Chiefs for recent proof. If Bell gets going against the Patriots, the Steelers will have an easier time moving the ball and keeping Brady on the sideline and out of the game.
However, Bell will have a tough test against a Patriots defense that is rated second against the run by Pro Football Focus.
“They play real well up front,” Bell said of New England, per Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “They pride themselves on stopping the run. I think it was a circumstance of us not getting enough totes, too. Last time we played them we weren’t as aggressive running the ball as we are now. It should be an interesting game going against those guys again.”
New England can help its chances of winning tremendously by containing Bell on the ground. The Patriots can also tilt the game in their favor by leaning on running back LeGarrette Blount.
Not only can Blount punch holes in Pittsburgh’s defense—which is rated 19th in run defense by Pro Football Focus—he can help keep guys like Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown on the sideline as well.
As Bleacher Report NFL Analyst Chris Simms pointed out in the video above, run-oriented personnel groupings can help the Patriots limit Pittsburgh’s creativity on defense.
Pittsburgh has dominated defensively in the postseason, holding the Miami Dolphins and the Chiefs to 28 combined points. New England should have an easier time moving the ball if the team can force Pittsburgh to play in more base packages.Read more NFL news on BleacherReport.com