The Patriots take on the Steelers in the 2017 AFC Conference Championship Game. Read a preview for it below. (Jared Wickerham Getty Images)

The Pittsburgh Steelers will travel to New England to take on the Patriots in the 2017 AFC Conference Championship game. The winner will play in Super Bowl 51 down in Houston. These teams met earlier in the regular season where New England won 27-16. That game, of course, did not feature Ben Roethlisberger as he was hurt at the time. Now it’s time to give 3 reasons why each team has a chance to win. What are the keys to the game for each team in order to advance this postseason? For more on the rest of the playoff teams, click here!

11-5 Pittsburgh Steelers At 14-2 New England Patriots

Sunday, January 22nd, 6:40 p.m. ET: CBS

Spread > Pittsburgh +6 – Under/Over 49.5

WHY The Pittsburgh Steelers Will Win:

Can Le’Veon Bell and Big Ben carry the Steelers to victory? Ready why else Pittsburgh will win (Joe Sargent Getty Images)
  1. New England Can’t Stop Le’Veon Bell:

Stopping Bell seems like an impossible task. Bell, the NFL leader in all-purpose yards, second in the NFL with 64 missed tackles. While New England does rank first in points allowed, they give up an average of 117 yards per game on the ground. That’s going to be a problem. You feel like the one guy that could have had an impact in that regard was Jamie Collins but he has been traded to Cleveland. Dont’a Hightower might be the most important player in this game if he can stop Bell. If Bell can get to the 2nd level of the defense this game is over before it ever begins. Let’s give a little credit to this Steelers offensive line too. They don’t get nearly enough respect. Bell leads the NFL in yards before being touched and this offensive line is a big reason for that success. Bell also garners a ton of attention and creates opportunities for others such as Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton. The ability for those complimentary pieces to win one on one matchups against the Patriots premier corners may actually be the turning point for the game. The fact is that Antonio Brown will probably be blanketed by Malcolm Butler. With Brown expected to get taken out of the game, the Steelers need Bell to not only be productive but consistently pick up first downs to chew clock.

Don’t expect Antonio Brown to have a big game, the pressure is on Le’Veon Bell to do so (Pro Football Focus)

2. Pittsburgh Has The Defensive Personnel To Stop New England:

How do you beat the Patriots? First, you have to get pressure on Tom Brady but not just any type of pressure, interior pressure. Tom can read the blitz better than anyone but he struggles when his centers and guards collapse. Houston showed this weakness last week when they lined up Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus over the center. Enter Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons who are excellent blitzing middle linebackers. Old man James Harrison has really come on late in the year as well. The Steelers 30 sacks since week 8 is the most in NFL. Next, you need to stop Gronk but he is on injured reserve which is good news for Pittsburgh. Finally, you have to slow down the New England rushing attack. LeGarrette Blount leads the league in rushing touchdowns this year for a reason. You feel like Stephon Tuitt and rookie Javon Hargrave can hold up in the run game. Those wheels routes by Dion Lewis are a different problem. Ryan Shazier’s ability to lock down Lewis in the passing game is going to be the real key to the game. For Pittsburgh, you feel like if you can do those things they can win the game. Most importantly theSteelers rank 4th in red zone defense.

 

3. The Steelers Absolutely Belong In This Game:

I’m not a big fan of Mike Tomlin. I think he is one of the most overrated coaches in the NFL. He does, however, motivate his players very well and always seems to play to the level of competition. Losing the regular-season meeting will only help that cause. Look anytime you have Big Ben you feel like you have a chance to win. He has been to 3 Super Bowls for a reason. I don’t think anyone would be shocked if he goes to a 4th even if it means beating Tom Brady. He has a record of 13-6 in the playoffs for a reason. Giving 6 points to this Steelers team just seems to be too much.

Mike Tomlin hasn’t had much success beating Tom Brady (ESPN)

WHY The New England Patriots Will Win:

Tom Brady and the Patriots look destined for Super Bowl 51. Read 3 reasons why they will beat the Steelers. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

 

  1. Tom Brady Is Just On A Different Level:

Tom Brady just graded out as the best regular season quarterback ever (according to Pro Football Focus). His 99.3 grade is by far the highest ever. These quarterback grades take out other factors such as getting help from receivers. To think about what he is doing right now at 39 in unfathomable. His 28-2 touchdown to interception ratio is unheard of. Brady threw an interception on less than 1 percent of his throws and only had 2 other passes that even had a chance to get picked off. His 4 turnover worthy throws occurred at less than 1 percent of all his attempts on the season (0.81%). The biggest difference in Brady’s game over the years is that he has somehow been able to get more mobile as he ages. Brady’s 112.0 passer rating on plays lasting at least 2.6 seconds would have never happened 4-5 years ago. Is there any other explanation other than Tom Brady is god on earth? Pittsburgh doesn’t have a prayer of winning this game if number 12 continues to play like this. Even in a game against another future Hall of Fame quarterback, Roethlisberger isn’t the same guy on the road. Brady’s postseason numbers are far more superior.

Brady has had the best season of all time in 2016 according to (Pro Football Focus)

Big Ben

2016, home: 5–1, 20 TD, 5 INT, 8.47 YPA, 116.7 rating

2016, road: 6–3, 9 TD, 9 INT, 6.73 YPA, 78.4 rating

 

2. The Patriots Got The Bad One Out Of The Way:

Let’s face it, New England did not play well last week in the win over Houston. I can bet that they won’t turn the ball over 3 times against Pittsburgh. The Patriots beat the Texans 34-16 and didn’t even play well. Seriously if Houston had an upgrade over Brock Osweiler they might have won that game. The good news for the Patriots is they got the bad one out of the way. New England hasn’t played a meaningful game in 8 weeks and was coming off a bye. It is understandable that the Pats would come out rusty in round one. Number one seeds normally find a way to win this one if they can manage to win in the divisional round. It’s hard to be in playoff mode for too many weeks and that is exactly what Pittsburgh has been in. The Steelers have won 9 straight games and needed to win every one of them to be in the position they are in. That’s hard to continue upon. Considering that the Patriots are next on the docket, it’s possible that the Steelers run out of steam.

Only Mark Sanchez and Joe Flacco 2x have beaten the Patriots during the Brady era in Foxboro in postseason play (ESPN)

3. New England Relies On The Fundamentals:

Do Your Job! That’s the Patriot way. They don’t beat themselves. In order to beat them, you have to play a flawless game. To be frank, it’s why the Steelers never beat the Patriots. The Steelers are overly aggressive on defense and it always comes back to haunt them and for some reason, Pittsburgh never learns their lesson. Pittsburgh’s defense is very easy to understand. The Steelers run their patterned 3-4 zone blitz scheme. That means 3 defensive lineman blitz while another designated linebacker rushes as well. Tom Brady studies too much film and knows which linebacker is coming before the play is ever called. In the 2nd level of the defense, there is often a big hole in the middle of the field. This picture below will explain just that.

There’s always a hole in the middle of the defense against Pittsburgh. Expect Martellus Bennett to take advantage (NFL)

Pittsburgh’s safeties often times play deep because of how aggressively they blitz. That leaves the middle linebackers playing zone in the middle. No one exploits the tight end matchup better than Brady. I can promise you that Martellus Bennett will have a huge game. I expect Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan to win enough one on one matchups to break down this Steelers secondary.

Who wins the AFC Conference Title Game? (Pro Football Focus)

The Prediction:

I picked the Patriots to win the Super Bowl prior to the season so I’m going to stick with it. Pittsburgh is only 3-9 with no playoff wins against Tom Brady simply because they do not match up well with them at all as I explained earlier. Even with the Patriots giving up 6 points, I still lean Patriots. These guys are just on a different level compared to the rest of the conference. They went 14-2 for a reason, take New England.