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slides: What to Watch For: Steelers vs Patriots - AFC Championship

Sunday, January 22, 2017


After a week of talking about a Facebook Live video and analyzing press conferences, the game is finally here. 

The New England Patriots are set to host the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium on Sunday night in the AFC Championship game.


A Patriots win would send them to their ninth Super Bowl in franchise history, an NFL record, and their seventh Super Bowl in the Brady/ Belichick era. 

"We have to play our best game of the year. I think that's what it comes down to. We've got to all do whatever it takes to be at our best for those three hours on Sunday night. They put a lot of pressure on you in a lot of areas. They're tough to prepare for. We're going to have to just rise to the occasion," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in his Wednesday press conference. 

This is the third AFC Championship game between the Patriots and Steelers since 2001, but only the second one in which the Patriots face quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It is also the first one at Gillette Stadium, the previous two were in Pittsburgh. 

"They are the best in the world. They are the gold standard, if you will. So you want to have that opportunity to go up to play the best. It will be an awesome challenge for us," said Roethlisberger in his press conference this week. 

Kickoff is set for 6:40 p.m. on CBS. 



Related Slideshow: What to Watch For: Steelers vs Patriots - AFC Championship

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Martellus Bennett

The Patriots offense has had great success against the Steelers defense because of their use of tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski has eight touchdowns in the last five games against Pittsburgh and Brady is 30 of 36 when throwing to him. Can Bennett fill that role?

Bennett only had one catch on four targets in the Patriots divisional round game against Houston and has been battling a knee injury over the last several weeks. 

With the Patriots success against Pittsburgh using the tight end, the production of Bennett could be a key to the Patriots winning. 

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Tom Brady

Tom Brady is 4-1 in the last five AFC Championship games played at Gillette Stadium. In those games, Brady has thrown 9 interceptions compared to only 7 touchdown passes.

For example, the 2011 AFC Championship game against Baltimore in which the Patriots won, but Brady threw two interceptions, he admitted after the game that he played terrible. 

The 2007 AFC title game against San Diego, in which the Patriots held on to win despite Brady throwing three interceptions, and 2014 against the Colts he threw an interception, though the Patriots won in a blowout. 

He is only averaging about 240 yards passing in AFC Championship games. 

These numbers are alarming when shifting focus to this season. 

Brady threw only two picks all season, but in the divisional round against Houston, he threw two.  

"I think you always go into the game understanding what gets you beat and cautious of the things they do well. I don't think it's necessarily intimidation. I think what helps you win and lose is really good performance and execution and so forth," said Brady earlier this week. 

While the Patriots survived turnovers last week, they could get them beat this week. 

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Butler vs Brown

The feature matchup of this game will be round three between Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler and Steelers star receiver Antonio Brown.

“They are two competitive guys, relatively around the same size. I think if you broke them down they are very similar as far as athletic ability, quickness and speed and all those things. I think the biggest thing is they are just going out and competing. But it’s going to be all of us, all of us have to help out,” said safety Devin McCourty in his Wednesday press conference. 

In the first round which took place in 2015, Brown caught nine passes for 133 yards and had a late touchdown in a 28-21 Patriots win at Gillette Stadium. 

In the week seven matchup between the two, Brown caught seven passes for 106 yards. 

Though it is not likely the Butler will see Brown on every single snap, expect him to get plenty of chances. 

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Pats Offensive Line

Last week against Houston, the Patriots offensive line looked about as bad as they have all season. 

Tom Brady was hit eight times in the game, three of which went for sacks. 

The Texans were able to attack the inside linemen Joe Thuney and David Andrews, but also had better coverage down field forcing Brady to hold the ball. Look for the Steelers to do the same thing. 

"They're good at running blitzes, their blitzes they run, they're good at it. The big thing for us is just everyone being on the same page, getting that coordinated and handling that, and not having anyone run free with some of their blitz packages," said Andrews in his press conference on Thursday. 

Pittsburgh has six sacks in the playoffs so far and will attack with veteran James Harrison and Bud Dupree. 

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Pats Run Defense

The Patriots run defense is ranked as the best in the league when it comes to rushing touchdowns allowed per game. 

This week the Patriots face Le'Veon Bell, who is arguably the best running back in the league and certainly the best running back left in the playoffs. 

"He's definitely a tremendous back, extremely patient, but he also has a little quickness and things like that. When you square up guys, he's a little shifty; he can be a little shifty, so just being able to anticipate that. I think a lot of it is about guys taking their shot and a lot of guys around pursuing that one guy missed, and you've got the whole team to deal with," said defensive lineman Trey Flowers. 

Bell has rushed for at least 100 yards in seven of the last eight Steelers games, including 170 in the last game against Kansas City.  


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