By: Jake Mackey
The New England Patriots are about to participate in their 6th straight AFC Championship and their 11th of the Brady-Belichick era. The duo is 6-4 overall and 2-3 over the last five years. On Sunday they will look to improve those records and advance to their ninth Super Bowl in the franchise’s history, which would be an NFL record. The only thing standing in their way is the team with the most Lombardi trophies, and a team that has been red hot since Thanksgiving, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
If there is one team that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has truly dominated over the course of his career, it is the Pittsburgh Steelers. He is 9-2, with 24 touchdowns, three interceptions, and a 114.2 passer rating. In Foxborough against the, “Steel Curtain” Brady is 4-0, with 15 touchdowns, zero interceptions, and averaging 353 yards per game. In their last five match ups since 2010, Brady has thrown 15 touchdown passes. Eight of those were to Rob Gronkowski who will not be suiting up on Sunday.
Pittsburgh has always had a tough time covering tight ends given their style of zone defensive play that leaves the seams open. Martellus Bennett needs to have a big game this Sunday in order for the Patriots to advance. One reception for four yards against the Texans and telling the media this week that he was, “Pressing to make some plays” does not give me a ton of confidence that he is capable of having a seven catch, 100 yard, two touchdown performance that the Patriots need from him.
Last weekend the Patriots offensive line was exposed with the Texans rushing up the middle with linebackers man handling David Andrews and Joe Thuney, hitting Brady eight times. In addition, the talented Houston secondary locked down Martellus Bennett and Michael Floyd, and pushed around Edelman for much of the game. It worked for the most part, however the Patriots were able to hit on a few chunk plays that catapulted the offense.
Pittsburgh has the ability with their linebackers Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree to do the same thing to the interior of the Patriots offensive line. In addition, 38-year old James Harrison has found the fountain of youth of late with 7.5 sacks this season. In additon, with him standing at 6-0, it makes it extremely difficult for tackles such as Nate Solder standing at 6-8 to get their hands on him.
Expect some discomfort from Brady on Sunday in the pocket, and that tends to lead to turnovers if we are going off past postseason games. In 32 postseason games, Brady has thrown 30 interceptions. Therefore, you can almost account for an interception per game. Against Pittsburgh turnovers lead to points, which is why ball security is pivotal in this one.
The Patriots defense has given fans a great deal of confidence since Thanksgiving as they have seemingly changed their entire style of play; swarming to the ball, getting physical, and creating turnovers. Nevertheless, while the defense has dominated it has been against quarterbacks such as Jared Goff, Trevor Siemien, Matt Moore, and Ryan Fitzpatrick. They have played one elite quarterback all season and that was Russell Wilson who threw for 348 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-24 victory at Gillette Stadium on November 13th.
Ben Roethlisberger is an elite quarterback with the best running back in the game, Le’Veon Bell, and the best wide receiver in the game, Antonio Brown, at his disposal. I have full confidence that Bill Belichick and his number one scoring defense can hold the high powered Pittsburgh offense, primarily the run game, in check, but I am not confident that they will be able to generate enough pressure to get Ben completely off his game.
This game, like so many playoff games in the past will be won on defense, despite the greatness of the two quarterbacks in this game. The Pittsburgh Steelers have more raw talent on the defensive side of the ball, especially up front. Pittsburgh had the second most sacks in the NFL this season behind only the Houston Texans. This will lead to an uncomfortable Tom Brady, which will lead to turnovers, which will lead to Pittsburgh points that allow them to control the pace of the game. Pittsburgh wins this one 27-23. Once again, the downfall of the Patriots season will be because of the absence of tight end Rob Gronkowski.
I have to be consistent in my predictions. I predicted his injury would cost the team the season back in December, and I am sticking to that prediction: https://beantownblitz.wordpress.com/2016/12/01/so-long-to-gronk-and-another-patriots-season/