The New England Patriots undeniably had one of the best defenses in the NFL during the regular season. But they have yet to face an offense as dangerous as the one they’ll see this Sunday.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, New England’s opponent in the AFC Championship Game, are the real deal, finishing tied for fourth in the NFL in points scored during the regular season and boasting three skill-position studs in wide receiver Antonio Brown, running back Le’Veon Bell and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Brown and Bell arguably are the best players in the league at their respective positions, and Roethlisberger is a five-time Pro Bowl pick with two Super Bowl rings and a boatload of playoff experience.
With that offense clicking, the Steelers soared into the postseason on a seven-game winning streak, then dismantled the Miami Dolphins 30-12 in the wild-card round. They were held without a touchdown Sunday night in Kansas City but racked up 389 total yards and rode six Chris Boswell field goals to an 18-16 win over the Chiefs.
“They’re really good,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Monday in a conference call with reporters. “They’re a tremendous offense. Kansas City was able to make some plays in the red area, but they could’ve easily been up in the 40s (Sunday) night.
“They do a lot of things well — can run it, can throw it. Brown’s the main guy, but all of the receivers, tight ends, backs — I mean, they’re all a problem. Roethlisberger is really good, can make all of the throws. It looks like his mobility is good. They’re doing a great job. They’re a good offense.”
Pittsburgh also has all three of its stars healthy, which it did not when New England visited Heinz Field in Week 7. Backup quarterback Landry Jones started that game, and the Steelers lost 27-16 despite strong efforts from both Brown (seven catches, 106 yards) and Bell (81 yards on 21 carries, 68 yards on 10 catches).
Bell had a tremendously productive second half of the season (835 rushing yards over his final six games) and is playing at an otherworldly level in the playoffs, averaging 168.5 yards per game on the ground over the first two rounds.
“He’s good all of the time,” Belichick said of the All-Pro running back. “He’s really a hard guy to tackle. He’s got good vision, great patience, and he does a good job.”
Sunday’s game represents a sizable step up in competition for the Patriots, whose opponents over the second half of the season ranged from mediocre to downright terrible, especially on offense.
The teams New England played during its season-ending seven-game winning streak ranked 27th, 30th, 32nd, 21st, 22nd, 30th and 17th in the NFL in points per game. The quarterbacks for those squads? Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jared Goff, Joe Flacco, Trevor Siemian, Bryce Petty and Matt Moore.
Thumbnail photo via Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports Images