The winner of Sunday’s AFC Championship Game between the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium will make an NFL record ninth Super Bowl appearance.
The Patriots are in the AFC title game for a record sixth consecutive season, while the Steelers are here for the sixth time since 2000.
As always, NESN.com’s Mike Cole, Ricky Doyle and Andre Khatchaturian are here to make their picks against the spread.
Here’s what they have for Steelers vs. Patriots.
Pittsburgh Steelers at (-6) New England Patriots, Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET
Mike: Steelers. I originally thought the Chiefs would be a tougher matchup for t he Patriots, but the Steelers do a lot of things really well. This certainly isn’t the best Steelers team of all time, but they have some balance on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, there’s no denying the talent level. Antonio Brown is a matchup nightmare for anyone — even Bill Belichick and the mighty Patriots — and you have to figure Pittsburgh will find a way to work Le’Veon Bell into the game plan early and often, especially if New England tries to take away Brown.
The Steelers’ defense isn’t as good as the Houston unit that gave Tom Brady fits, but Pittsburgh’s defense has greatly improved since Bud Dupree’s debut, winning all nine games in which he has played, thanks in large part to his five sacks. He didn’t play in the first meeting, and James Harrison played fewer than 50 percent of the snaps.
I’m not saying Brady and Co. won’t find a way to win at home, but I think this game also comes down to the wire, so I’ll take the points.
Andre: Steelers. I think this game will be shockingly lopsided in Pittsburgh’s favor. The Steelers are winning football games despite Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben has thrown 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions during his team’s nine-game winning streak, but the Steelers’ defense has been unreal.
Since their 10th regular-season game, the Steelers have a league-best 1.22 yards-per-play differential and have allowed a league-best 4.8 yards per play. Pittsburgh also has a league-best 31 sacks during that span.
New England’s defense, on the other hand, is extremely overvalued. Here are seven of the eight quarterbacks the Patriots have faced during their eight-game run: Brock Osweiler, Matt Moore, Bryce Petty, Trevor Siemian, Jared Goff, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Colin Kaepernick. The Patriots’ pass rush also doesn’t scare me, and they’ll have a tough time against the Steelers’ offensive line, which allowed the second-fewest sacks this season (21). I don’t see anything in the Patriots’ arsenal that can slow down Le’Veon Bell, who has 1,565 all-purpose yards in his last nine games.
Finally, Rob Gronkowski had four catches, 93 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting between these teams. He’ll be out. As for Dion Lewis, the Steelers did a pretty good job in shutting down a similar type of player in Tyreek Hill in the divisional round. He had just 45 all-purpose yards and wasn’t a factor in the return game.
Ricky: Steelers. History is in the Patriots’ favor, as Tom Brady has absolutely owned the Steelers throughout this career. Pittsburgh is 0-4 at Gillette Stadium against the Brady-led Pats. But while I ultimately think the Patriots will punch their ticket to Super Bowl LI, I think this game will be closer than the six-point spread suggests.
The Steelers have the offensive weapons to cause problems, as well as an offensive line that can give those weapons room to operate. On the flip side, Pittsburgh’s defensive line has proven to be disruptive, so New England’s O-Line will need to be on its toes to avoid a scenario similar to the one that played out in last year’s AFC Championship Game in Denver.
These teams are evenly matched and very similar in several areas, which is why we could be in store for some drama in Foxboro. The game might just come down to making plays in the red zone, where the Steelers struggled last week in Kansas City and have had problems all season on the road — Pittsburgh has the second-best red-zone offense at home (72.41 percent touchdown rate) and the 29th-ranked red-zone offense away from Heinz Field (37.04 percent).
Thumbnail photo via Jason Bridge/USA TODAY Sports Images
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