Pittsburgh Steelers (13-5 SU, 11-6-1 ATS) vs. New England Patriots (15-2 SU, 14-3 ATS)
AFC Championship Game
Date/Time: Sunday January 22nd 6:40 PM EST
Where: Gillette Stadium
By Mike M, Expert Football Handicapper, Predictem.com
Point Spread: PIT +5.5 / NE -5.5
Over/Under Total: 50.5
The Pittsburgh Steelers will meet the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro on Sunday evening for the AFC Championship game, with the victor moving on to take on the winner of the Green Bay Packers vs. Atlanta Falcons game preceding it.
Whichever team takes home the AFC crown will also put themselves on top of the leaderboard for most conference championships ever with the Steelers, Patriots and Broncos all tied with eight titles apiece. Pittsburgh currently holds the record for most AFC Championship game appearances with sixteen total, but if they go on to lose on Sunday, they will then also hold the historical lead for defeats in an AFC Championship game with eight.
Both the Patriots and Steelers struggled to get through their divisional round games this past weekend, with New England playing sluggish and turnover prone football for three quarters against Houston before finally putting together a strong fourth to finish off the Texans 34-16, and Pittsburgh kicking their way to a 18-16 victory against the Chiefs thanks to six Chris Boswell field goals and Kansas City head coach Andy Reidís patented postseason disastrous clock management skills destroying his teamís chances of success yet again. One marked difference between the Patriots and Steelers was how they reacted to their escapes last weekend, with many reporting the New England locker room to having a somber, funeral home type feel to it after playing so poorly against Houston, this despite the fact they still won a playoff game by 18 points and had just clinched an NFL record 6th straight trip to their conference championship game. On the other hand is Pittsburgh, who celebrated their escape at Arrowhead with star wide receiver Antonio Brown broadcasting live on Facebook head coach Mike Tomlinís speech/complaining to his team regarding the switch in the start of their game due to inclement weather costing themselves preparation time and because of which Ďwe spotted those aóholes a day and a halfí. As good as Antonio Brown is on the field, posting a video from a private locker room conversation, especially one in which your constantly cantankerous coach takes an orifical name-calling shot at an opponent that has had a clear upper hand against you in recent history, it wasnít the most opportune way to start the week.
Success breeds contempt, and with a 1-5 record against Tom Brady in his last six games versus the Patriots quarterback, itís easy to understand why Tomlin holds so much animosity toward his opponent this week. Brady dominated the Steelers not only over those past six games, throwing for 19 touchdowns and zero interceptions in that time frame, but has also found similar success throughout his career, going 7-2 overall with a 24/3 TD-INT ratio and a QB rating of 114.2 that is the highest of his career against any one particular team. And while Brady finds himself facing a foe he has consistently achieved against, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be encountering a variable this weekend that has not been a path to pinnacle play for him in recent years, and that is going on the road. Since the end of the 2011 season Roethlisberger has a record of 27-10 in games played at home, but an under .500 record of 20-21 in those played on the road.
Home field advantage has had a major effect on the outcome of the AFC Championship both historically throughout the conference and specifically with the Patriots playing in Foxboro. In 46 AFC title games, the home team has posted a record of 32-14, including a 9-1 mark in the last ten, while the Patriots themselves have gone 20-4 at home during their postseason history, with a 6-1 record in AFC Championships played in Massachusetts.
How the Patriots go about trying to slowdown the two-headed monster of LeíVeon Bell and Antonio Brown will likely be the matchup that has the most effect on the outcome of the game. Bell has been multi-faceted offensive force throughout his career, but especially over the past eight games where he has been averaging over 178 total yards of offense per as he continues to frustrate defense with his abilities to not only fight through their tackles but also remain a feared threat catching passes out of the backfield. Brown remains at the top of the wide receiver class in the NFL after finishing the regular season amongst his position fifth in yards and second in both touchdowns and receptions. He has always played at an elite level against the Patriots, compiling in his last four games against them 30 receptions for 377 yards with touchdowns in each of his last three.
The key for the Pittsburgh defense will be how they go about strategizing to slow down Tom Brady. While it was pointed out previously how well Brady has done in recent matchups against the Steelers, he hasnít been as successful of late in AFC title games. The Patriots have gone just 3-4 in their last seven conference championships, with an abysmal against the spread mark of 1-6. During that seven game span Brady has completed under 59% of his passes and has thrown more touchdowns than interceptions only twice during those games, finishing with a TD/INT ratio of 9-11. While the combination of Brady and Belichick will be going to their NFL record 11th conference championship games as a coach/qb combo (the next highest total is six), Brady will need to be at his legendary best if they want to get through a tough matchup in Foxboro.
This weekendís game promises to be both a slugfest and shootout amongst two teams with a combination of high powered offenses and a history of animosity between them. While there is a fair amount of similarities on both sidelines, the Patriots hold a decided edge in coaching, rank higher than the Steelers in all eight of foremost statistical categories for offense and defense (total, scoring, rushing, passing), and have the benefit of playing on their home field, which as noted above, has been a consistent thorn in the side of roads teams during the past near 50 years of AFC conference championships. Both teams enter the game riding winning streaks, with the Steelers having won nine in a row and the Patriots eight, but itís New England who will see their run continue as they get a win and cover at home to move on to Super Bowl LI.
Mike Mís Pick to Cover the Point Spread: New England -5.5
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