After a long and uneventful NFL regular season (and wild card weekend), the NFL playoffs have started to ramp up in terms of game intensity and quality of play. The showdown between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs provided us with some old school, physical play, with the eventual winners, the Steelers, prevailing on a key third down conversion late in the fourth quarter.
The New England Patriots played very sloppy football, and still found a way to cover the enormous spread, against a dreadful Houston Texans team.
With these two rivals facing each other for the first time in the playoffs since the 2004 AFC championship, a lop-sided affair that led to the Patriots third Super Bowl win in four years, it’s time to look at the key match ups, and break down the game plan for both teams to earn the right to represent the AFC in Super Bowl 51.
The Pittsburgh Steelers
After vying for a playoff spot the last couple weeks of the regular season, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be traveling to Gillette Stadium, a place they have dreaded since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady took over in New England. The Steelers are 1-4 in Gillette since 2002 in the regular season, with the only win coming against Matt Cassel during Brady’s missed season in 2008.
The biggest ‘X-factor’ in this game is quarterback Ben Roethsliberger. Now, I know, x-factors are not supposed to be players who play at a consistently high level. This year though, Big Ben has struggled massively away from Heinz Field. On the road in the regular season, Big Ben has completed 59% of his passes, averaged 238 yards/gm and has thrown 9 TDs and 8 INTs for a passer rating of 78.4, a sharp contrast from his 116.7 passer rating at home.
Against the Kansas City Chiefs, Big Ben posted another ugly stat-line, on the road, throwing for 224 yards, 0 TDs and 1 INT. It is a very odd disparity between home Ben and road Ben, but road Ben needs to find home Ben and bring him to Foxborough Sunday night, if the Steelers want a good shot at winning this game.
The Patriots will almost assuredly take running back Le’Veon Bell out of this game (more on that later), so Big Ben will need to make plays down the field to keep up with the Patriots offense. The Patriots defense has been playing very well, but the lack of depth at cornerback is suspect.
Malcolm Butler is a top five cornerback in the league, and Logan Ryan has played well recently, but cornerback Eric Rowe has been susceptible in the passing game. Not only Rowe, but safety Patrick Chung has been horrendous this year, ranking as the 87th best safety out of a qualified 92 players, per Pro Football Focus player grades.
On defense, the Steelers must force at least a turnover or two. Although they have been playing well as of late, Tom Brady’s success against the Steelers’ defense is ridiculous. He has thrown 24 TDs and 3 INTs, to go along with a 114.2 passer rating, in 9 career regular season match ups against the Black & Gold.
Most of those games were against former defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau, but even two games against current defensive coordinator Keith Butler, Brady has averaged 255 yards/gm, and thrown 6 TDs and 0 INTs, with a passer rating north of 120.
Brady will get his points against this defense, but if the defense can come up with a forced turnover or two, the Steelers offense will have extra opportunities to outscore the Patriots, which is their best shot at the upset.
The New England Patriots
Playing in their 7th straight conference championship game, an NFL record, the Patriots look to secure their 7th Super Bowl appearance since 2001. As stated before, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have had incredible success against the historic franchise.
The Patriots offense sputtered last week against a top defensive unit, so look for quarterback Tom Brady to get back on track after a dreadful game. The Patriots skill position players are mostly banged up, so Brady is going to have to put 110% in this game.
The running game is key for the Patriots offense in this game. In their regular season matchup earlier in the year, the former Steeler running back LeGarrette Blount had 24 carries for 127 yards, averaging 5.3 yards/carry, and adding two rushing touchdowns.
The production on the ground was fantastic, but it allowed the Patriots to perform a lot of play action in the game, constantly freezing the linebackers and safeties, and allowing Brady plenty of time to throw in the second half of the game.
The second key for the Patriots offense is their offensive line. As they learned the hard way during last year’s AFC championship game against the Denver Broncos, when Brady is getting hit on almost every pass play, the Patriots chances of winning diminish significantly. Against emerging pass rusher Bud Dupree, and 38 year old linebacker James Harrison, the tackles will have their work cut out for them.
On defense, the main focus for them should be to stop running back Le’Veon Bell. His patience, and ability to accelerate in a moment’s notice makes Bell an incredibly tough running back to defend. Lucky for the Patriots, their defensive tackles, Alan Branch and Malcolm Brown, both make their money by being able to swallow double teams, and wreak havoc in the backfield.
Branch and Brown both rank 9th and 17th in run defense, respectively, among a qualified 115 interior defensive linemen, which has led to the Patriots run defense to rank third in the league. The Pittsburgh offensive line is a tough challenge, so this should be a fun matchup to watch in the trenches.
Antonio Brown is the best wideout in the league, and has torched the Patriots in recent meetings. They have mostly placed Malcolm Butler on an island against him, and while Butler is a top cornerback in the league, it would not be wise to put anyone on an island against Brown.
The Patriots have often put cornerback Logan Ryan in man to man coverage against top wideouts, and put safety help over the top, so Ryan can play man under and eliminate the short routes, while the safety takes away the deep routes. Obviously, easier said than done, but it has been an effective strategy for the Patriots in the past.
As previously stated, Big Ben has not been good on the road, to put it mildly. If the Patriots defense wants to continue that trend, they must get pressure on the quarterback. Emerging defensive end Trey Flowers has been playing out of his mind in the second half of the season, so he is a key player in this game.
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has also been calling more aggressive game plans in the second half of the season, sending extra rushers from a ton of different positions. He must continue this to not allow Big Ben an extended amount of time in the pocket.
The Bottom Line
This should be a close matchup between two physical teams, and both of the quarterbacks will be the key to the game. For the Steelers, they need to effectively run the ball and stop the run on defense, so they can set up obvious passing downs, and try to get to quarterback Tom Brady.
On the other side, it is key for the Patriots to play turnover-free football, and not give the ‘Killer B’s’ extra possessions, especially in their own territory. On defense, Le’Veon Bell should be priority number one, and set up bracket coverage on wideout Antonio Brown.
Judge Blocks Release of Robert Kraft Spa Video
Apparently that reportedly “damning” video of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s visit to the infamous Orchids of Asia Day Spa, where he allegedly received sexual services, won’t be reaching the public just yet.
The Assistant State Attorney in Palm Beach County has filed new court documents saying that he is obligated to release the footage, involving Kradt and shot inside the Day Spa, to the media as a matter of law.
However, Florida 15th Judicial Circuit Court Joseph Marx has blocked the release of the video for now, according to ABC News.
“I don’t want this released until I’ve ruled,” Marx said in an emergency hearing on a conference call with the two parties and the media late Wednesday afternoon.
Under Florida’s so-called “Sunshine” law, any records made or received by any public agency in the course of its official business are available for inspection, unless specifically exempted by the Florida Legislature, per the report.
Florida state officials said that they would “pixelate or blur depictions of obscene or pornographic images before releasing such records to the public, absent a court order.”
Kraft’s lawyers filed a letter to the judge in court records to apprise him of what they described as “an extraordinary and alarming development involving what appears to be gross prosecutorial misconduct” and accused law enforcement officials of trying to circumvent the judgment of the court.
The plot continues to thicken, but for now, Kraft’s video is locked away from the public.
Florida Prosecutors Offer to Drop Robert Kraft’s Solicitation Charges
Prosecutors in Florida have offered to drop solicitation of prostitution charges against New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft if he agrees to admit that he would have been proven guilty had he gone to trial to fight the charges, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Beaton.
Kraft, 77, was charged with two misdemeanor counts of first-degree solicitation after he was allegedly caught on camera paying for, and receiving, oral and manual sex at the infamous Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Florida.
One of the incidents allegedly occurred back in January on the morning of the Patriots’ AFC Championship game against the Kansas City Chiefs, which the Patriots won en route to their Super Bowl victory.
According to the report, prosecutors have offered the same deal to the other men charged in the sting. Beaton considered the offer “unusual” (h/t NBC Sports Boston).
Additionally, if Kraft decides to take the deal, the Patriots owner will have to complete an education course about prostitution, complete 100 hours of community service, and undergo screening for sexually transmitted diseases.
According to ESPN, Kraft is one of 200 people that allegedly engaged in sex acts at Florida massage parlors that were targeted in the sting.
Kraft has denied the allegations.
Tom Brady And Pats Play Record 8th AFC Championship Game, Seek 6th Superbowl
It’s Championship Sunday and one of the NFL staples remain atop the league. The New England Patriots are appearing in their record 8th AFC title game in hopes of competing for a sixth title.
A season that most organizations would be happy with, was one of challenge for the Patriots. Usually a top tier team, they suffered bad losses to the Jaguars, Titans and Dolphins. However, in Patriot fashion along a weak AFC East, the Patriots finished 11-5, won a 10th straight conference title and secured a first round bye.
Kansas City will host New England in the AFC Championship game in what is a rematch from week six. That game featured an offensive clinic , As reported by CBS Boston, Brady went 24-35 passing for 340 yards and touchdown in that game; Mahomes went 23-36 passing for 352 yards and four touchdowns. The AFC Championship could very well play out the same way.
The Chiefs will be a tough out, They won their first home playoff game in 25 years last week against the Colts and are riding one of the most prolific offenses in history behind quarterback whisperer Andy Reid and phenome Patrick Mahomes who is arguably the NFLs best young QB.
In what is a David and Goliath matchup, Brady seems to imply they are the underdog. As he told CBS’s Tracy Wolfson, “I know everyone thinks we suck and, you know, cant win games,”. Will the dynasty continue? Or will Reid and Mahomes hoist the Lombardi?
I’m leaning towards the game plan of Bill Belichick and veteran experience of Tom Brady in this one. I think a Patriot/Saints matchup is in order. Either way, it will undoubtedly be one for the ages.
Game Time: Sunday January 20th at 6:40ET/5:40CT on CBS.
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