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 22, 2017 at 6:40PM EST
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts
By Loot, NFL Football Handicapper, Lootmeister.com
Betting Odds: PIT +6/NE -6
Over/Under Total: 50.5
The Pittsburgh Steelers come to Foxborough on Sunday to face the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. The winner goes to the Super Bowl. Neither team is a stranger to this situation, with both teams having accounted for numerous Super Bowl appearances and wins over the years. The Patriots prevailed in the divisional round with a 34-16 win over the Houston Texans. It wasn't a great showing for the Pats, but they're in this spot—one game from getting to the big dance and that's what counts. The Steelers followed up their wild card round win over the Dolphins with a dramatic win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, 18-16. After some rough patches this season, the Steelers enter this big AFC title game showdown on the heels of nine straight wins.
These teams met already this season. It's iffy how much that meeting really matters, but for the record, the Patriots beat the Steelers at Foxborough in week 7 by the score of 27-16. But analyzing a past performance involving the Steelers where Ben Roethlisberger didn't play has its obvious drawbacks. Tom Brady has a good game, with LeGarrette Blount also making a big contribution to the win. But the Steelers defense is playing a lot better than it was then and New England's big weapon that day was a player no longer in the mix, with Rob Gronkowski out of action. Those looking to that result could be missing the boat for the purposes of breaking down this game.
Though they covered the spread and advanced to the AFC title game, Saturday was not a vintage Patriots performance and in interviews following the game, that was echoed to a large extent. While the Texans were unable to take advantage, one could see a better team like the Steelers maybe being able to. Houston was hanging in there pretty well, down only 17-13 at the half and keeping it a one-score game until the 4th quarter, where a few Pats' scores put the game away. It wasn't a down-to-the-wire battle and again, they covered, but it wasn't their best game. And with teams around them peaking, a closer-to-vintage showing would be called for in this spot.
On Saturday, Brady had one of his worst games of the season thus far, going just 18-for-38 passing with a couple picks, matching his interception total for the whole regular season. Both Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman were big aerially, with Edelman catching 8 balls for 137 yards. Hogan had 95 yards. Key to the Pats' win was the performance of Dion Lewis, the speedy back. He became the first player in the Super Bowl era to score on a pass, a run, and on a return in the same postseason game. With a career slowed by injuries and not getting a lot of looks, Lewis looks ready to take his career to the next level this postseason. Looking ahead, they'd like to get leading rusher LeGarrette Blount more carries, as he had only 8 on Saturday. Danny Amendola got back into the mix after missing 4 games. And with Rob Gronkowski out, it'd be nice if Martellus Bennett could get more involved. But this is an offense where different guys can step up. On Saturday, it was Lewis, Edelman, and Hogan doing most of the heavy lifting. Maybe guys like Blount, Bennett, Michael Floyd, and others will surface in this matchup. Oh, and Tom Brady is 16-3 lifetime in the postseason at Foxborough.
Look for the Patriots to be tested to a greater extent this week on defense. The Texans were unable to gain much traction, as has been their wont. Still, the defense was the better side of the ball on Saturday. The secondary made plays, with Duron Harmon, Devin McCourty, and Logan Ryan all picking off Brock Osweiler. Ryan also had a sack, with Rob Ninkovich and Malcom Brown also chipping in and getting after the QB. In the middle, Dont'a Hightower was big and if the Pats get to the next stage, this side of the ball will need to be on-point. And Saturday was a pretty promising postseason start for this side of the ball.
Experience counts for a lot deep in the postseason and when it comes to the added pressure of a championship game, it's hard to find a more-accustomed team than the Patriots. With Belichick and Tom Brady having been in an AFC title game a staggering ten times, they know what they are dealing with across the board. They know what it's like to win these games and lose these games. Tom Brady isn't going to last forever and when the light at the end of the tunnel moves into plainer sight, a greater sense of urgency can resonate. One should expect a better Brady this week. And let's not forget, though it's more in the rearview now, but this is a season for the Patriots to make a statement after all the offseason drama with Brady and his suspension. And we should see a more-pointed Patriots effort this week with the end-goal now coming into better view.
The Steelers were fortunate against the Chiefs, who hung in there the best they could and appeared to have tied the game with a late TD and a two-point conversion that was waved off due to a holding penalty. If not for that, who knows? But to defeat a resourceful team like the Chiefs on the road showed the Steelers rely on more than just Ben Roethlisberger and a high-flying offense. While that part of the Steelers' makeup definitely helps, the other side of the ball has been excellent and getting better—peaking at just the right moment.
On Sunday against Kansas City, Big Ben and the offense was productive without really capping off any drives. Kicker Chris Boswell set a playoff record with six field goals and while it's great to have a dependable postseason place-kicker, six field goals and no touchdowns doesn't necessarily constitute a good offensive day. But Le'Veon Bell's 170 rushing yards were a critical part of the win. Antonio Brown had some big catches among his 108 yards receiving, with tight end Jesse James adding 83 yards through the air.
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The Steelers' defense has really come around. They really had to flex their muscles and showcase the full scope of their arsenal on Sunday. They've been getting some big performances lately. Old hand James Harrison, always a big-game menace, remains a terror at 38. Linebacker Ryan Shazier has been on fire lately and has a pick in each of his last 4 games. Linebacker Bud Dupree's growth over the second-half of the season has given the defense an immeasurable boost. The secondary made a bunch of plays on Sunday, with Ross Cockrell, Artie Burns, Mike Mitchell, and William Gay all delivering. No one was really able to get off for the Chiefs, with the Steelers' defense keeping Tyreek Hill and the Chiefs' run-game in check, while holding Alex Smith to 172 yards through the air. Then again, keeping the Chiefs' offense in check and doing the same in Foxborough against a postseason Patriots team are very different things.
There is something about the character and resolve of the Steelers that warrants a certain amount of betting respect. There aren't a lot of teams who were at one point 4-5 who end up in the conference title game. Teams that battle back and completely turn things around can be harder to separate from that solid momentum than a team that just had things go its way all season like the Patriots. And in doing so, the Steelers' had to be very flexible with their style. The aerial high-wire act never really manifested this season and the Steelers found new ways to win, now bolstered by a big-time ground-attack and a defense that has morphed into a fearsome unit.
Those betting against the Patriots this season have generally been snake-bitten. When a team that gets so much media attention like the Patriots is 14-3 against the spread, that says a lot. They just have a knack for registering a more-positive result than what you'd think, as seen by their cover last week against Houston where they didn't necessarily play very well. I'd expect a better version of the Patriots this week and that could spell the end of the Steelers' great run. I'm taking the Pats.
Loot's Prediction to Cover the Point Spread: I'm betting on the New England Patriots minus 6 points. Tired of your credit card not working for sportsbook deposit? End that problem today and bet the Steelers vs. Patriots AFC title game from the comfort of your home by signing up at Bovada Sportsbook where your credit card WILL work and where you'll receive a generous 100% sign-up bonus!