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Insider Only AFC Championship Sunday: The Makings of an Upset?


Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati BengalsAFC Championship Sunday

Line: Patriots -6

The week seven matchup between the Steelers and Patriots was not a playoff preview of what to expect tonight.

The Ben Roethlisberger-less Pittsburgh Steelers were competitive in a 27-16 loss to the New England Patriots but wasted opportunities doomed Pittsburgh from being able to put together a good enough effort to steal one.

Pittsburgh had 10 penalties for 85 yards, including a holding call on right tackle Chris Hubbard in the second quarter on a touchdown pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey that would have tied the game late in the first half.

Backup QB Landry Jones was 29/47 for 281 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception in the loss. Antonio Brown led the Steelers with 105 receiving yards on 7 receptions.

Pittsburgh out-gained New England 375 to 362 and won the time of possession battle. The Steelers missed opportunities on offense were penalties, 1-4 in the red-zone, and inability to turn two Patriots turnovers into touchdowns.

The Steelers offense was without Ben Roethlisberger, Marcus Gilbert and Eli Rogers. The Steelers had no number 2 receiver threat with Rogers not playing.

A lot is also different now with the Steelers defense from the week 7 matchup.

Patriots QB Tom Brady was efficient in the win with a surgical performance. Brady completed 19 of 26 passes for 222 yards with 2 touchdowns. Pittsburgh was gashed on the ground as LeGarrette Blount rushed for 127 yards and 2 TD’s.

Brady is going to see a different Steelers defense that leads the NFL in sacks since week 11.

A Steelers ‘D’ that day at Heinz Field was still starting Jarvis Jones over James Harrison, had no Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier was hobbled and young emerging rookies Sean Davis and Artie Burns in the secondary were not yet entrenched as starters.

The Patriots had 57 plays on offense.

James Harrison played just 24 snaps, Ryan Shazier 32 snaps, Sean Davis 3 snaps, Artie Burns 33 snaps, Bud Dupree 0 Snaps (DNP).

That’s about 50% of the Steelers defense who are now key difference markers who played under 60% of the snaps vs the Patriots in week 7 or either barely as in Sean Davis’ case or not at all with Bud Dupree still injured.

And you can also throw LT Walton into the mix of a player who was barely part of the Steelers defense in week 7 and is now making an impact in stopping the run.

Personnel wise, the Patriots are also a bit different on offense and defense.

Two key reasons, no Rob Gronkowski, out for the year, and no linebacker Jamie Collins who was traded to Cleveland.

Gronkowski torched the Steelers through the middle of the field with 4 catches for 93 yards and a touchdown. He was Pro Football Focus top graded player in the week 7 performance.

Collins who was New England’s best linebacker, had the second highest defensive grade from PFF in the Patriots 27-16 win. That’s the Steelers version of not having Antonio Brown and Ryan Shazier in this game and Collins is a far superior impact player than Shazier.

Again a lot has changed from then to now.

steelers20broncos20football-10044349_v2_hmediumSteelers ability to finish drives

One thing that’s going to be certain today is the Steelers will be able to move the ball on New England. They could in week 7 with Landry Jones and that shouldn’t change tonight.

This offense is just too talented to limit them from getting chunk yards. The question always with this offense, especially on the road, can they turn field goals into touchdowns.

What many are wondering is if the Steelers couldn’t finish drives against Kansas City, will they be able to finish drives against New England.

The Steelers ranked 14th in the NFL in red-zone percentage.

New England is the most stingiest defense in the red-zone. Against the Chiefs, Roethlisberger flat out missed throws.

Inside the Chiefs 30, Roethlisberger was 6 of 15 for 9 yards, interception. He had a key incompletion to Eli Rogers inside the 5 where he threw to Rogers’ wrong shoulder that would have went for 15+ yards.

What the Chiefs did was take Antonio Brown away in the red-zone and took away Le’Veon Bell as a receiver with their linebacker group spying on him out of the backfield.

Key stat from the week 7 matchup with the Patriots, Bell had 10 catches for 68 yards, including a long reception of 22 yards and was targeted a team-high 13 times.

Against Kansas City, the Steelers also over complicated things with the play calling. Kansas City couldn’t stop Bell on the ground but Bell rushed the ball just two times inside the 20.

It won’t be a surprise if the Steelers do a reversal today. Come out aggressive through the air, then pound the ball inside the 35 with Bell.

tomlinWill Tomlin, Steelers finally solve Tom Brady

Mike Tomlin made it a priority this week to show the Steelers won’t be intimidated playing in New England. He was clear in saying the Patriots haven’t gone through the Steelers during his time as head coach.

What everyone knows is during the regular season Tom Brady has owned Mike Tomlin.

In six meetings since Tomlin has been head coach, Brady is 5-1 with 19 touchdowns, no interceptions and a 71 completion percentage.

Brady always exposes the Steelers defense with a short-passing game and then hits them for a big play where the Steelers can’t matchup with Gronkowski.


Luckily for the Steelers, there’s no Gronkowski and he also had a major impact in the running game where Blount gashed the Steelers off the edges.

In the week 7 matchup, Brady completed 11 of 13 passes that went 0-9 yards and when not pressured he was 13 of 15.

The Steelers will continue to live with that.

Where New England is so good is creating 1-on-1 matchup problems.

Lawrence Timmons has had a renaissance in the second half of the season but the Steelers must find him help in coverage at times. In week 7, the Patriots got Edelman out in space against Timmons often as Edelman had eight receptions  for 68 yards, including a gain of 19 when covered by Timmons.

What the Patriots also did was identify Robert Golden as a key matchup problem against Gronk. Golden was beat for a 36 yard touchdown by Gronkowski and another big gain of 37.

That’s the different dynamic this time around.

No Gronkowski and the Steelers are not as easy defensively to exploit with bad 1-on-1 matchups as players like Golden and Jarvis Jones are no longer on the field.

The Steelers are deservedly an underdog but these two teams are now much closer than they were two months. Pittsburgh has a real shot at the makings of an upset win.

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About The Author

William DePaoli

TIOPS Insider

William DePaoli is the President/Founder of Inside Pittsburgh Sports LLC and can be reached at

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