To hear most football fans tell it, it’s a foregone conclusion that the New England Patriots will be representing the AFC in this year’s Super Bowl.
I just don’t see it like that.
Yes, the Patriots beat them pretty soundly, 27-16, the first time the two squads met in late October. Tom Brady and battering ram running back LeGarrette Blount were too much for the Steelers to handle on that day, with Blount running for 127 yards and two scores while Brady completed 19 of 26 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns. Pittsburgh had no real pass rush to pressure Brady and their secondary looked tertiary.
With the win, New England stood at 6-1 and remained unbeaten since Brady returned from his four-game “Deflategate” suspension. Brady connected with Rob Gronkowski for a 36-yard touchdown in the third quarter then used another 37-yard catch and run by Gronkowski to set up Blount’s second touchdown run that put New England up 11 with just under 12 minutes to go.
In the process, Brady ran his record to 9-2 against the Steelers all-time, with 26 touchdowns and only three interceptions. It seemed like he had, and will always have, Pittsburgh’s number.
But let’s peel back the curtain and mention the fact that the Week 7 Steelers defense was nowhere near comparable to the great units we’ve been accustomed to. Their quarterback that day was also Landry Jones, filling in for an injured Ben Roethlisberger.
And their defensive menace to society, Cam Heyward, was also on the shelf. They also were called for an uncharacteristic 10 penalties, one of which brought back a second-quarter touchdown pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey. And Gronkowski, the ultimate difference-maker, is done for the year.
So without their best player and a battered and bruised defense, The Burgh made the game closer than the final score would indicate.
The defensive unit that Mike Tomlin will send onto the field in Foxboro tomorrow is vastly improved and much livelier than the one Brady faced in October.
The hidden gem and wildcard is young defensive stud Bud Dupree, who has been looking like a player to be reckoned with. The second round draft pick out of the University of Kentucky in 2015 got his first NFL sack on opening day last year against, guess who, Tom Brady.
Dupree finished with 26 combined tackles, four sacks, and a pass deflection while playing in all 16 regular season games and five starts as a rookie. This year, he earned the starting job coming out of training camp but was sidetracked by an early groin injury.
Dupree is not a household name, but he could be if he’s able to put constant pressure, hit and harass in Brady in the AFC Championship. The Texans, as putrid as their offense is, made last week’s divisional playoff game a fight, but couldn’t capitalize on Brady’s interceptions and the other New England mistakes.
Pittsburgh’s offense is an entirely different animal. Bill Belichick is a proven defensive genius, and we’ll saw what he cooks up against the Steelers and their formidable attack, which employs a smash-mouth philosophy that is headed by the best running back in the game today, Le’Veon Bell.
Historically, they shut down the run and take away the opponent’s best weapon. But Bell is a conundrum. Last week, he patiently danced and exploded through through the Kansas City defense to the tune of a team-record 170 rushing yards. He put up 167 the week before in the opening round playoff win against Miami.
But Bell is no mere virtuoso, but rather part of a comprehensive Triple-B attack, along with Big Ben and wide receiver extraordinaire Antonio Brown, who has 106 catches for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns this year.
The last time Roethlisberger saw the Pats in the conference title game, he was just a 22-year-old rookie from Miami of Ohio who lit the NFL on fire with wins in 14 of his first 15 starts. He was humbled that go-round, throwing three interceptions in the 41-27 loss to the visiting Patriots at Heinz Field.
But Ben his proven his big-game worth in leading the Steelers to Super Bowl victories in 2005 and 2008. 12 years after that loss as a rookie against New England in the AFC Championship, he gets his first shot back at the Patriots in the playoffs.
This is his fourth appearance on this stage, just a win away from the Super Bowl, and anyone who thinks he and the Steelers have no chance against Brady and New England are delusional.
Pittsburgh has as good a chance as anyone to get a win tomorrow, home-field advantage and the genius of Belichick and Brady be damned.