The formula seems to be pretty simple at this stage of the game. Through eight NFL playoff games, the consensus better quarterback is 8-0 straight up and 8-0 against the spread. The process gets a little bit more difficult at this stage of the game, however, when the gaps are quite a bit smaller. Four of the best, if not the best, quarterbacks in the NFL are left standing in the Conference Championship round. The NFC representative for Super Bowl LI will already be decided before the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots kick off at Gillette Stadium, as the AFC gets the later time slot this weekend. The Patriots are favored by six points with a total in the low 50s for the right to go to Houston in two weeks.
Bettors that want to get involved in the conference championship action and are looking for a new sportsbook for March Madness or all of the other events at this time of the season can sign up at DSI Sportsbook with the promo code ‘BANG200’ to get an exclusive deposit bonus. Those that deposit will get a 100 percent deposit bonus for both the sportsbook and the live casino on their first transaction.
It’s been a tougher road for the Pittsburgh Steelers to get to this point, as they have had to knock off two playoff participants. The Steelers bested the overmatched Miami Dolphins 30-12 in the Wild Card Round and squeaked past the Kansas City Chiefs on the strength of Chris Boswell’s right leg and the defense in an 18-16 win as a 2.5-point underdog. Playoffs included, Pittsburgh is now 13-5 against the spread and 12-6 against the number, depending on the lines you have gotten this season. New England has played one fewer game with the luxury of the first-round bye in the playoffs. The Patriots started slowly against the Houston Texans, but eventually covered the 16-point spread to improve to 15-2 straight up and 14-3 against the spread.
Amazingly, despite being two perennial contenders in the AFC, the Steelers and the Patriots have not met in the playoffs since 2005, when New England won 41-27 in the conference championship round. Ben Roethlisberger was 23. Tom Brady was 28. New England would go on to win Super Bowl XXXIX over the Philadelphia Eagles 24-21.
What’s interesting about this game is that we know that these are two potent offenses, but both of them had some problems during the Divisional Round. The Steelers ran the ball effectively, but stalled out in the red zone and Ben Roethlisberger was kept in check by the Chiefs defense. Big Ben was 20-of-31 for just 224 yards and zero touchdowns. He threw one pick, though the weather conditions were certainly challenging for both offenses. Le’Veon Bell ran for 170 yards on 30 carries, but never found the end zone. The Steelers did have 389 yards, so they were able to move the ball, but they were 0-for-4 in converting red zone trips into scores. Going up against a much stronger offense means that the Steelers can’t give up those four points like they could against the Chiefs. These two teams met earlier in the season, but Ben Roethlisberger was out with a torn meniscus, so Landry Jones got the call.
The Pittsburgh offense wasn’t as potent during the regular season either. Ben Roethlisberger missed a couple of games and had a better season than he did in 2015, but he hasn’t come close to his 2014 heights. The Steelers went from fourth in points and third in yards in 2015 to 10th in points and seventh in yards in 2016 and that was even with a much better turnover margin. A lot of that drop-off has to do with Le’Veon Bell’s three-week suspension to start the season and Roethlisberger’s two games on the sidelines. Stopping the run is the key for the Patriots. Bell ran for 1,268 yards in 13 regular season games and already has 337 rushing yards on 59 carries in the playoffs. It wouldn’t hurt to cover Antonio Brown either, but the Steelers are increasingly dependent on the run and they have probably the league’s best running back.
Defensively, the Steelers have really improved throughout the season. Getting some guys back from injuries, especially edge rushers like Bud Dupree, has helped, as the pass rush has been far more potent and has created some additional turnover opportunities. The Steelers held Kansas City to 227 yards and beat them at their own ball control game. Quietly, Pittsburgh was in the middle of the pack with 5.5 yards per play allowed during the regular season, but they allowed 4.6 to the Chiefs and 4.9 to the Dolphins to set up this spot in the AFC Championship Game. Confidence is at an all-time high for this defense heading into Sunday’s date with Tom Brady.
The Patriots certainly have a lot of things to shore up before Sunday’s game. The bye week isn’t always a blessing for teams at this time of the season. It helps to get healthy, but we saw the Patriots struggle a little bit at the outset and a Dion Lewis kick return touchdown really helped the team get over the hump. The Patriots nearly blew an 11-point lead. The Dallas Cowboys were down 18 early in the game against Green Bay. The Chiefs lost and got thoroughly outplayed and the Falcons gave up a long scoring drive to open their game against the Seahawks. That bye week can throw off the rhythm and can be tough. The Patriots don’t have that worry here this week, but they do have some worries.
New England was definitely not sharp. They were held to 5.6 yards per play by the Texans, which was below their season average of 5.9 yards per play. Tom Brady, who threw two interceptions during the regular season, threw two interceptions in one game. New England could not run the football with just 3.6 yards per carry and it is increasingly clear that Julian Edelman needs help. With Martellus Bennett dinged up early in the game and late in the season, Edelman was targeted 13 times out of 38 passing attempts. Brady only completed 18 passes, with four to Chris Hogan, two to Dion Lewis on seven targets, and other checkdowns and dump-offs. Michael Floyd was not a factor. With a vastly-improved Steelers defense, the Patriots better fix these things in a hurry. New England scored 34 points, but it was extremely misleading. The defense and special teams made a lot of the plays and some chunk plays on coverage breakdowns saved an otherwise uninspired offensive performance.
The New England defense deserves more accolades and attention. It helps to have Tom Brady and to almost always win the field position battle, but the Patriots defense has only allowed 15.6 points per game this season and just 5.4 yards per play. The spotlight falls on the run stoppers for the Patriots in this game. New England allowed 3.9 yards per carry during the season, but only six rushing touchdowns. The Texans found some running room with 4.5 yards per carry in last week’s game, though the longest carry of the day was a Brock Osweiler scramble. The Patriots had 23 takeaways during the regular season and could use a few here in this game to create some shorter fields and to get Le’Veon Bell off of the playing surface. New England was actually outgained by the Landry Jones-led Steelers when the two teams met in Week 8, but the Patriots did have 6.6 yards per play to Pittsburgh’s 5.4.
Free NFL Pick: Pittsburgh Steelers +6
The Patriots should represent the AFC in Super Bowl LI, but the Steelers are plenty capable of making this a game. The secondary does have some concerns and it is a little bit young, but Brady doesn’t have a big arsenal of weapons. Despite the offensive firepower of both teams, the stronger play is on the under here in this one, which would make the points pretty important. The Steelers are going to open up holes for Le’Veon Bell, which will keep Touchdown Tom off of the field. The Steelers have slowed things down a little bit recently with the focus on the run and the Patriots always play under control.