Only one round of the NFL playoffs remains before we reach Super Bowl LI. The AFC's path to the title game now runs through New England, and either the Patriots or the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers are going to emerge.
These two teams will battle for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl on Sunday. It is the second of the two conference games, and kickoff is scheduled for 6:40 p.m. ET.
This one should be epic. We have a faceoff of two of the greatest quarterbacks of this generation in Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. These two have battled several times but haven't met in the postseason since Big Ben's rookie season. With a trip to the championship on the line, things should be intense.
We'll also get Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and the rest of the Steelers' potent offense going up against a New England defense that allowed an NFL-low 15.6 points per game in the regular season.
Don't be surprised if this game carries as much drama and excitement as any we've seen in the playoffs in some time.
Today, we're going to examine the latest odds and over/under figures—courtesy of our friends at OddsShark.com. We'll be making our predictions for both while taking an in-depth look at some key components of the AFC title game.
AFC Championship Game
What: Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts
When: Sunday, Jan. 22
Time: 6:40 p.m. ET
Latest Line: NE -6
It's actually pretty amazing to think that this will be the first time Brady and Roethlisberger have met in the postseason since Roethlisberger's rookie year in 2004. It seems borderline unfathomable when you realize that the two signal-callers have appeared in the Super Bowl a combined seven times since then.
But this isn't going to just be a duel between Brady and Roethlisberger. Yes, the quarterback with the better game is going to have a good chance of also being the winning signal-caller. Yet there is a lot more at play here.
We have to look at the offensive weapons involved in the matchup. It would seem that the Steelers have the edge there with their two-headed monster of Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell.
Brown, who finished the regular season with 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns on 106 catches, might be the most complete receiver in the NFL right now. Bell, who is coming off a monster 170-yard rushing performance against the Kansas City Chiefs, has the ability to take over a game almost by himself.
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Bell's unique and patient style of running can drive an opposing defense nuts.
Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia recently explained, per Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald:
Really, very dynamic in his ability to make people miss in open space from a tackling standpoint, a very patient runner. It's kind of a different style of running game where he kind of gets to the line of scrimmage and really just finds that hole or that seam, and he has this incredible burst to be able to get through.
If Bell is allowed to run wild, the Steelers should be able to keep Brady off the field for long stretches of the game.
Of course, it's not like the Patriots are lacking in offensive weapons of their own. While the team is without star tight end Rob Gronkowski, they still have plenty of pass-catchers in Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, Martellus Bennett and Michael Floyd.
And let's not forget about bruising running back LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 1,161 yards and scored 18 touchdowns in the regular season.
The Patriots can play the keep-away game by grinding out yards with Blount.
New England also has receiving back Dion Lewis, who proved to be the ultimate X-factor in last week's game against the Houston Texans. He scored touchdowns rushing, receiving and returning in the game.
"He's quick, he's hard to tackle, he's got good balance," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said of Lewis, per Tyler Kepner of the New York Times. "He's worked extremely hard; there's no question about that. He was working really hard last year at this time, when the team was at the end of the season and in the playoffs. This year, he has an opportunity to play."
With so many weapons on the field, this game is likely to be won by the better defense. Here, I'm going to take the Patriots, who allowed the fewest points in the regular season and who are rated second in overall defense by Pro Football Focus.
The Steelers defense has been playing well, albeit against uninspiring offenses. Through two rounds of postseason play, Pittsburgh has allowed a mere 28 combined points. This is why the under for total points looks to be the smart option.
Overall, though, the Patriots defense gives New England a big edge here. Plus the Patriots are playing at home, where the team rarely loses. The Patriots are 16-3 in home playoff games since the 2001 season.
Rivalry history also seems to favor the Patriots. In eight meetings between Roethlisberger and Brady, New England has won six times.
Prediction: 28-20, Patriots