Best of AFC's best as Pittsburgh Steelers face New England Patriots

By The Sports Xchange  |  Jan. 19, 2017 at 1:06 AM
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PITTSBURGH -- The two most successful teams from the AFC since the NFL merger in 1970 will meet in this year's conference title game. The winner will be the first team in NFL history to play in nine Super Bowls.

The Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots each played in eight, and have been the two best teams in the AFC by far since 2000.

The Patriots won all four of their Super Bowls since then and the Steelers added their fifth and sixth Lombardi trophies during that span. No other AFC team has won more than one Super Bowl since the turn of the century.

So it seems strange these teams are meeting in the playoffs for the first time since Ben Roethlisberger's rookie season in 2004, when the Patriots beat the Steelers in the AFC title game at Heinz Field.

When the Steelers went to the Super Bowl in 2005 and 2010, the Patriots were eliminated in the divisional round by the Denver Broncos and New York Jets, respectively.

When the Steelers went in 2008, the Patriots did not qualify for the playoffs.

Conversely, when the Patriots went to the Super Bowl in 2007, 2011 and 2014 the Steelers were eliminated each time in the wild-card round.

Finally, they're meeting again.

"I'm going to be honest, I don't care who we had to play in the AFC Championship Game," Roethlisberger said. "It's the championship game. You have one game to get to the Super Bowl.

"Like I said, you are going up to the lion's den, the dragon's lair. They are the dragon. We are trying to slay them. It doesn't matter who it is, but they are the 'gold standard.'"

The Steelers have won nine consecutive games, while the Patriots have won eight in a row.

The Steelers are built around a strong running game and an opportunistic defense that has improved greatly since the beginning of the season.

The Patriots are first in the league in scoring defense and third against the run while Tom Brady continues to play at a high level.

The matchup between Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell and the Patriots defense will be one to watch. Bell has almost 1,200 yards during the Steelers' nine-game winning streak, and he sat out the regular-season finale against the Browns.

"They play real well up front," Bell said Wednesday. "They pride themselves on stopping the run. I think it was a circumstance of us not getting enough totes, too. Last time we played them we weren't as aggressive running the ball as we are now. It should be an interesting game going against those guys again."

The Steelers got to the championship game by beating Kansas City, 18-16, in a divisional round game. The Patriots beat the Texans, 34-16, in their divisional round game.

It wasn't the Patriots' best performance or Tom Brady's for that matter. But Steelers coach Mike Tomlin knows great teams advance in the playoffs even when they have an off-night because they find ways to win.

That's exactly what the Steelers did in Kansas City, when they became only the sixth team in league history to win a playoff game without scoring a touchdown.

"I think just watching them win that game last weekend, exemplifies that he is a great player, but they are a great team," Tomlin said. "They found multiple ways to win that game."

--The Steelers are 5-0 in rematch games this season and they'll have to go 6-for-6 if they want to get to Super Bowl LI. The Steelers beat their three divisional opponents the second time around and then won regular-season rematches against the Dolphins and Chiefs in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Up next is a second game against the Patriots, which beat the Steelers, 27-16, at Heinz Field in October.

"I don't think it has anything to do with the second time around because I'd imagine the people we're playing are going through the same process as relative to us," coach Mike Tomlin said. "I just think largely over the course of the season we've been a group, and a group of individuals, that are on the rise. I think that we're growing by leaps and bounds week in and week out.

"I think the guys individually are growing, not only in terms of technical growth but understanding, and that understanding allows them to play better within the group that they're working with to play more definitively, to make quicker, faster, more definitive decisions, and I think that has made us better collectively."

--Coach Mike Tomlin said receiver Antonio Brown will be punished for putting a video of his postgame speech on Facebook Live after the playoff game against the Chiefs.

"I will be bluntly honest here," Tomlin said. "It was foolish of him to do that. It was selfish of him to do that. It was inconsiderate of him to do that. Not only is it a violation of our policy, it's a violation of league policy. So there are consequences to be dealt with from his perspective.

"We will punish him. We won't punish us. We will do so swiftly, and we will do so internally. And I would imagine that there are consequences associated with the NFL's policy in that regard. I am sure that he will appropriately absorb all of those things, and as he moves forward.

"But larger than that, he has to grow from this. He has to. He works extremely hard. He is extremely talented. Those things get minimized with incidences such as this. You wear on your teammates when they routinely have to answer questions about things that aren't preparation or football-related. It's our desire for him and for everyone to be great teammates, as well as great players.

"He is a great player. He is a hardworking player. He is respected, largely, in the locker room for those things. But incidences such as this, don't help him in that regard. That's just the reality of it."

Tomlin also said the behavior Brown displayed is the reason why some great players don't finish with the franchise they start with. Brown has two years remaining on his contract and made All-Pro for the fifth time this season.

"I think that's why oftentimes you see great players move around from team-to-team," Tomlin said. "And I definitely don't want that to be his story. I am sure he doesn't want that to be his story. So, he has to address these things that put him and us in positions from time-to-time, in settings such as this, where it needs to be addressed."

--Ryan Shazier is the first Steelers linebacker to record interceptions in back-to-back playoff games since Levon Kirkland, who did it in 1998. Overall, Shazier has interceptions in four consecutive games, dating to the regular season.

"Ryan is playing and playing with great consistency, urgency and speed," Tomlin said. "He's growing in terms of understanding what it is he's doing and how it fits in the bigger picture of what it is we're doing. And I just think that puts him in a better position to maximize our opportunities. So it's reasonable to expect that he's going to continue to grow in those areas. And we need him to continue to grow in those areas, because we need the plays associated with that growth."

NOTES: TE Ladarius Green, who has missed the last four games due a concussion, was a limited practice participant Wednesday. It was the first time he practiced since the Thursday before the playoff game against Miami. He had a setback that day and did not practice at all last week before the playoff game against the Chiefs. ... LB Anthony Chickillo, who missed the first two playoff games because of an ankle injury, was a limited practice participant Wednesday. He's been a core special teams player this season. ... S Sean Davis, who has been playing despite a shoulder injury, did not practice Wednesday. ... LB Vince Williams, who also has been playing through a shoulder injury, did not practice. ... K Chris Boswell, OL B.J. Finney, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey and QB Zach Mettenberger all missed practice because of illnesses.

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