Who has the edge in the AFC title game? Two Kid Reporters examine the positions and units that will decide Sunday’s matchup between the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Running Backs
Both Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell and Patriots running back Legarrette Blount are integral parts of their team's offenses. Bell is consistently the team's number one running back, while Blount might share time in the backfield with Dion Lewis.
Both Bell and Blount have the capability to be workhorse backs. Bell has carried the ball 261 times this year. He has at least 30 attempts in three of his last five games. Despite playing only 12 games, he rushed for 1,268 yards and seven touchdowns. He's rushed for 120 yards or more in four of his last five games, including a 236-yard outburst against Buffalo.
Blount has 299 carries this year. He's compiled 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns. He excels in short-yardage situations, while Bell can succeed anywhere on the field. Bell is a lot harder to contain than Blount, as the Steelers’ back has a patient running style that allows him to find the hole. Blount isn't as elusive as Bell, which makes him easier to contain. While Blount can always score touchdowns, Bell is a more dangerous runner.
The Wide Receivers
The Steelers wide receiving corps is largely centered around its superstar, Antonio Brown. Brown had 106 catches for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns this season. He is a catching machine who can get open in an instant. In Pittsburgh’s wild card win over Miami, he caught two touchdowns on screens.
After Brown, though, the Steelers are thin. Eli Rogers and Demarcus Ayers are emerging pass-catchers. They provide a nice complement to Brown, but they don't have the play-making abilities that Brown has.
New England's unit doesn't have a star, but all of its receivers are consistent. The Pats’ number one pass catcher is Julian Edelman, who is a versatile 1,000-yard receiver. Chris Hogan is a deep-threat, while Malcolm Mitchell is a rising rookie receiver.
The Steelers aren’t very deep, but they have a superstar who can change a game. New England has consistent receivers, but they don't have a game-changer.
Why Pittsburgh will win
The Steelers enter this game as the underdogs, but the team has the ingredients to take down the Patriots. Pittsburgh has a potent offense that features a top quarterback, an elusive running back, and a superstar wide receiver. Its defense has also improved drastically from the beginning of the season. The Steelers have what it takes to take down the Pats.
Both the Pats’ Tom Brady and the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger are incredible quarterbacks, but Brady comes out on top here. With a QB rating of 112.2, two interceptions against 28 touchdowns, and a completion percentage of 67.4, Brady is having one of the best seasons of his career.
Big Ben isn’t a slouch, with a QB rating of 95.4, 13 interceptions against 29 touchdowns, and a completion percentage of 64.4. But Brady played two fewer games than Roethlisberger on the season and Roethlisberger struggled last week against the Chiefs defense, throwing no touchdowns and an interception. Plus, the Chiefs defense was below average, ranking 18th in passing defense compared to the 12th-ranked Patriots. If Roethlisberger can’t manage a touchdown against a below-average defense, he’s going to have to bring his A game to Sunday’s matchup for the Steelers to have a prayer.
And there is no argument that Roethlisberger is better than Brady, not even to Big Ben himself. He recently told ESPN: “Tom is the greatest in the world.” He often praises Brady’s play and once asked for a jersey.
There is little contest here. The Steelers defense allowed the 16th fewest passing yards in the league, while the Pats were 12th on the list. And Le’Veon Bell will not be facing a bad run defense. Nine slots separate the Patriots rushing defense and the Steelers. The Patriots have an all-around better unit that allowed fewer yards per game, forced 11 more fumbles, and gave up five fewer points per game. There aren’t any major defensive categories where the Steelers top the Pats. The Steelers offense is good, but the Pats defense has nothing to be afraid of.
Why the Patriots will win
New England is an all-around better team with a better defense and QB. This game will be no blowout, but look for Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell to struggle against an elite Patriots defense. Tom Brady will breeze through the Steelers D. The Patriots will take control in the third quarter and head to the Super Bowl.
Photographs by (from top): Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images; Jamie Squire/Getty Images