Steelers-Patriots playoff matchups
QUARTERBACK (Advantage: Patriots)
Steelers: For all the chirping about Ben Roethlisberger's home-road splits, his passer rating is almost identical in home and road playoff games since the Super Bowl following the 2010 season. In four road games, Roethlisberger has an 83.64 rating with two touchdowns and two interceptions. In two home games, his rating is 84.82 with three touchdowns and four interceptions. But it's acknowledged that Roethlisberger must be better than the 72.5 rating he had at Kansas City.
Patriots: Tom Brady was surreal in the regular season, throwing 28 touchdown passes and just two interceptions while amassing a 112.2 rating. Brady, however, didn't look like a league MVP front-runner – he already has two such awards – in the Patriots' divisional playoff win against Houston. Brady completed just 18 of 38 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns. Oh, and he matched his season total with two interceptions for a rating (68.6) that was lower than Roethlisberger's.
RUNNING BACK (Advantage: Steelers)
Steelers: Last week in this space, we wondered what Le'Veon Bell could do for an encore after setting the franchise postseason rushing record with 167 yards against the Dolphins. Top it, of course. Bell extended his record with 170 yards against the Chiefs. Bell became the sixth running back in NFL history with at least 300 rushing yards in a two-game span in a single postseason, and his 337 yards trailed only Terrell Davis (366 yards, 1998) and Marcus Allen (345 yards, 1983).
Patriots: Bell's former carpool buddy, LeGarrette Blount, was the Patriots' featured back during the regular season, running for 1,161 yards and an NFL-best 18 rushing touchdowns. In the divisional round, he was upstaged by former Pitt runner Dion Lewis, who became the first player since 1950 to score a touchdown rushing, receiving and on a kickoff return in a playoff game. To boot, it was Lewis' playoff debut. He didn't play until Week 11 because of a torn ACL but seems to be making up for lost time.
WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END (Advantage: Patriots)
Steelers: Antonio Brown's livestreaming social media video upstaged another strong playoff performance. He led the Steelers with six receptions and 108 receiving yards against the Chiefs, with his biggest catch coming on third-and-3 with two minutes left that clinched the win. Jesse James (five catches, 83 yards) and Eli Rogers (five catches, 27 yards) also had some clutch receptions. Rogers seems to have emerged as the team's No. 2 receiver, moving past Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates. Tight end Ladarius Green's availability, again, remains murky because of a concussion.
Patriots: Rob Gronkowski had two touchdown catches against the Steelers in October but he had season-ending surgery on a herniated disc in December. Martellus Bennett replaced Gronk as the go-to tight end and finished with 55 catches for 701 yards and a team-high seven receiving touchdowns. Among receivers, Julian Edelman had 98 grabs for 1,106 yards and three scores. The Patriots also rely on former Penn State lacrosse player Chris Hogan, newly acquired Michael Floyd and Danny Amendola, among others.
OFFENSIVE LINE (Advantage: Steelers)
Steelers: It's worth noting the Steelers line didn't have a single false start against the Chiefs while trying to communicate in front of a loud Arrowhead Stadium crowd. There were no holding calls, either, and the line gave up just one sack to Ben Roethlisberger. Once again, the front five grinded the way for a record-setting rushing performance from Le'Veon Bell.
Patriots: The Patriots' front five kept Tom Brady upright most of the regular season, allowing just 15 sacks in 12 games. Brady was brought down twice in the divisional round, with second-year center David Andrews responsible for both sacks. The Patriots are young, starting a rookie (Joe Thuney) and second-year player (Shaq Mason) at guard. The experience comes from sixth-year tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon.
DEFENSIVE LINE (Advantage: Patriots)
Steelers: Stephon Tuitt had two quarterback hits against the Chiefs' Alex Smith, and it's imperative he gets after Tom Brady. Nose tackle Javon Hargrave had a tackle for loss versus Kansas City. The defensive front helped the Steelers hold the Chiefs to 61 yards rushing and Smith to a 69.7 rating. L.T. Walton continues to get more playing time while veteran Ricardo Mathews nurses an ankle injury.
Patriots: New England got seven sacks and 14 quarterback hits during the regular season from second-year defensive end Trey Flowers, who started just eight games. Brown had one of the team's three sacks against Houston. Former Pitt player Jabaal Sheard had five sacks, with veteran Chris Long getting four and second-year tackle Malcom Brown three. The front four also helped the Patriots allowed the third-fewest rushing yards per game (88.6) in the regular season.
LINEBACKER (Advantage: Steelers)
Steelers: James Harrison drew the holding call on a 2-point conversion that pushed the Chiefs back 10 yards and wiped out the tying score in the divisional round. He also had the only sack for the Steelers and had a team-high six tackles, three for a loss. Ryan Shazier picked off a pass for the fourth consecutive game, and Bud Dupree was a disruptive force in the backfield.
Patriots: Dont'a Hightower was named to his first Pro Bowl this season, and he led the Patriots with eight tackles in the divisional playoff win. Rob Ninkovich had four sacks this year and holds the distinction of the most fumble recoveries (14) by an NFL player over the past seven seasons. The group helped the Patriots allow the fewest points in the NFL this season, an average of 15.6 per game.
SECONDARY (Advantage: Patriots)
Steelers: When the teams met in October, Robert Golden was the starting strong safety, and he was beaten for two touchdown catches by Rob Gronkowski. That earned Golden a spot on the bench in favor of rookie Sean Davis, who broke up the potential game-tying 2-point conversion against the Chiefs. Expect Tom Brady to test corners Ross Cockrell and Artie Burns. Avoiding pass interference penalties will be a key.
Patriots: Safety Devin McCourty was selected to his third Pro Bowl this season and leads all current Patriots with 19 career interceptions. He finished third on the team with 78 tackles this season. McCourty had one of the Patriots' three interceptions against Houston. Patrick Chung is the other veteran safety. At corner, former Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler led the Patriots with four interceptions this season. Ryan Logan was the team's leading tackler (92) during the regular season and also had an interception against Houston.
COACHING (Advantage: Patriots)
Steelers: Mike Tomlin is 2-2 on the road in the playoffs and will be taking the Steelers into the first road AFC title game in his 10-year tenure. Tomlin is 2-0 in conference championship games and will be matching wits with Bill Belichick for the first time in the playoffs.
Patriots: The Steelers would love to deny Bill Belichick another chance at a Super Bowl title. Belichick has four, tying him with Chuck Noll for most in NFL history. He's also directed the Patriots to eight consecutive division titles and six conference championship appearances in a row. This year, Belichick became the first NFL coach to accrue at least 14 wins in a season on five occasions.