Come on. Admit it.
This is what you really wanted.
This is the game we all wanted to see.
Yeah, sure, it would have been fun having the Houston Texans come to Heinz Field for the AFC Championship Game.
One more big pay day for the city; not to mention one more day-long (or longer) tailgate.
And another home playoff game for Ben Roethlisberger, so all the talking TV hair-dos could remind us that Home Ben is better than Road Ben.
Well, he is. In Sunday’s divisional playoff win at Kansas City, Ben was 20 of 31 for 224 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and a decidedly un-playoff like 72.5 rating.
THIS game is what Steeler Nation - heck, the whole NFL kingdom - has been hoping for.
The Pittsburgh Steelers versus The New England Patriots; clearly the best two teams in the AFC, if not the NFL. The winner of this game will be favored over the NFC champ (either Green Bay or Atlanta) in Super Bowl LI.
This is the game America will be watching and, damn the cliches, the story lines are endless:
The good guys versus the bad guys.
Darth Belichick versus Mike Skywalker.
The Bad “Bs” - “Bugging” Belichick and “No-air-ball Brady” - versus the Good “Bs” - Ben, Bell, Brown and, after Sunday’s do-it-all performance, “Bigfoot” Boswell.
And so we will have it. Sunday, January 22, 2017 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA.
It’s a rematch of the Patriots’ 27-16 regular season win in Pittsburgh, which the Steelers played without Roethlisberger.
This time, however, it’s the Steelers that are healthy and the Patriots that appear to be at a disadvantage. This time it’s the Patriots who must play without one of their biggest weapons, Rob Gronkowski, arguably the best tight end in the NFL.
Gronk had four catches for 93 yards and a touchdown in the Pats’ Week Seven win against Pittsburgh.
Even more telling is how Brady struggled Saturday against the Texans - easily his worst game of the season. He completed only 18 of 38 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions.
That last number is particularly stunning when you consider Brady threw just two interceptions in all 12 regular season games in which he played.
Of course, it’s only one game and before betting the kids’ college fund on Sunday, keep in mind:
The Pats are 5-1 against the Mike Tomlin-coached Steelers when Brady is their quarterback.
Belichick has never lost to Pittsburgh at Gillette Stadium; an eerie, cold, unwelcoming place (Think: Siberia) where footballs mysteriously shrink and Steelers coaches never know what they’ll hear on their headsets.
In terms of skilled personnel, the Steelers have a decided edge at running back with Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver with Antonio Brown. At quarterback, you have to give the edge to Brady. He’s at home, he’s got four Super Bowl rings and, well, he’s Brady. However, both he and Ben are guaranteed Hall of Famers.
How they play on Sunday is all that matters.
Which brings us to the keys to the game. There are only two, and guess what?
They both start - and this seems to be a theme anymore - with the letter B.
KEY ONE: Ben.
The Patriots are running into a healthy bunch of Steeler Bs, led by Big Ben.
The last time Ben, Bell and Brown were on the field together against the Patriots was 2013, when Bell was a rookie, playing in his fifth game as a back-up to Felix Jones.
The Patriots defense has not faced an array of offensive weapons like this all season. The best QB they’ve run into was Seattle’s Russell Wilson in Week 10 and he bruised the Pats defense, completing 25-of-37 for 349 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 31-24 Seattle win.
There’s really no other way to say it: home game, road game - I don’t care if they play the game on Mars - this absolutely must be Ben’s game.
There are no excuses. He has a dominant offensive line in front of him, Bell behind him, and Brown beside him.
Is there a doubt that Bell will get his yards,or that Brown will catch anything thrown in his zip code?
That means it’s up to Ben to be, well, Big; to play smart, mistake-free, football.
And, for goodness sake, when he gets 'em to the Red Zone, he’s gotta get 'em in the end zone. It will be next to impossible to defeat New England if every offensive possession ends with three instead of six.
KEY TWO: Butler.
In the two games against the Patriots in which Keith Butler has coordinated the defense, Brady has posted monster numbers.
He’s completed around 76 percent of his passes for 510 yards, six touchdowns, a 136.4 QB rating and not a single interception.
The way to take Brady out of the game is to take away his tools. This week that means blanketing Julian Edelman in that 10-yard area beyond the line of scrimmage known as “underneath.” In his two games against Butler’s defensive schemes, Edelmen has caught 20 of the 22 balls thrown to him for 157 yards, an average of less than eight yards per catch. Classic underneath catches.
Butler must put together a solid underneath coverage scheme capitalizing on the quickness of his linebackers - specifically Ryan Shazier, whose face should be the first thing Edelmen sees the second he leaves the line of scrimmage.
Think about it: How many times have Steelers fans watched in horror as Brady stood in the pocket, looked right, looked left, pump faked to send the secondary long, then found Gronk, or Edelman or Danny Amendola underneath?
I know. Nightmare stuff.
Butler’s game plan absolutely must deny Brady that zone underneath the secondary - a place where many otherwise solid defensive game plans have died - and died ugly - at the arm of the Patriots’ QB.
As for a prediction, last week, I picked the right team but the wrong score, and this week I'm just not in the predicting mood. Too many variables. The “if” factor looms large.
Here’s what I WILL say:
If the Steelers win Sunday, look for Ben and Butler to walk out of the locker room carrying game balls.
If either has a bad day, neither will be on the sidelines at Super Bowl LI.