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Super Bowl Berth On The Line

A history lesson, tape review, prediction, complete breakdown and much more in this Steelers-Patriots Conference Championship Game preview.

MEMORABLE SERIES MOMENT

Patriots 24, Steelers 17

Jan. 27, 2002 at Heinz Field

Unbeknownst to all, Bill Belichick's second season as coach and Tom Brady's first as starting QB was the start of a dynsty. The Steelers, in fact, had passed on Brady to draft Tee Martin in the fifth round in the 2000 draft. But here was Brady and his 10-point underdogs in town for what was expected to be a Steelers Super Bowl coronation. But when Lee Flowers knocked Brady out of the game in the second quarter, few were excited when $100 million backup Drew Bledsoe came off the bench. The Patriots already held a 7-3 lead thanks to a re-kicked 55-yard punt return for a TD by Troy Brown (Troy Edwards was penalized the previous kick). Bledsoe finished off the late first-half drive with an 11-yard touchdown pass to David Patten for a 14-3 lead. The Steelers' attempt at a 34-yard field goal in the middle of the third quarter was blocked and returned by Antwan Harris 49 yards for a 21-3 Patriots lead, and the Steelers couldn't recover. "The special teams lost this game, period," said Flowers. And special teams coach Jay Hays was fired two days later. It had been a problem all season. The memory was rekindled at Steelers headquarters last week before starting safety Mike Mitchell was moved to special teams to help corral Tyreek Hill and the Chiefs.

TALE OF THE TAPE

"Everybody knows that Tom Brady's a great quarterback, finds the open guy. As I watched last week versus the Houston Texans, and I was wondering about some of the stuff that they did, like stacking (Jadeveon) Clowney and bringing him inside. I was thinking if that was a Romeo Crennell/Mike Vrabel move, and I started looking and watching the sack reel. I noticed that everybody's getting pressure on the inside. The more film I watched, I noticed that Dave Andrews the center, Shaq Mason the right guard and Joe Thuney the left guard, that's kind of where the soft spot is in the Patriots' pass protection. So if I'm the Steelers, man, I am firing X with Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons, and I'm putting either Stephon Tuitt or one of those guys in the A gap, on either side of the center, and I am collapsing the pocket because that's what you do to Brady to knock him off his rhythm. You get in his face and you rough him up. Teams have done that, especially the Texans. The other thing you notice is you've got a really nice matchup not only in that middle three of their offensive line but on the edge, because Nate Solder is 6-8 and he is a waistbender and you've got an opportunity to get James Harrison under him. We saw what James did to Eric Fisher last week. Well, Nate Solder's not as good as Eric Fisher, and he's taller, which is made to order for either holding calls or for getting driven back into the quarterback's lap. So, Nate Solder's more of a finesse guy and he's working against a power guy in James. On the other side you've got a power guy who's really good, Marcus Cannon, at taking the bull rush, but he doesn't have great feet and he's got Bud Dupree, who's an edge guy. So you've got made-to-order matchups. There's going to be no place for Tom Brady to step up in the pocket. I am excited. I think this is a great opportunity for them." -- Steelers Radio analyst Tunch Ilkin.

TOP QUESTION

Can the Steelers run the ball and control the clock?

Not just to control the clock, but to keep Tom Brady off the field and to score, since the Steelers had such a difficult time in the red zone last week. They were 0-for-5 from the 20 and in against the Chiefs because the Steelers eschewed the run. The Patriots were third in the NFL against the run (eighth per carry) and here's how Le'Veon Bell explained their success: "For one, they tackle well. When they do get the opportunity in the open field they get guys to the ground. Secondly, they play good team defense. They've got good speed to the ball. Obviously to be a good defense you've got to be real sound and disciplined, staying in your gaps, everybody's doing their assignment, not being thirsty and trying to make a tackle. Those guys do that really well. The first time they played us they were real sound in their gaps, not really trying to do too much, and I think that's what kind of hurts teams on defense when a guy tries to do too much and gets out of his gap or area. Those guys do a good job of staying home and doing their assignment. Well-coached defense."

THREE QUESTIONS: With DL STEPHON TUITT

Q: The key, apparently, is to put pressure on Tom Brady up the middle. Is that right?

ST: "We see that from other teams. We have a good game plan going up there. However we choose to put pressure on him we're going to go with it."

Q: Does the prospect of facing Brady cause a young defense to maybe quiver a bit?

ST: "I don't ever quiver. He's a good quarterback but I don't ever quiver. I don't care how talented he is. We went against Peyton Manning last year and we played good football for three quarters and unfortunate events happened and we ended up losing that game. But we can match up with anybody in this NFL, and I'm proud to be able to say that. The only thing about it is they feel the same way as well. It's what you get in a five-star matchup like this. It's going to be a war. It's going to be about whoever beats their man the most, makes the play the quickest, the fastest, whoever gets the most yards after the catch. That's the difference when you have a five-star matchup."

Q: Or who can run back upfield and blow up a small receiver trying to make a cutback?

ST: (Laughs) "You never know. You never know what it's going to be. That's the beauty of football, and that's the beauty of going against another good team. As much as I want to give all the credit to Tom Brady, the biggest thing is we've got to stop the run. We can't let them get the run going. And that's what we've been doing. We can't all of the sudden change."

GAME BREAKDOWN

What to look for from the Steelers on Sunday at 6:40 p.m. at Gillette Stadium:

ON OFFENSE

The Patriots can minimize Antonio Brown with top CB Malcolm Butler and a safety over the top. That would leave the Steelers' anonymous bunch of "other guys" to make plays in the passing game. The guess here is that slot man Eli Rogers and tight ends Jesse James and Xavier Grimble will be those "other guys." ("Hey, Other Guys, who's laughing now?!") But much will depend on whether Le'Veon Bell can add to the 337 rushing yards he's already rolled up in two playoff games. How does he feel after 59 carries and four receptions the last two weeks? "I feel good," Bell said after returning to practice on Friday. "Especially for it being near the end of the season. I think the way I practiced and worked to get to this point, it's really helping me out. I think Coach Tomlin allowing me to recover on a Wednesday, getting an extra day, really has me feeling good. When I go into a game I'm feeling fresh, so I feel good right now."

ON DEFENSE

With Rob Gronkowski out, Tom Brady's go-to guy becomes Julian Edelman, the fiesty, trash-talking eighth-year pro out of Kent State. Edelman caught 98 passes this season for 1,106 yards and three touchdowns and gave linebacker Lawrence Timmons fits -- with Ryan Shazier out -- in the last meeting. Edelman caught nine passes for 60 yards against the Steelers in October. He often gets away with pushing off at the top of his route. Last week NFL Films had a mic on him when an official warned Edelman, he protested but then said, "Sorry, I get defensive. My therapist tells me I get too defensive." The Steelers must also be concerned with Pitt's Dion Lewis in the backfield, more so than the physical LeGarrette Blount. And then there's Brady and his tempo changes and hard snap-counts. The Steelers believe they're prepared for all of it.

PREDICTION

If you talk to players and analysts such as Tunch Ilkin, the Steelers have a very real chance to pull off this upset. It would take giving Tom Brady a physical beating and Le'Veon Bell controlling the game on the ground, with some finishing plays by the wide receivers. That's all within the realm of possibility for a Steelers team on a nine-game win streak. However, I'm going to let all of that unravel without my mark on it. I feel like I've seen too much of Brady and Bill Belichick and Gillette Stadium over the years to justify picking the upset here. I have to stick with my gut instinct from early in the week, and hope that I'm wrong. Patriots, 30-27.

BY THE NUMBERS

3: Field goals by Chris Boswell to put him past Jeff Reed (16) for the most in team postseason history.

4: Consecutive postseason games in which James Harrison has a sack. His 11 postseason sacks are tied with LaMarr Woodley for the franchise high.

12: Conference Championship Game appearances by the Patriots (8-4).

15: Conference Championship Game appearances by the Steelers (8-7), most in the NFL.

20: Playoff appearances by Ben Roethlisberger will move him out of the current three-way tie with Mel Blount and Terry Bradshaw (19) for most in team history.

27: Fumbles by the Patriots this season, second most in the league.

DOWNLOADS

* Arthur Moats was bemused to hear veteran reporters talk about the Steelers' difficult past against Tom Brady and the Patriots. "That might be the case," Moats said. "I can definitely see that. Yeah, y'all have been through a little more trauma than the rest of us. But I'm sitting here, shoot, it's just another team. I'm sure it's definitely different for y'all, but we haven't been here that long. From what we remember, we felt like we should've won earlier this year and we should've beat them last year. And that's all we know."

* After yet another reporter stopped by Le'Veon Bell's locker to offer congratulations, Bell said "Why does everybody keep telling me congratulations? Why does everybody keep saying that?" The reporter asked if Bell had a baby this week. "No. Why does everybody keep saying that?" When told that had been reported "by someone on the internet," Bell, who was given an excused absence from practice Thursday, laughed and said, "Man, that's crazy. I'm wondering what, why does everybody keep telling me congratulations. I thought everybody was telling it to me for the season or something."

* Tight end Xavier Grimble has been quiet since catching a big 20-yard touchdown pass against the Baltimore Ravens on Christmas Day, but it would be sweet irony for him to make another such play against the Patriots. Grimble felt the Pats "gave up on me too early," after he had hustled to get to New England in the winter of 2014 following his release by San Francisco. Grimble didn't even get a chance to pack winter clothes -- until he was released by Bill Belichick two days later. "It was more disappointment because I always knew the talent that I had and I felt like they kind of felt the same way. We had great talks up until they let me go. And it happened quick. So, yeah, I guess the young me was really mad, but I want to prove myself to my team, my coaches, the entire league. That's what I'm focused on now. My ribs were bothering me a bit after the Baltimore game, and once you get out of the rotation you're trying to work your way back into it. But I'm ready and healthy now. I'm ready to go. Whenever my number's called, I'll be ready."

* The NFL takes responsibility during the regular season for the communications system between press box and sideline coaches, but are more stringent in some stadiums than others. At Gillette Stadium, for the 2015 opener, Steelers coaches received intermittent blasts of the play-by-play broadcast during the game. Mike Tomlin said that wasn't the first time he had experienced trouble at Gillette Stadium, and anonymous sources from around the league agreed. But the NFL takes over stadiums in a much more controlling fashion for Conference Championship Games, so that shouldn't be a problem this time, although the Steelers are ready. "If the headsets go out, somebody’s intercom in their helmet breaks or goes down, we have an alternative method to function," said offensive coordiantor Todd Haley. "That is how we prepare each and every week."

* Bell's NFL postseason debut was a smashing success, as was New England's Dion Lewis, who last week became the first player in NFL postseason history with a rushing touchdown (1 yard), receiving touchdown (13) and kickoff-return touchdown (98) in one game. Lewis rushed for 1,799 yards at Pitt in 2009 to set the single-season freshman record. He followed that up with 1,061 rushing yards before entering the draft. He was a fifth-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011.

PARTING SHOT

"They haven’t had to go through us, either, since I’ve been here, so stay tuned. " -- Mike Tomlin.

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