Sunday’s American Football Conference Championship Game pits the two teams that have ruled the AFC this millennium. Including next month’s game in Houston, either the Steelers or Patriots will have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl ten times since 2001.
In the 1994 season Bobby Ross and Stan Humphries ended the Buffalo Bills’ reign of four straight AFC championships, with their San Diego Chargers blown out by San Francisco in the 49ers’ last Super Bowl victory. Since then the Pats (7) and Steelers (4) have combined for eleven conference championships, laying waste to the NFL’s vision of parity and every team taking a turn as the best in the league.
The Patriots have had sixteen consecutive winning seasons; Pittsburgh has had only one losing season since 2000, back in 2003. New England has won ten or more games 15 times since 2001, including 14 straight times. The Steelers have eleven double-digit winning years in that time span, including the last three in a row. The Patriots have won four Super Bowls this century to Pittsburgh’s two. Any and every Steeler fan will quickly respond to that fact by pointing out that the Black and Gold still lead the Patriots by the count of six Vince Lombardi Trophies to four overall – even though in most cases they are not old enough to remember four of those victories.
The Basics: Who, What, When, Where and Why
Who: 13-5 Pittsburgh Steelers (#3 seed, AFC North champs) at 15-2 New England Patriots (#1 seed, AFC East champs)
What: 2016-17 American Football Conference Championship Game
When: Sunday January 22 at 6:40 pm ET on CBS
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough MA
Why: Winner represents the AFC in Super Bowl 51 at Houston on February 5
Weather, Odds and More
Weather: Cloudy with 30% chance of light rain in the late afternoon. Chance of precipitation increases to 70% later in the evening. Winds from the northeast at about 15 mph. Game time temperature of about 33° F.
Keep in mind that this is New England, so the forecast could very well change between now and kickoff.
Coaches: Mike Tomlin is in his tenth year as head coach of the Steelers, having taken over for Bill Cowher in 2007. He has a 103-57 (.644) regular season record, finishing no worse than 8-8 in 2012 and 2013. Tomlin’s teams have made the playoffs seven out of ten times, compiling an 8-5 (.615) post-season record. Under Tomlin the Steelers lost in the wild card game three times and the division round once. Tomlin is 2-0 in the AFCCG and 1-1 in the Super Bowl.
Bill Belichick has compiled a 261-125 overall record in 22 seasons as an NFL head coach. In 17 years with the Patriots Belichick has amassed a 237-115 (.673) regular season record and 24-10 (.706) post season record. Under his guidance the Patriots have won four Super Bowls, six conference championships and fourteen division titles. This will be a post-merger record sixth consecutive time the Patriots have advanced to the AFCCG, and eleventh time they have done so under the Hoodie’s watch. The Pats are 5-5 in those games but only 1-3 in their last four conference championships.
Odds: This game opened up with the Patriots a six-point favorite, and that line has remained relatively steady thus far. Most outlets publish the over/under at 50½, with a handful of venues still listing the total at the original 51 points. New England has covered better than any other team in league this year, going 14-3 against the spread. The Pats 7-2 home ATS record is also the best in the NFL. After last week’s game at Kansas City Pittsburgh is 10-7 ATS, 6-3 on the road. Both clubs went over six times and under ten times in the 2016 season.
Head-to-Head Series Record: In franchise history the Patriots are 14-15 versus Pittsburgh, but the Pats have owned the Steelers in the Belichick-Brady era. The Patriots are 9-3 dating back to the AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field fifteen years ago. Brady is 9-2 versus Pittsburgh and 4-0 against the Steelers in games in Foxborough. The Patriots defeated Pittsburgh 41-27 on January 23 2005 en route to their third Super Bowl victory. That came three years after upsetting Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl plans, sandwiched between the Snow Bowl (aka Tuck Rule) game and knocking off the supposed Greatest Show On Turf.
There is also this full game for your viewing pleasure. The NFL is very proactive about keeping these gems out of the public’s hands, so be forewarned; I don’t think it will be available for very long.
These two clubs met twice prior to Belichick’s arrival in the post-season. On January 3, 1998 the Steelers nipped the Pats 7-6 in the division round; the only touchdown came in the first quarter on a 40-yard scramble by Kordell Stewart. One year earlier Curtis Martin rushed for three touchdowns and 166 yards, as the Patriots cruised to a foggy 28-3 victory. The next week The Pats defeated Jacksonville, more probable than not bringing Mark Brunell to tears. Unfortunately Bill Parcells was too busy making contract plans with Leon Hess to notice that kicking to Desmond Howard was a bad idea.
Team Stats and Rankings
Here is a look at how the two teams compare statistically; the numbers reflect an average per game (or per play), rather than aggregate totals. Per-game and per-play stats are used rather than gross totals because that makes the rankings more meaningful, and because they provide a better context in regards to what to expect in any given game.
Numbers in green indicate a top-ten ranking while underlined green is top-five; red indicates a bottom-ten ranking and underlined red is bottom-five. Please note that the information below includes post-season games, so it will likely differ from official stats found elsewhere which are only for the regular season.
Pittsburgh is a well balanced team with legitimate championship aspirations. On offense the Steelers have explosive quick-strike weapons as well as the capability of methodically controlling the ball to drive the length of the field.
New England Patriot Offense versus Pittsburgh Steeler Defense
Scoring per Game: Patriots 27.9 (4th); Steelers 19.7 (8th)
Points per Play: Patriots .423 (4th); Steelers .320 (9th)
Touchdowns per Game: Patriots 3.2 (4th); Steelers 2.2 (8th)
Red Zone Touchdowns per Game: Patriots 2.4 (4th); Steelers (12th)
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage: Patriots 64.1 (8th); Steelers 47.5 (5th)
Yardage per Game: Patriots 386 (4th); Steelers 334 (9th)
First Downs per Game: Patriots 21.8 (7th); Steelers 19.3 (10th)
Yards per Play: Patriots 5.8 (7th); Steelers 5.4 (13th)
Yards per Drive: Patriots 6.66 (1st); Steelers 32.2 (15th)
Points per Drive: Patriots 2.53 (5th); Steelers 1.87 (11th)
Drive Success Rate: Patriots .742 (5th); Steelers .694 (13th)
Third Down Conversions per Game: Patriots 6.4 (2nd); Steelers 5.3 (24th)
Third Down Conversion Percentage: Patriots 45.2 (4th); Steelers 40.5 (23rd)
Punts per Score: Patriots 0.9 (10th); Steelers 1.1 (12th)
Plays per Game: Patriots 66.1 (7th); Steelers 61.6 (4th)
– – – – – Rushing and Passing Game – – – – –
Rushing Yards: Patriots 116 (9th); Steelers 95 (9th)
Yards per Carry: Patriots 3.9 (25th); Steelers 4.2 (18th)
Passing Yards: Patriots 270 (4th); Steelers 239 (11th)
Yards per Pass Attempt: Patriots 7.8 (3rd); Steelers 6.5 (11th)
Completion Percentage: Patriots 65.7 (8th); Steelers 65.2 (28th)
Passer Rating: Patriots 106.8 (2nd); Steelers 87.1 (14th)
TD Passes-Interception Differential: Patriots +30, 34-4 (3rd); Steelers -7, 22-15 (8th)
Complete Passes per Game: Patriots 22.7 (16th); Steelers 23.9 (26th)
Incomplete Passes per Game: Patriots 11.9 (7th); Steelers 12.8 (20th)
Quarterback Sacks per Game: Patriots 1.5 (5th); Steelers 2.4 (7th)
Sack Yardage Lost per Game: Patriots 9.3 (2nd); Steelers 16.2 (7th)
Pittsburgh Steeler Offense versus New England Patriot Defense
Scoring per Game: Steelers 24.8 (11th); Patriots 15.6 (1st)
Points per Play: Steelers .390 (10th); Patriots .250 (1st)
Touchdowns per Game: Steelers 2.8 (12th); Patriots 1.6 (1st)
Red Zone Touchdowns per Game: Steelers 1.7 (17th); Patriots 1.4 (2nd)
Red Zone TD Percentage per Game: Steelers 55.4 (14th); Patriots 51.1 (8th)
Yardage per Game: Steelers 373 (7th); Patriots 325 (8th)
First Downs per Game: Steelers 20.8 (12th); Patriots 18.1 (2nd)
Yards per Play: Steelers 5.9 (6th); Patriots 5.2 (9th)
Yards per Drive: Steelers 33.8 (10th); Patriots 28.8 (8th)
Points per Drive: Steelers 2.26 (8th); Patriots 1.42 (1st)
Drive Success Rate: Steelers .724 (9th); Patriots .662 (5th)
Third Down Conversions per Game: Steelers 5.2 (13th); Patriots 4.6 (2nd)
Third Down Conversion Percentage: Steelers 41.6 (11th); Patriots 35.6 (4th)
Punts per Score: Steelers 0.9 (9th); Patriots 1.7 (1st)
Plays per Game: Steelers 63.7 (15th); Patriots 62.6 (10th)
– – – – – Rushing and Passing Game – – – – –
Rushing Yards: Steelers 117 (6th); Patriots 89 (5th)
Yards per Carry: Steelers 4.4 (9th); Patriots 3.9 (8th)
Passing Yards: Steelers 256 (10th); Patriots 235 (11th)
Yards per Pass Attempt: Steelers 7.1 (10th); Patriots 6.3 (6th)
Completion Percentage: Steelers 64.2 (14th); Patriots 61.5 (10th)
Passer Rating: Steelers 93.0 (12th); Patriots 82.2 (5th)
TD Passes-Interception Differential: Steelers +17, 35-18 (8th); Patriots -6, 22-16 (7th)
Complete Passes per Game: Steelers 23.0 (14th); Patriots 23.0 (18th)
Incomplete Passes per Game: Steelers 12.8 (14th); Patriots 14.4 (6th)
Quarterback Sacks per Game: Steelers 1.3 (2nd); Patriots 2.2 (16th)
Sack Yardage Lost per Game: Steelers 10.9 (7th); Patriots 14.2 (16th)
Turnover Differential: Patriots +12 (3rd); Steelers +7 (7th)
Patriot Takeaways: 1.5 per game (14th); 26 total
Steeler Giveaways: 1.2 per game (13th); 21 total
Steeler Takeaways: 1.6 per game (13th); 28 total
Patriot Giveaways: 0.8 per game (2nd); 14 total
Penalties per Game: Patriots 5.8 (5th); Steelers 6.8 (19th)
Penalty Yards per Game: Patriots 51.1 (6th); Steelers 65.6 (27th)
Opponent Penalties per Game: Patriots 6.9 (11th); Steelers 6.7 (15th)
Opponent Penalty Yards per Game: Patriots 59.1 (13th); Steelers 58.0 (17th)
Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average
Efficiency: Total Weighted DVOA: Patriots 34.0% (1st); Steelers 20.0% (3rd)
Team Efficiency: Offense DVOA: Patriots 21.1% (2nd); Steelers 11.1% (8th)
Team Efficiency: Defense DVOA: Patriots -1.5% (16th); Steelers -4.7% (11th)
Special Teams DVOA: Patriots 2.7% (7th); Steelers 0.0% (16th)
If you are still reading at this point, congratulations. Apologies for the lack of brevity. Pittsburgh has a very good team and deserves to be in this championship game. That being said the Patriots are just a bit better in all phases. Between the better coaches, better quarterback, and home field advantage the Pats should win. Enjoy the game, it should be a classic.
Prediction: Patriots 30, Steelers 20