AFC Championship Betting Preview

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AFC Championship Betting – Preview ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>

NEW ENGLAND VS. PITTSBURGH PREVIEW!

One of the NFL’s two winningest teams in 2004will see its season come to an abrupt end on Sunday night, whenthe Pittsburgh Steelers welcome the New England Patriots to HeinzField for a momentous AFC Championship clash. The Steelers andPatriots combined to go 29-3 during the regular season, and oneof the two defeats New England suffered came against Pittsburgh(34-20) in Week 8.

The Patriots, who come off an impressive 20-3home victory over Indianapolis last Sunday, will be attemptingto keep their hopes of a third Super Bowl title in four yearsintact. New England, which is now 7-0 in the postseason underhead coach Bill Belichick, is also vying to become the first back-to-back world champion since the 1997-98 Denver Broncos pulled offthe feat.

Though the Steelers extended their winning streakto 15 games with last Saturday’s 20-17 overtime victory over theJets, the performance could hardly be defined as complete. Pittsburghwas forced to rally from a 17-10 fourth quarter deficit againstNew York, and looked on as Jets kicker Doug Brien missed two potentialgame-winning field goals in the final 1:58 of regulation. TheSteelers survived, however, and will be looking to reach the SuperBowl for the first time since the 1995 season. Pittsburgh, whichlast hoisted a Lombardi Trophy following the 1979 campaign, is1-4 in AFC Championships since that season, including 1-3 at homeunder head coach Bill Cowher.

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SERIES HISTORY

The Steelers have a 12-5 edge in their all-timeregular season series with the Patriots, and were 34-20 winnerswhen the teams met at Heinz Field in Week 8. New England won a30-14 decision over Pittsburgh in Foxboro during the 2002 season,and last won a regular season game in the Steel City by a 23-9margin during the 1998 campaign.

The teams have also met in the playoffs threetimes since 1996, with the Patriots winning a 1996 AFC DivisionalPlayoff (28-3), the Steelers returning the favour with a victoryin a 1997 AFC Divisional Playoff (7-6), and New England prevailingin the 2001 AFC Championship (24-17). The 1997 and 2001 meetingswere played in Pittsburgh.

Cowher is 5-4 against New England in his career,including playoffs. Belichick has a 5-9 mark against the Steelersand is 4-8 head-to-head versus Cowher, including postseason.

PATRIOTS OFFENSE VS. STEELERS DEFENSE

New England gutted the Colts via the ground,as Corey Dillon (23 carries, 144 yards) and Kevin Faulk (11 carries,56 yards) allowed the Patriots to control the clock and keep theball out of the hands of Peyton Manning. Dillon also led New Englandwith five catches out of the backfield. A possible missing piecefrom the Patriot running game this week will be fullback PatrickPass (141 rushing yards, 28 receptions during the regular season),who is listed as questionable with an ankle sprain. Rabih Abdullahwould likely fill in if Pass is unable to go. With Dillon (1635yards, 12 TD) on the shelf nursing a thigh injury in Week 8, thePatriots rushed just six times for five yards in a loss to theSteelers. New England finished seventh in NFL rushing offense(133.4 yards per game) during the regular season.

The Steelers entered the playoffs as the NFL’sbest team against the run (81.2 yards per game), but did not quitelive up to that reputation in last week’s win over the Jets. NewYork managed 110 ground yards in a losing effort, with both CurtisMartin (19 carries, 77 yards) and LaMont Jordan (5 carries, 30yards) achieving some success. Linebackers James Farrior (9 tackles)and Clark Haggans (7 tackles, 1 sack) were among the club’s leadingtacklers in the contest, and end Kimo von Oelhoffen and nose tackleChris Hoke combined for nine stops on the line. Joey Porter, wholed the Steelers with eight tackles and three sacks against thePatriots in Week 8, was held to three against the Jets last Saturday.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady wasn’t asked todo much in the Indianapolis win, but still finished an efficient18 of 27 passing for 144 yards and a touchdown in the victory.Brady, who also rushed for a TD in the game, tossed a five-yardscoring strike to David Givens (4 receptions, 26 yards) in thethird quarter. Givens, who led New England in receptions (56)and receiving yards (874), was one of 10 New England players tocatch a Brady pass last Sunday. Troy Brown (17 receptions, 1 TD)caught two balls for 13 yards in the triumph, and fellow wideoutsDavid Patten (44 receptions, 7 TD) and Deion Branch (35 receptions,4 TD) were limited to one reception each. Brady completed 25 of43 passes for 271 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptionsagainst Pittsburgh on Halloween, with Givens (8 receptions, 101yards, 2 TD) and Brown (5 receptions, 59 yards) each having soliddays. Brady was sacked four times in that contest, and was droppedthree times by the Colts last week. New England ranked 11th inNFL passing offense during the regular season (224.2 yards pergame), and the Patriot line gave up the fifth-lowest sack total(26) in the league.

The Pittsburgh secondary was effective againstthe Jets last week, holding Chad Pennington to 182 passing yardsand denying New York a wealth of big passing plays. Safety TroyPolamalu (7 tackles, 1 INT) notched an interception of Pennington,and cornerback Willie Williams (11 tackles) and safety Chris Hope(10 tackles) were 1-2 in stops in the game. Cornerback DesheaTownsend, who had four tackles in the victory, will be lookingfor another big play like the 39-yard interception return fora touchdown he recorded off of Brady in Week 8. Pittsburgh postedthree sacks of Pennington a week ago, with Haggans (6 sacks inthe regular season) and end Aaron Smith (43 tackles, 8 sacks)both getting in on the action. Smith had a sack of Brady in Week8, in addition to the three recorded by Porter. The Steelers werefourth in passing defense (177.2 yards per game) during the regularseason, and tied for seventh in sacks (41).

STEELERS OFFENSE VS. PATRIOTS DEFENSE

Though the ultimate result was a bit closer thanthe Steelers would have liked, the Pittsburgh running game wastypically effective in last week’s win over the Jets. The Steelersamassed 193 ground yards, with Jerome Bettis (27 carries, 101yards, 1 TD) and Duce Staley (11 carries, 54 yards) at the heartof that effort. Bettis did cough up a rare fumble in the game,however. The Steelers ran all over New England back in Week 8,with Staley (25 carries, 125 yards) and Bettis (15 carries, 65yards, 1 TD) doing most of the damage in a 221-yard ground assault.Cowher’s club ranked second in NFL rushing offense (154 yardsper game) during the regular season, with Bettis (941 yards, 13TD) and Staley (830 yards, 1 TD) making up the major part of thatequation.

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While much attention was devoted to New England’sability to slow Peyton Manning and the Indy passing attack lastweek, the defense was equally strong against running back EdgerrinJames, who managed just 39 yards on 14 carries in the tilt. LinebackersTedy Bruschi (122 tackles) and Mike Vrabel (71 tackles) had eighttackles each in the game, and defensive tackles Vince Wilfork(42 tackles) and Ty Warren (48 tackles) had two stops each forthe line. The Pats will get a boost if Pro Bowl end Richard Seymour(39 tackles, 5 sacks), who sat out with an ankle injury last Sunday,is able to suit up versus the Steelers. Seymour is listed as questionable.The Patriots were sixth in the NFL against the run (98.2 yardsper game) during the regular season.

Rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (2621 passingyards, 16 TD, 11 INT) nearly suffered his first career setbackas a starter last week, throwing a pair of interceptions thatwould have served as a major culprit in a Steelers loss. Despitethe picks, Roethlisberger wasn’t awful, completing 17 of 30 passesfor 181 yards and a touchdown in the game. Hines Ward (10 receptions,105 yards, 1 TD) was the rookie’s favourite target, with PlaxicoBurress (2 receptions, 28 yards) and Lee Mays (2 receptions, 19yards) also playing a role. Roethlisberger was 18 of 24 passingfor 196 yards and two touchdowns against New England on Oct. 31,with Ward and Antwaan Randle El notching six grabs each and Burresswas catching two TD passes. Roethlisberger, who was not sackedin that game, was dumped just once by the Jets last Saturday.Pittsburgh was 28th in NFL passing offence (170 yards per game)during the regular season, and tied for 14th in sacks allowed(36).

Though NFL pundits foretold its doom in the weekleading up to last week’s game, the Patriot secondary more thanheld its own against the high-powered passing attack of the Colts.Peyton Manning threw for a modest 238 yards in the game and didnot fire a touchdown pass, with cornerbacks Asante Samuel (3 tackleson the day) and Randall Gay (5 tackles) holding receivers MarvinHarrison (5 receptions, 44 yards) and Reggie Wayne (3 receptions,35 yards) in check. Strong safety Rodney Harrison had 11 tackles,a forced fumble, and the only interception of Manning last week,Vrabel (5.5 sacks on the year) tallied a sack in the victory,but top sackman Willie McGinest (9.5 sacks) was shut out in thatregard. New England did not have a sack or an interception againstthe Steelers in Week 8, though Samuel was credited with a forcedfumble off of Randle El. New England was 17th in NFL passing defense(212.5 yards per game) during the regular season, and tied forthird in sacks (45).

SPECIAL TEAMS

Trusty New England kicker Adam Vinatieri stakedhis team to a 6-0 lead with field goals of 24 and 31 yards lastweek. Vinatieri was also a perfect 2-2 on trifectas against Pittsburghin October. Josh Miller, who averaged 39 yards on five punts versusthe Colts, had one of the best days of his season against Pittsburgh(3 punts, 52.3 avg.) in Week 8. Troy Brown made a special teamsimpact with a 20-yard punt return against Indianapolis last week.

Steeler kicker Jeff Reed connected on both ofhis field goal attempts against the Jets, including a 33-yardgame-winner in overtime. Reed was also 2-2 against New Englandon Oct. 31. Chris Gardocki averaged 39.6 yards on five punts againstthe Jets, and kicked to a 44.3 yard average in the first meetingwith the Patriots. Randle El’s longest punt return last week wentfor 11 yards and Ike Taylor’s top kickoff return netted 30. Pittsburgh,which allowed a kickoff return for a score against the Giants’Willie Ponder in Week 15, gave up a 75-yard punt return for atouchdown to New York’s Santana Moss last Saturday.

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