The Pittsburgh Steelers might not be the team many New England Patriots fans wanted to see in the AFC championship game – Pittsburgh’s offense is scary dangerous and its defense hits with thunder – but even Roger Goodell could not have hand-picked a better matchup.

These are two of the best franchises in the NFL today, consistent winners with some of the league’s most recognizable players.

Historically, the Steelers and Patriots are emblematic of NFL success.

They’ve each appeared in an NFL-high eight Super Bowls, so we’re guaranteed one of them will set a record after Sunday’s AFC championship game at Gillette Stadium.

The Steelers have won a record six Super Bowl championships, four coming in a six-year period from 1975-80. The Patriots have won four Super Bowl championships, all since 2001.

The teams have met twice before in the AFC championship game, both at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, with the Patriots winning each time (24-17 and 41-27) and each time going on to win the Super Bowl (2001 and 2004).

These franchises have been studies in stability. The Steelers have had only three head coaches since 1969: Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and, since 2007, Mike Tomlin. The Patriots have had only Bill Belichick since 1999.

And then there’s the players.

Pittsburgh has Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown on offense, the ageless James Harrison and rising stars Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier and Sean Davis on defense. The Patriots have Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis on offense, Dont’a Hightower, Malcolm Butler, Devin McCourty and Rob Ninkovich on defense.

The game promises to be memorable.

It’s not going to be easy for either team. And that’s what’s going to make this game great.

Most Patriots fans were hoping that the offensively-challenged Kansas City Chiefs could get past the Steelers in Sunday night’s late AFC divisional playoff. But as well as the Chiefs played defensively – especially in the red zone where they forced the Steelers to kick six field goals – their offense simply couldn’t muster enough and Pittsburgh advanced with an 18-16 victory.

Yes the Patriots defeated the Steelers 27-16 on Oct. 23, but Pittsburgh didn’t have Roethlisberger than afternoon at Heinz Field. He was out with a knee injury and the Patriots faced Landry Jones.

There’s just a little bit of difference between what Roethlisberger brings to the Steelers’ offense and what Jones brings.

Roethlisberger’s ability to shake off defenders and prolong a play by scrambling puts a lot of pressure on a defense, especially in the red zone.

“That’s when it becomes really difficult and I think Roethlisberger right now is very mobile, very healthy,” said Matt Patricia, the Patriots’ defensive coordinator on Monday. “(He’s) a guy that showed even again (Sunday) night that just slight bit of movement or a slight bit of ability to maybe evade the rush or stand in there just a little bit longer gives his guys enough time to get open in those situations and certainly the red area is a big part of that.”

Bell, who has set the Steelers’ single-game playoff rushing record in each of the last two weeks, is capable of carrying an offense himself, his patient pick-out-the-hole-at-the-line style causing all kids of problems for a defense.

And Brown has the ability to take any pass all the way for a touchdown, as he showed in Pittsburgh’s wild-card win over Miami.

There aren’t many offenses that can invoke the fear the Steelers do.

One of them will be on the other sideline. Brady struggled against the speedy Houston Texans’ pass rush in the divisional round, completing only 18 of his 38 passes. But he still can pick a defense apart, as he’s shown so often against Pittsburgh. In 11 career games against the Steelers, he’s 9-2 with 26 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Three times he’s thrown four touchdowns against them.

The Steelers have a young, aggressive secondary but, according to Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, they aren’t reckless.

“They’re aggressive, but they’re very intelligent in terms of when they take their chances,” he said.

He sees a lot of improvement in Pittsburgh’s defense since the regular-season game.

“They’re not going to make many mistakes,” said McDaniels. “They’re not going to give you many opportunities to have easy yards. You’re going to have to earn everything you get.”

The Patriots know they have to play better than they did in their 34-16 divisional round win over Houston.

The Steelers aren’t going to be in awe of them, even at Gillette Stadium where they’ve won only once – in 2008, with Matt Cassel quarterbacking the Patriots – in five games. No, you can expect a little extra in every tackle, a subtle jab in the piles, a little trash talk between every play.

It’s not going to be easy.

Then again, with a berth in the Super Bowl at stake, it shouldn’t be easy.


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