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AFC Showdown

   by Al McMordie - 09/26/2005

Here’s a look at a key AFC showdown this Sunday in the NFL, and what you should keep an eye on.

Patriots at Steelers: When last we saw these two, it was freezing cold in January. Ben Roethlisberger was looking like a rookie, with three picks, and Tom Brady was looking like a two-time Super Bowl MVP, dissecting the Steelers one vulnerability, the secondary, in a 41-27 New England victory. If you check the newspapers this week, the players are not really talking about that game. Or the game last October when the Steelers, on this same field, ran all over the Patriots, 34-20. These are the two powerhouses of the AFC. Expect a physical game, just like the Panthers/Patriots game last week.

The keys here will be the health of QB Roethlisberger and the Patriots offensive line. Big Ben apparently played the Houston game on a bum knee, though he played very well. He also took several hits and Bill Cowher listed Roethlisberger as probable for Sunday's game with a back injury. Big Ben was rumored to have a thumb problem in last year’s playoff game and played poorly. The medical staff was even seen pouring cold water on the thumb (in zero degree weather – what was that all about?). Big Ben will have to be at the top of his game against the disciplined and talented New England secondary and Bill Belichick’s schemes. The Patriots continue to terrorize quarterbacks, as they did last season. Through two games, they have allowed only a 44.6 percent completion rate -- the best in the league.

The Steelers win by running the ball first, something they’ve been able to do with RB "Fast" Willie Parker, stepping in for injured Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis. However, the Patriots run defense has been terrific thus far against the Raiders and Panthers. The Panthers couldn’t run the ball Sunday and had just 250 total yards, so they appear primed to take on the Steelers run game. New England opened the season with their standard 4-3 defense, but after the Raiders ran well on the opening drive, they brought in DE Jarvis Green and changed to a 3-4, which then shut down the Oakland offense. Expect to see more of the 3-4 Sunday.

RB Duce Staley said he was close to playing but it still questionable for this week's game. Halfback Jerome Bettis is listed as doubtful again with a knee injury. However, the Patriots appear to have major problems on the offensive line, something that was not a concern last season. RB Corey Dillon has 99 total yards, just 2.7 yards per carry. Rookie G Logan Mankins has been playing like a rookie, and Stephen Neal had back spasms against Carolina and missed some of the game. The Pats running game and pass protection has been poor, so expect Blitzburgh to attack early and often. New England used an early reverse in last year’s playoff game to WR Deion Branch for a big game, something designed to throw off Pittsburgh’s aggressive defense. Look for some early reverses again by the Patriots.

Some interesting streaks are on the line, as well. The Patriots last lost two in a row in 2002 when they finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs. Roethlisberger is 15-0 in the regular season, 17-1 overall, with his only loss coming to the Patriots in last year's AFC Championship game. The Patriots often used a three-man rush with eight men back against Roethlisberger, and they usually had a linebacker as a ''spy." The Steelers have home field and a revenge-spot, having lost to New England in the AFC Championship. New England is 14-5 SU, 12-6-1 ATS its last 19 road games, though 0-1 SU/ATS this season. Also, the last four meetings between these teams (two last year) all went “overâ€쳌 the total. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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