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X-Factors for both the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game

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Which players could swing the AFC Championship Game to their team’s side with a big performance?

Patriots Offense: WR Julian Edelman

The Steelers are primarily a zone based team, which means the route running needs to be precise and Brady needs to avoid leading his players too much. The Steelers also love to blitz, which makes Edelman a key target on 3rd downs. In the Patriots Week 7 win, Edelman was running crossing routes over the middle of the field, often drawing a linebacker in coverage. Early on, we’ll see the Patriots utilize those crossing routes to probe the Steelers defense. Edelman wound up with 9 catches for 60 yards with Lawrence Timmons being the unfortunate LB to cover him all day. The Patriots need Edelman to continue to produce as he’s done since their bye week. If Edelman has a 100-yard game and 10+ catches, the Patriots should have no problem scoring 30 points. Edelman should have a big game on Sunday.

Patriots Defense: ED Rob Ninkovich

For the Patriots, stopping the run is likely the first priority, but they also have to apply pressure to Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger hasn’t been very good on the road this year, but the Patriots cannot allow the Steelers to control the time of possession like they let the Houston Texans do in the 2nd quarter of the Divisional Round. I’m very confident that the interior run defense will do their job, the question is if the edge rushers can hold the edge and keep Le’Veon Bell from bouncing outside and pick up larger chunks. The reason Nink is called out here is because of his ability to make that 1 or 2 game-changing plays that flips the game to the Patriots. Last week, it was a 3rd down sack on the Texans’ 2nd drive of the game and a holding call drawn in the 3rd quarter that stalled a Texans drive. While Nink is clearly not the same player he was 2011-13, he’s still able to positively impact the game with those 1 or 2 plays that he’s done throughout his Patriots career.

Patriots Special Teams: P Ryan Allen

When going against one of the better offenses in the league, field position is going to have to be very important. The Patriots have a significant special teams edge over the Steelers, who are average as a unit. The Patriots have done a great job all year in setting up their defense with long fields to defend, although the offense did the defense no favors last week. The key will be to force the Steelers to take long drives to score, because I don’t think Roethlisberger can manage a drive without making a mistake at some point, especially on the road. Matthew Slater, Jonathan Jones, and Nate Ebner need to be able to cover Allen’s punts, although they’ve been doing that all season, and not allow any Steelers to bust out a big punt return. Directional punting and good hang time will allow the coverage to do what it does best.

Steelers Offense: WR Eli Rogers

When your offense is being carried by Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, those are the first two things Bill Belichick will take away from the Steelers. For the Steelers it comes down to their 3rd, 4th, and 5th options to win. That means Eli Rogers will need to have a big day for the Steelers. Rogers lines up primarily from the slot, which means he’ll likely draw Logan Ryan in coverage. Ryan has been very stingy of late, which means every play that Rogers gets will be earned. While the Steelers 4th and 5th options include TE Jesse James and WR Cobi Hamilton/Sammie Coates, the Patriots aren’t going to lose sleep over having to defend either of them. If RTogers is able to move the chains, that will allow the Steelers to control the ball and put points up on the Patriots defense. Logan Ryan needs to prevent that from happening.

Steelers Defense: LB Ryan Shazier

The Steelers love to blitz and they have one of the fastest linebackers in the league in Ryan Shazier. The Patriots have to be ready for when the Steelers send both ILBs on a Cross-Dog blitz, a Steelers specialty. The Patriots can counter this by using their RBs to pick up those blitzes or attempt to move him away from the line of scrimmage. While Shazier is a good blitzer and downhill run defender, he’s not going to keep up with Dion Lewis or James White in space even if Shazier can run in a straightline better than Lewis or White. The Patriots IOL has to be ready for the Steeler blitzes and be able to get to the 2nd level on runs so they can put a hat on those linebackers and allow Blount to run over them. If the linebackers are forced to play coverage, that could create matchups for the Patriots offense with their RBs.

Steelers Special Teams: Antonio Brown

Brown is likely going to be returning punts for the Steelers and he’s equally as dangerous in that department as he is after the catch as a receiver. While Brown hasn’t busted a big return of late, the Patriots punt coverage unit needs to be on their A-game so he doesn’t. The key for the Patriots will be forcing long fields for the Steelers, so the punt coverage cannot allow a big punt return to give the Steelers good field position. Ryan Allen can make things difficult for Brown with directional punts with good hang time.