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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Run D and offensive efficiency

New England faces a tough test on both sides of the ball from the streaking Steelers in Sunday night's AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium.



That's what stands between the Patriots (15-2) and a trip to Houston for Super Bowl LI.

But the one that's in the way of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick making a crazy seventh trip to the biggest game in all of sports comes in the form of a streaking Steelers (13-5) team led by Ben Roethlisberger and his elite offensive weapons.

A week after dispatching the overmatched Texans in somewhat ugly fashion, the Patriots know to a man that they must play better in what is clearly the biggest game of the season to date. And the biggest challenge.

Buoyed by their offensive playmakers and a budding young defense, Pittsburgh arrives in Foxborough on a nine-game winning streak.

The Steelers have a top-10 offense in terms of both yards and points, balanced out by a defense that finished 10th in the NFL in points allowed. The unit allowed 27-plus points four times in the first nine weeks, but has allowed more than 20 just twice in the last nine weeks, including the JV game season finale against Cleveland.

New England is on its own eight-game winning streak. It has the NFL's No. 3 scoring attack and No. 1 defense. 

When these two teams met earlier this season in Pittsburgh, the Patriots beat the Roethlisberger-less Steelers 27-16. But that was in the midst of a four-game Steelers losing streak. The team has changed a lot with the return of its quarterback and a youth movement on defense led by the likes of budding pass-rushing linebacker Bud Dupree as well as rookie defensive backs Artie Burns and Sean Davis.

PFW's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots AFC Championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

And while the week leading up to Sunday's historic battle started off with a social media furor thanks to Antonio Brown using Facebook Live to show Mike Tomlin's vulgar description of the Patriots in the postgame locker room in Kansas City, the sides clearly have a healthy respect for the other's talents.

Sunday night's winner will advance to a record ninth Super Bowl in team history. Big Ben is chasing his third Super Bowl ring, while TB12 seeks his fifth Lombardi Trophy, which would all but close the door on the conversation regarding the best quarterback in NFL history.

History is very much on the line Sunday night in this battle with two of the most historically successful teams in NFL history. There is talent littered throughout both rosters on both sides of the ball. The teams have the clear capability to make plays in all three phases. 

Regardless of how you measure it, the AFC title game has all the makings of a classic battle. 

"I think the team's done a good job understanding who we're playing against, how they play, why they win. We're playing a great football team. It's going to take our best three hours of the season against our biggest challenge all season. Hopefully we're up for it," Brady concluded.

Here are some of the keys to keep an eye on as the Patriots and Steelers fight for the right to head to Houston for Super Bowl LI.

Crack the Bell - Le'Veon Bell is probably the best running back in the game today. He's certainly the most unique. He runs with a patience and style that would get most high school backs benched by their coaches. But it works for Bell, especially in conjunction with the way his line blocks for him. He's tallied 29 and 30 attempts in each of the first two weeks of the postseason for 167 and 170 yards, respectively. He's key the Steelers getting out to hot starts in wins over the Dolphins and Chiefs, Pittsburgh scoring on its first three drives in each of the games. Bell is the centerpiece of the offense for Big Ben to build off of. The Patriots have had an impressive run defense all year, finishing tied for No. 3 in the NFL. The group hasn't allowed a rushing touchdown since before Jamie Collins was traded, a string of nine games. Alan Branch and Co. have been stout up front. But Bell is a unique challenge. Some Patriots posed the possibility of being aggressive and trying to get penetration to get to Bell when the back hesitates in the backfield. Others have talked about two-gapping and playing patient at the line to keep from giving him lanes to run through. New England's style and success stopping Bell will be a focal point early on Sunday night. If Bell gets going - he has topped 100 yards in seven of the last eight games he's played in - it could be a long night for the New England defense. But if the unit cracks the codes to containing the back it will be a strong first step toward derailing the Steelers.

Fall in line - The Patriots offensive issues last week against Houston can be traced to struggles with interior line play and pass protection. The Texans got favorable matchups with David Andrews (and his guards) and won those battles to get pressure on Brady and cause the passing game to sputter. Clearly Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler is aware of what happened. He could try to do similar things with Harrison or Dupree. New England's line and its protection schemes need to be better this week. Even if Harrison and Dupree remain on the edges, they are dangerous weapons who have been playing well to open the playoffs. Dante Scarnecchia's line has been a positive story all season, but that was not the case last week as Houston won the battle up front. The Patriots line needs a bounce back week to let Brady and his fellow skill players get their jobs done.

Undercover work - The depth of the Pittsburgh passing attack is dubious. Brown is arguably the best running back in the NFL. He's opened the postseason with consecutive 100-yard games. And given his social media miscue the diva performer in him will clearly be looking to put on a show Sunday night. Brown has been matched up by Malcolm Butler in the last couple battles between the teams. Brown reached 100 yards in those games, though Butler made him work for it. Given the Steelers limited crop of weapons - tight end Jesse James had five catches for 83 yards in Kansas City, while Eli Rogers is another target and tight end Ladarius Green has been trying to work back from a concussion and illness - New England's focus on pass defense will be on Brown. Will Butler get the call again, likely with help from a safety? Or could Logan Ryan be part of the double team plan? There is also the chance the Patriots play sides and just double Brown wherever he goes. New England's pass defense that has felt disrespected over recent years can prove something by taking Brown out of the game.

Health check - The Patriots are relatively healthy, with all players practicing and just seven guys limited this week. The biggest question for New England probably comes at the wide receiver position. Malcolm Mitchell has missed the last two games with a knee injury. Danny Amendola saw limited work in his first game back after missing more than a month to an ankle. And Chris Hogan left last weekend's win over Houston with a thigh injury. All three may play but might also be limited. Mix in the fact that Michael Floyd is a newcomer to the offense and Brady may not have a full complement of options to turn to at receiver beyond Julian Edelman, who's been carrying a huge load the last few weeks. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, is dealing with issues all over the team. The Steelers had a long injury report all week. Bell missed two days to reported "personal reasons." Harrison did not practice on Thursday. And reports indicate members of the team were dealing with an illness. Not ideal on a short playoff week leading up to a tough road game. The Patriots are the healthier team and that could be a major positive on Sunday night if the illness remains an issue with the Steelers.

Passing zone - The Patriots passing game was disjointed and nothing like what we generally expect against the Texans solid defense. Belichick referred to much of the work in the first half as Brady throwing up "prayers." The Steelers have had plenty of problems stopping Brady over the years - TB12 has notched a passer rating of more than 100 in his last six games against the Steelers, with 19 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Pittsburgh also has a couple rookies playing key starting roles in the back end, fresh meat for Brady to potentially pick on. But the reality is that the passing game for New England just needs to look more like itself. That means someone other than Edelman needs to step up with more consistency. Dion Lewis needs to be more efficient than his two catches on seven targets last week. Martellus Bennett needs to catch more than one ball and actually be a weapon, almost regardless of his knee injury. The Patriots still have depth of weapons and talent in the passing game, but that group as a whole needs to come together better against a solid but not great pass defense. Josh McDaniels could turn to an up-tempo look to tire out a Steelers team that doesn't do a lot of substituting. Brady and Co. can come up big with a fast start and a more Patriots-like performance through the air.

Home-field advantage - The Patriots have one of the more impressive home resumes in the NFL. They earned the chance to host the AFC title game and need to take advantage of the situation, even if Belichick downplayed the value of playing at home with his comments during the week. Roethlisberger, on the other hand, has not been nearly as good on the road as at home this year. Eight of his 13 interceptions came on the road during the regular season. He had five different games completing less than 60 percent of his passes on the road. Brady and Belichick are great anywhere, but they are almost unbeatable at home. Historically New England is 5-1 all time at home in AFC title games. Use the comfort of the home crowd and the home-field advantage to earn a trip to down the Super Bowl road to Houston.

Prediction - There are endless statistics, storylines and ways to break down what should be a fun AFC title game. Hall of Fame quarterbacks lead talented teams into battle with it all on the line. It should make for an entertaining night. The Steelers are hot on offense, even after being forced to kick six field goals to beat the Chiefs. As Belichick himself acknowledged, Pittsburgh just as easily could have scored 40 at Arrowhead. The Patriots on the other hand played poorly and put up 30 points. But the margin for error is much lower this week for both teams. The competition will be higher. Brady should be able to throw on Pittsburgh's young pass defense if he has the time to work. Scarnecchia has likely been working all week to get a better performance from his group. The New England running game needs to be better than it has been in the last couple weeks as a group, something Brady didn't have to help him out a year ago in the title game. Defensively the Patriots have an obvious three-headed challenge to defense. If you take care of Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown and still lose then you may just have to tip your cap to Pittsburgh. But that's not likely to happen. In the end, if the Patriots are likely to take care of the ball coming off the sloppy game against Houston, which should lay a foundation for victory. It won't be easy. Pittsburgh will likely put up points and make plays on offense. The Steelers defense may not simply roll over. But it just doesn't seem smart to bet against Belichick, Brady and the diverse Patriots at home with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. So, look for a 27-24 victory for New England to earn a shot at another Super Bowl ring in Houston. Turnovers, red zone and big plays will be key. The Patriots should fight, survive and advance to play #OneMore.

What do you think of our keys? Let us know with a comment below!

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