[wysifield-embeddedaudio|eid="519206"|type="embeddedaudio"|view_mode="full"]Bill Belichick and the Patriots now know the challenge they face next Sunday night at Gillette Stadium in the AFC Championship Game.
It comes in the form of a Pittsburgh Steelers team that has won nine-straight games thanks to a star-studded offense and a developing young defense.
Monday morning during yet another conference call with the New England media, Belichick had plenty of praise for the Pittsburgh playmakers on offense, a group led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Belichick also touched on a number of issues relating to his own team as it prepares for its NFL-record sixth straight AFC title game.
Here are some of the highlights from Belichick's morning conference call as he and his coaching staff hit the ground running preparing for Mike Tomlin's team.
1. Steelers "could easily have been in the 40s": Pittsburgh advanced to the title game in somewhat strange fashion. The team's Kill Bs playmakers – Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown -- put up huge numbers in Kansas City right out of the gates. But, the visiting Steelers never found the end zone and won 18-16 thanks to a record six field goals from a fourth B – kicker Chris Boswell. Still, it's clear the way that the Steelers have put up early offense against both the Dolphins and Chiefs in the playoffs that they present a dangerous challenge to the New England defense that will face a different beast than the Roethlisberger-less team the Patriots beat 27-16 back in October.
"They're really good," Belichick assessed. "They're a tremendous offense. Kansas City was able to make some plays in the red-area, but I mean they could've easily been up in the 40s last night. They do a lot of things well; can run it, can throw it. Brown's the main guy, but all of the receivers, tight ends, backs, I mean they're all a problem. Roethlisberger is really good, can make all of the throws. It looks like his mobility is good. They're doing a great job. They're a good offense."
2. "Team defense is the only way to stop" Bell: So far in a pair of postseason games Bell has rushed 59 times for 337 yards (5.7 avg.) and a pair of touchdowns. His unique, patient running style has been one of the major media talking points of the playoffs. He runs unlike almost any other player, often nearly stopping in the backfield before bursting forward when he sees an opportunity. It's a style that neither Miami nor Kansas City dealt with very well. It's something the Patriots impressive run defense must approach as a top priority come Sunday night.
"I think defensively he really forces you to be disciplined," Belichick said. "You jump out of there too quickly then you open up gaps and open up space. Le'Veon has a great burst through the hole. He doesn't really need long to get through there, runs with good pad level. He's hard to tackle so if you don't get a full body on him then he'll run right through those arm tackles. [He] really forces everybody to be sound in their gaps. Like I said, getting off and jumping around blocks or trying to get to the hole too quickly just opens up cut-back lanes or stays in the front somewhere and he does a great job of finding it. I mean team defense is the only way to stop it. There's no one guy that can stop him. You're going to have to have everybody doing a good job in a number of different areas all the way across the front and then do a good job of tackling."
3. Robert Kraft "gives me the latitude to do what I think is best": The Patriots prepare for the 11th AFC title game of the Belichick era in New England, looking to head to Houston for Super Bowl LI in search of a fifth Lombardi Trophy. Much of the dynastic success is rooted in the stability of the work environment in New England that permeates down from Robert Kraft, through Belichick and to the players, including Tom Brady. Monday morning, Belichick was asked what it was like to work for Kraft, and sounded quite grateful for the environment that's allowed the Patriots to be so successful over the years.
"Robert and his family have been very supportive of me, gave up a lot to get me here, and have been supportive for the years that I've been here," Belichick said. "Our facilities are good. Robert gives me the latitude to do what I think is best for the football team and I appreciate that. I appreciate the opportunity to do the things that I feel are best, make the decisions that I feel are best for the team. There's not a lot of interference, so I think that smooths it out on the football end. We have a lot of good people working for us in the organization."
"We seem to through the years have been able to be productive together," Belichick concluded with maybe the understatement of the year.