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Scouting the Matchup: Containing Bell the key

WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN

LeGarrette Blount dealt with an illness during preparation for last week's game against the Texans and was largely ineffective, rushing for only 31 yards and getting stuffed for no gain on his only goal-line attempt. But a healthy Blount, coupled with the explosive Dion Lewis, gives New England a chance to move the chains against Pittsburgh's 13th-ranked defense. The Steelers finished strong against the run thanks to the in-season development of linebacker Ryan Shazier, first-round pick Bud Dupree and former second-round pick Stephon Tuitt, and boasted an impressive 10-1 record when holding opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards. The Steelers are also strong in the red zone, where they ranked fourth defensively during the regular season. Blount and Lewis need to be better Sunday than they were against Houston.* Advantage: STEELERS*

WHEN THE STEELERS RUN

This is shaping up to be an impressive matchup of strengths. New England's run defense has excelled over the past two months thanks to the strong play of the front seven, particularly unheralded defensive tackle Alan Branch.  He joins Malcom Brown and rookie Vincent Valentine, who has earned the trust of the coaching staff as a key part of the rotation, at defensive tackle. Pittsburgh counters with Le'Veon Bell, who finished fifth in the league in rushing despite playing only 12 games and has been outstanding in the postseason, including a two-touchdown, 167-yard effort against Miami followed by 170 yards against Kansas City. The Patriots have only allowed 100 or more rushing yards twice in their last seven games, but Bell closed the regular season with 100 or more yards in five of his last six and is riding an impressive playoff hot streak entering Sunday. Advantage: STEELERS

WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS

After finishing 30th out of 32 teams last year in pass defense, the Steelers improved in 2016 by limiting big plays and ditching an ineffective outside linebacker rotation midway through the season, instead leaning heavily on veteran James Harrison and first-round pick Bud Dupree to anchor the pass rush. Dupree returned from injured reserve in Week 10 and the Steelers haven’t lost since. The Steelers finished 16th against the pass and excelled at forcing turnovers down the stretch, including an interception and a pair of strip sacks against Miami. With Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola battling various injuries, the Patriots will rely on Julian Edelman and the running back duo of Lewis and James White to contribute in the passing game. The Patriots also need to shore up some pass-protection issues from the Houston game to allow Tom Brady to rebound from an uncharacteristically erratic performance in the divisional round. His protection will be the key to taking advantage of the young Pittsburgh secondary. Advantage: PATRIOTS

WHEN THE STEELERS PASS

Ben Roethlisberger is a savvy, battle-tested veteran with one of the league's most prolific wide receivers, Antonio Brown, and second-year pro Eli Rogers at his disposal, but New England's secondary might be the hottest defensive unit in the league entering conference championship weekend. The Patriots have forced 17 turnovers in their last seven games dating back to the regular season, including three interceptions against Brock Osweiler last weekend. They're also dialing up more pressure on third down and have improved drastically in recent weeks. Brown and Rogers each averaged more than 12 yards per catch this season. Bell is a major factor in the passing game, too, after finishing second on the team with 75 catches, but Logan Ryan and Devin McCourty have been stellar in solidifying the secondary in the second half of the season. Advantage: PATRIOTS

SPECIAL TEAMS

Lewis' playoff debut against Houston included a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, which will make him a player to watch come Sunday in the return game. Lewis also fumbled on a kickoff return later in the game, a recurring problem for the Patriots, who fumbled more than any team in the NFL this season. The Steelers were awful on special teams all season, ranking near the bottom of the league in punt and kick return yards allowed, but they redeemed themselves against Kansas City by shutting down dynamic return man Tyreek Hill and riding the right leg of kicker Chris Boswell, who provided all the team's scoring with six field goals. The field-position battle will be critical in this game, and New England's ability to make big plays in the return game could be the difference. Advantage: PATRIOTS

OTHER FACTORS

The Steelers never got the chance to show New England what they were made of in October with Roethlisberger missing the game due to injury, but even though he'll be active in Sunday's rematch, he has had limited success against the Patriots in his career. Roethlisberger is just 1-3 at Gillette Stadium, with the only win occurring in 2008, the year Brady missed 15 games with a knee injury. Roethlisberger also threw three interceptions in his only playoff start against the Patriots, albeit more than a decade ago in the 2004 AFC Championship, and has been largely ineffective on the road this season in comparison to his gaudy home numbers. The Patriots rarely lose at home in the playoffs and appear poised to earn their seventh trip to the Super Bowl during the Bill Belichick era. Advantage: PATRIOTS

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