An interesting thing happens in the NFL Playoffs. The amount of media attention grows significantly with each passing round, while at the same time the number of games shrinks each week. By the time we get to the championship round there are only two games, and there is a massive hunger for content to fill airtime and real and virtual print space. That means that there is a whole lot of noise out there for bettors to wade through.
The more successful a bettor is at telling the difference between what really matters and what is just a distraction, the more successful that bettor is going to be at handicapping these games in the long term. Here, then, is a look at one key for each team, and one distraction to ignore, for both teams in Sunday's AFC Championship Game between the Steelers and Patriots.
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New England, for reference, is favored in this one by 5.5 points at home, and that is down slightly from where it opened. The total currently sits at 50.5. New England is the favorite to win the Super Bowl at BetOnline at +135, while Pittsburgh is the longest shot on the board currently at +500.
Key: The Steelers need to assert the advantage Ben Roethlisberger gives them at quarterback. The Patriots have faced a shockingly-weak string of quarterbacks over the last two months - Joe Flacco is the only one with even a pulse. The Patriots aren't going to be complacent or forget how to play against top pivots, but it will still be an edge for Pittsburgh if they can make a gameplan that makes the New England defense work like they haven't had to work lately. That means aggressive passing, using Big Ben's size, and making the offense less predictable than it has tended to be recently. This team has gone very far over the years by using their huge advantage at QB. They need to really remember that.
Distraction: This Antonio Brown controversy is stupid. It is dominating airwaves lately, but it ultimately will mean nothing. If you missed it, instead of paying attention during post-game meetings after the last playoff game, the star Pittsburgh receiver filmed comments by Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin with his phone and posted them to Facebook Live. They remained online while the team was flying home, and unflattering comments about the Pats by Tomlin made the video big news. Tomlin is mad. Roethlisberger has also voiced his frustration. But so what? First, it's only Tuesday, so do you expect feelings to remain hurt through until Sunday? These aren't toddlers. Second, what's really going to happen? The league can fine Brown and likely will, but they can't do anything else. So, are the Steelers going to suspend their offensive star? Is Big Ben consciously not going to throw to him? It's a bump in the road, but not one that will have any impact at all on the ultimate outcome of this game.
Key: Containing Le'Veon Bell. The Steelers' running back is a great player on a tear right now. He has set his team's all-time playoff single-game yardage record two games in a row and has had at least 118 yards in seven of his last eight games. He is driving his team right now, and the Steelers are really running their offense through him. This is a shamelessly run-focused offense right now. You aren't going to stop Bell entirely, and the Patriots don't need to. The Chiefs, despite the loss, showed what is possible, though. Bell rushed for 170 yards, but Pittsburgh managed just six field goals. They never found the endzone despite all of the ground yards. If New England can have similar success - or better - then they have an offense that will have much more luck than the Chiefs did. If there is just one matchup to look at in this game, it would unquestionably be this one.
Distraction: Brady's interceptions. Tom Brady threw as many interceptions against the Texans last game as he did in 12 games all season. So what? Are we suddenly supposed to feel like Brady has lost his edge? I sure don't think so. Pittsburgh was a mid-pack team this year with 13 interceptions in 16 regular-season games. They don't have a particular edge here, and it certainly is no lock that Brady will cough up turnovers two games in a row at home. Besides, both times Brady turned it over last game he shook it off like nothing had happened and came back strong. This is a non-factor.
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