Brady's Pats, Big Ben's Steelers chase Super Bowl history
New York (AFP)
Four-time champion Tom Brady's New England Patriots and two-time winner Ben Roethlisberger's Pittsburgh Steelers chase Super Bowl history in an NFL playoff showdown featuring two iconic quarterbacks.
Oddsmakers have installed host New England as a six-point favorite over the Steelers in the American Football Conference championship game.
The winner will become the first club to make a ninth Super Bowl appearance, facing either Green Bay or Atlanta in Super Bowl 51 next month in Houston.
The Steelers are on a nine-game win streak while the Patriots, who went an NFL-best 14-2 this season, have won eight in a row, neither team having lost since November 13.
"You are going up to the lion's den, the dragon's lair," Roethlisberger said. "They are the dragon. We are trying to slay them. It doesn't matter who it is, but they are the gold standard."
Brady, seeking his seventh Super Bowl trip since 2001, threw for 222 yards and two touchdowns in New England's 27-16 victory at Pittsburgh in October, but the Steelers were without injured "Big Ben."
"I think the game earlier in the season is not really that relevant," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "There's a lot of water under the bridge since then."
The Steelers are 5-0 in rematch games this season.
"I don't think it has anything to do with the second time around," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We're growing by leaps and bounds week-in and week-out."
While they haven't met in the playoffs since Roethlisberger's 2004 rookie season, Brady is 9-2 against Pittsburgh with 19 touchdown passes and no interceptions.
"We have to play our best game of the year," Brady said. "They put a lot of pressure on you in a lot of areas. They are tough to prepare for. We're going to have to just rise to the occasion."
Brady, 39, and Roethlisberger, 34, figure to steal the spotlight.
"It's two old guys playing this game for a long time," Roethlisberger said. "I think this is more than just the two of us. We're not playing tennis. It's bigger than us."
But the Patriots also offer LeGarrette Blount, who ran for 127 yards and two touchdowns against Pittsburgh in October, and a speedy receiver lineup that Brady often uses to pinpoint perfection.
"Just having him on the field, it gives everybody on the field a great deal of confidence," Patriots receiver Matthew Slater said. "Whenever you have a player like that, once a generation player, you're glad he's on your side."
- Will Bell toll on Patriots? -
Pittsburgh, whose 36 playoff wins are an NFL record, counters with Le'Veon Bell, who has averaged 146.5 yards in the past eight games.
But he faces a Patriots defensive unit that was third in the NFL against the run and allowed the fewest points. He ran for 81 yards on 21 carries against them in October.
"They play real well up front," Bell said. "They pride themselves on stopping the run. Last time we played them we weren't as aggressive running the ball as we are now. It should be an interesting game."
Bell ran for a club playoff record 170 yards last week.
"He's really a hard guy to tackle. He's got good vision, great patience, and he does a good job," Belichick said. "Defensively he really forces you to be disciplined. If you don't get a full body on him then he'll run right through those arm tackles."
- Will video flap hurt Brown? -
Steelers receiver Antonio Brown caught seven passes for 106 yards against the Patriots in October and ranked second in the NFL this season with 106 catches.
But his big splash this week was posting a video of Tomlin's locker room rant insulting the Patriots, which brought an unspecified punishment from the team.
"It was foolish of him to do that," Tomlin said.
The Patriots, making a record sixth consecutive conference final appearance, are 30-19 in the playoffs, with Brady leading them to four Super Bowl titles since 2001.
"For us, it's obviously going to be minimizing (Brady's) role and pressuring him," Steelers safety Mike Mitchell said. "We're going to have our hands full."
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