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NFL Tournament Breakdown: A Look at the AFC

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If you are a football fan and a thinking person, there is little reason for you to believe and almost no way for you to imagine the New England Patriots failing to reach the Super Bowl. Bold statement? Maybe...

But no more outrageous than the way Tom Brady was playing down the stretch of the regular season. The man threw 449 passes through 14 games and 12 victories, and only four were intercepted. Just as impressive, he threw a touchdown pass about once in every 14 attempts.
Numbers don’t mean nearly as much, however, as the fire in his eyes. He is playing like someone obsessed by the thought of winning a fourth Super Bowl – like his legacy depends on it (it doesn’t, by the way).
He gets in the face of his opponents; he screams at teammates when they make mistakes. The next thing you know, he’s going to pick a fight with Bill Belichick. (That would be worth the price of admission.)
The Super Bowl goes through New England this season. Sorry, Steelers fans.
That’s just the way it is.
Let’s examine the teams with the best chance to reach the Super Bowl XLV on Feb. 6, starting with …
THE PATRIOTS
Your argument against the Patriots might center on perceived deficiencies in the running game and the secondary and their 34-14 loss to the Browns on Nov. 7.
Let’s examine each element in brief.
Most Steelers fans never heard of Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis before this season, so they automatically dismiss him.
True, his numbers aren’t especially impressive, with 824 yards through 14 games.
But he also scored 12 touchdowns (that’s about one every outing), and he has a better yards-per-carry average (4.3) than Rashard Mendenhall (4.0). Earlier this season, he was good enough to average 4.8 yards per carry against the Steelers’ sturdy run defense. That’s good enough to beat anyone.
On the subject of pass defense, the Patriots are 31st in average yards allowed (next to last), but here is the difference between New England and everybody else:
Of the 32 teams in the NFL, 23 have allowed at least six passing plays of 40 yards or more. The Patriots? Two.
What does that tell you? It says that Belichick makes sure his players know their assignments so well that they rarely blow a coverage.
About that Browns game. Sorry, some things just defy explanation.
THE STEELERS
Anytime Ben Roethlisberger steps behind center, the Steelers have a chance to win. But he proved in the loss to the New York Jets, that he can’t do it all.
If only he could cover kickoffs, maybe the Steelers’ 17 points would have been enough to win the game.
Also, if the team ever learns how to properly protect Roethlisberger, it would have a better chance against the Patriots. Even after missing four games, Roethlisberger was sacked 26 times – more than 14 other quarterbacks. With Mendenhall rushing for 100 yards against the Jets—something that is supposed to make pass-blocking easier—Roethlisberger was sacked three times.
That’s no way to prepare for the playoffs.
By the way, have you noticed? The Steelers won in their past two Super Bowl appearances without having to face the Patriots in their playoff run. When the Patriots were at their best in 2001 and 2004, the Steelers couldn’t beat them.
If it’s any consolation (and it isn’t), the Steelers have the second-best team in the conference and should get a chance to savor New England in January, if not Dallas in February.
THE RAVENS
There is a lot to like about the Ravens: The slow, sure development of Joe Flacco as a top quarterback, the many and varied skills of running back Ray Rice and a defense that still can stop the run.
But the Baltimore pass defense should concern every Ravens fan. The numbers that matter are 314, 382, 316 and 393. Those are the yards thrown by quarterbacks Kyle Orton, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matt Ryan and Matt Schaub against the Ravens.
You’ll see only Ryan in the playoffs.
THE JETS
The victory against the Steelers in Heinz Field was impressive, but quarterback Mark Sanchez didn’t have to worry about Troy Polamalu.
Sanchez’s touchdown was a clever sleight of hand maneuver that duped a veteran defense, but it was the only time the Jets’ offense crossed the goal line in three games. This is just conjecture, but without Brad Smith’s kickoff return, the Steelers win the game.
The Jets’ running game just isn’t good enough to stand up to the Patriots, Steelers or Ravens when it really counts.

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