AFC Championship Game Preview: Can Tom Brady Lead the Patriots to Another Super Bowl?

Brady is on the verge of his seventh Super Bowl appearance, but must get past Big Ben and the Steelers before punching a ticket to Houston.

Just when we thought it couldn't get much better than a Green Bay Packers-Atlanta Falcons NFC Championship game, that's just the appetizer on Sunday.

While that could be an offensive shootout of epic proportions, there's an intriguing AFC Championship showdown between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots immediately following it.

Can Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers win their third playoff game in three weeks, or will it be New England advancing to their seventh Super Bowl in 16 seasons?

Quarterback Breakdown

Seemingly defying Father Time, Tom Brady continues to produce at an incredibly high level, even in his age-39 season.

Among the 34 signal-callers with 200 or more drop backs during the regular season, he ranked second in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back (0.35). His performance against the Houston Texans in the divisional round wasn't one of Brady's more memorable playoff performances -- he completed less than 50% of his passes for 283 yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, which was the same number of picks he threw during the entire regular season.

Roethlisberger also had a great regular season, finishing seventh in Passing NEP per drop back among the 34 quarterbacks with 200 or more drop backs (0.23). He did struggle against the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round last week, though, passing for only 224 yards and 1 interception. This rough performance continued shedding light on his home/road splits.

Both quarterbacks will need to step up if they want to punch a ticket to Houston.

Running Back Play

LeGarrette Blount isn't the most efficient runner, as his 0.00 Rushing NEP per play during the regular season shows (15th among 33 running backs with 100-plus carries). He did still provide a strong presence on the ground for New England by racking up 1,161 yards while leading the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns.

However, Dion Lewis has emerged as a very large threat in the Patriots backfield. He missed quite a bit of time in the regular season, but has come out in beast mode over the past few weeks.

He started the day with a receiving touchdown, added a score on the ground, and for good measure, threw in the above kickoff return. He should be a major factor this weekend.

For the Steelers, Le'Veon Bell is one of the best of the game and has perhaps been even better during the playoffs. During the regular season, he ranked fifth with a 0.07 Rushing NEP per play among running backs with at least 200 attempts. He also added 75 catches and a Reception NEP per target of 0.47.

In Pittsburgh's two playoff wins, Bell has rushed for 337 yards and 2 scores on a combined 63 touches.

Defensive Matchup

While there's plenty of skill on offense for both these squads, it's easy to forget they're also a pair of decent defensive units.

Using our adjusted per-play metrics, the Patriots rank 11th overall, checking in at 12th against the pass and slightly better against the run (8th).

With an overall ranking of 19th, the Steelers don't seem to be nearly as strong -- especially since they come in 21st against the pass and 15th against the run. This can be a bit misleading, though.

Prior to their current nine-game winning streak, Pittsburgh ranked as the 26th-best defensive unit, and their recent ability to reach the quarterback has certainly helped them improve.

Historical Comparisons

According to our models, there's a game with a 90.7% correlation, and it's a 2015 regular-season tilt between the Baltimore Ravens and the Denver Broncos.

No one is going to remember this game for its offensive prowess -- the two teams combined for only 392 yards of total offense.

But in the end, Peyton Manning and the Broncos did just enough to squeak out a 19-13 win.

In this matchup, the Broncos would serve the role as the Patriots, winning outright, covering the spread, and hitting the under.

To see who our algorithm thinks is going to win this AFC Championship showdown and the likelihood of the spread being covered, you can find all those details right here.