Fearless Rick's NFL Football Picks - Conference late game

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Conference Championship NFL Playoff Picks- late game

All times Eastern

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Sunday, January 22

6:40 pm Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots (-5 1/2, 50 1/2) - Resilient is the word that best describes the Pittsburgh Steelers. Once 4-5 and in danger of not reaching the playoffs, Pittsburgh reeled off seven straight wins to close out the season with an 11-5 record and the championship of the AFC North division.

By contrast, the Patriots easily cruised to the AFC East crown, their 14-2 record giving them a first week bye and home field throughout the playoffs, upon which they capitalized, defeating the Houston Texas in somewhat of a laugher, 34-16, last week. The only losses suffered by New England this season were a 16-0 defeat by Buffalo in the 4th and final week of Tom Brady's four-week suspension and a 31-24 loss to Seattle in week 10. Like the Steelers, the Patriots finished out the regular season with seven consecutive victories.

New England will be making an historic sixth straight trip to the conference championship, hoping to once again end up in the ultimate game two weeks hence, the 51st Super Bowl.

The current match-up is compelling for a number of reasons, not the least of which concerns Pittsburgh running back Le'Veon Bell and his stutter-stepping running style which led to 1268 yards rushing during the regular season and 337 in two post-season games. It will be incumbent on the Patriot defenders to bottle up the elusive Bell, because not doing so keeps the ball away from Tom Brady, the Patriot quarterback who just may be the best of all time at the most important position on the field.

Pittsburgh also has a quite capable QB in Ben Roethlisberger, and he has a superb target in Antonio Brown, who was fifth overall in receiving yards during the regular season, with 1284, so Pittsburgh is not at all one-dimensional and will pose a real threat to the Patriots. New England finished the regular season atop the league in points allowed, giving up, on average, just 15.6 per game. Pittsburgh was 10th, at 20.4.

Statistics may well be meaningless in this contest, as the two teams are very evenly matched despite a 27-16 regular season win by the Patriots at Pittsburgh on October 23rd. That game can be discounted, however, as Roethlisberger was sidelined, the offense led by backup, Landry Jones. With Big Ben behind center this week, expect a much closer result, which is why, given the 5 1/2 point line, Pittsburgh is the choice, possibly winning, but almost certainly losing by no more than four points.

It's tough to go against New England at home or at any point in the playoffs. They're almost certainly the most disciplined team in the league and with Tom Brady at quarterback, virtually unbeatable. Pittsburgh does offer enough firepower, defensive savvy, and playoff experience to give the Patriots as rough a time as they've had all season.

Coin Flip: Pittsburgh

Rick's Pick: Steelers 30 Patriots 28

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