Fuller House Blows: Pittsburgh Steelers @ New England Patriots AFC Conference Championship Preview

By Ha Kung Wong 

Twitter: @FBGarbageTime

Some of you probably remember the sitcom “Full House”, which ran from 1987 to 1995.

If you don’t remember it, you probably at least know that Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, aka the infamous “Olsen Twins”, got their start on that show taking turns playing the same character, Michelle Tanner, because child labor laws prohibited really young child actors from putting in all those hours to make a sitcom.  Go figure.  But who knew that those cute and funny twins would become…well…whatever the heck they are now.

“Full House” vs. “WTF Happened?” Mary-Kate and Ashley – ABC Photos

Plus Mary-Kate is bizarrely married to French banker Olivier Sarkozy, the half-brother of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.  How random is that?  I’ll spare you a picture though.  Some things you can’t unsee…

You might also know that John Stamos’ career was launched with this show.  And while we all might debate whether launching John Stamos’ career was actually a good thing or a crime against humanity, the fact remains that “Full House” did impact us in some way, even if you never watched the show.  Which is one of the reasons I hate the Netflix-only sequel, “Fuller House”.

As you know, I’m probably more nostalgic than most sane people when it comes to pop culture, as you’ve probably noticed from my compulsion to refer to Star Wars as much as possible (See?  I did it again!).  But this sequel was appallingly bad, so much so that I started to doubt my fond recollection of the original show and wonder if some network exec had cast some sort of spell on me to make me THINK I liked “Full House” back in the day.  Turns out, though, that I wasn’t alone in my hatred, as is evidence from this review from Vulture by Margaret Lyons:

“The first four minutes of ‘Fuller House’ are four of the most excruciating TV minutes ever broadcast; shrill, garish, unfunny, and further poisoned by the live audience’s baffling apparent appetite to hear the catchphrases of the show repeated now, in modernity. ‘How rude’ elicits applause. Future societies will have no choice but to judge us harshly for our sins.”

Bravo, Ms. Lyons, bravo.  And all was right in the world again for about the last year, until I found out that “Fuller House” actually just WON a People’s Choice Award for “Favorite Premium Comedy Series”.  PEOPLE’S CHOICE?  For real?  My faith in humanity has slipped to an all time low, but at least we have these mediocre bloopers from the People’s Choice Awards to make us feel better.  Kinda.

Anyway, the point is, sometimes things are best left in the past and remembered as something better than they were.  The question is, for the AFC Conference Championship game, will that thing left behind be the Steelers or the Patriots?

AFC Conference Championship Game

No. 3 Pittsburgh Steelers @ No. 1 New England Patriots

Sunday | 6:40 PM ET | CBS

Over/Under 50.5

Patriots favored by 6

Both the Steelers and the Patriots have had a significant impact on NFL history.

The Steelers have won the Super Bowl a whopping 6 times.  This includes 4 times from 1975 to 1980 and most recently in 2006 and 2009.  And Big Ben was there for two of them.  In fact, Ben’s 2006 win also got him in the record books as the youngest QB to ever win a Super Bowl at 23 years and 11 months old.

In the Divisional Playoffs, the Steelers managed a narrow victory over the Chiefs at Arrowhead by kicking a record setting 6 field goals.  And although they won, getting the field goal record without a single TD isn’t exactly the type of record you’re aiming for in the playoffs.

The Patriots don’t have as long a history of winning, but do have 4 Super Bowls all in the last 16 years, most recently in a 2014 via a very memorable interception at the end of the game.  And lo and behold, guess who is the second youngest QB to ever win a Super Bowl?  You guessed it, Mr. “Gisele Bundchen” himself, Tom Brady, who won Super Bowl XXXVI at 24 years and 6 months old.

Tom Brady likes Super Bowl Rings.

In the Divisional Playoffs, the Patriots ended up covering the 16 point spread, beating the Texans 34 to 16.  But they didn’t really pull away until late in the game, as the Texans were within one score into the beginning of the 4th quarter.  In fact, the Patriots looked almost mortal as Brady only had 2 INTs all season, but had 2 INTs against the stout Texans defense (both on tip drills).  In addition, the Patriots solid ground game was nowhere to be seen as all of the Patriots RBs combined for only 72 total rush yards on 21 total carries.  Dion Lewis managed to play the hero, though, with 3 total TDs — 1 rushing, 1 receiving and 1 kick return for a TD.  The question is whether the Steelers have learned anything from watching the Patriots contend with the Texans, particularly where the Texans managed to hit Brady 8 times and disrupt the normally unflappable offense.

Round 1 – “Oh, Mylanta!” (Yes, this is a “Full House” reference.)

As has been the theme in the AFC side of the playoffs, these two teams actually met already in the regular season.  In Week 7, the Patriots beat the Steelers 27-16 at Heinz Field, handing the Steelers their first home loss of the season.

Landry Jones

Of course, the score doesn’t tell the whole story. The Steelers were within 1 point at 14-13 in the 3rd quarter when the Patriots broke away with two big runs by Blount and a big 36-yard TD by Gronkowski.  The Steelers, on the other hand, scored only 1 TD in 4 trips to the red zone.  But with all this, keep in mind that Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t playing, it was backup Landry Jones behind center.  So it’s unclear how different this game would have been had Ben been directing traffic.

At the end of the day, a win is a win, and Brady is now 9-2 all time against Steelers.  So history is clearly on the Patriots’ side for the AFC Conference Championship.  But as I’ve mentioned in past weeks, that was a long time ago now.  Will Ben and the Steelers have learned enough to put the breaks on the red hot Patriots at Foxborough?

Round 2 – “Full House” or “Fuller House”?

Steelers Offense

At end of the regular season, even without playing in Week 17, Roethlisberger had the 5th most passing TDs per game (2.1), Brown had the 4th most receiving yards per game (85.6), 2nd most receiving TDs per game (0.8) and most receptions per game (7.1) and Bell had 2nd most rush yards per game (105.7), most carries per game (21.8), 2nd most receiving yards for a RB per game (51.3), and most receptions for a RB per game (6.1) in the NFL.  In fact, Bell became the 1st player in NFL history to average at least 100 rushing and 50 receiving yards per game in a season.

So, in short, the Steelers were red hot rolling into the playoffs.  The Steelers average the 7th most offensive yards per game (372.6) and have the 4th best rushing offense and the 8th best passing offense per Football Outsiders DVOA.

Le’Veon Bell & Ben Roethlisberger

A major reason for this is the offensive line, which is the 4th best in pass protection per Adjusted Sack Rate (sacks plus intentional grounding penalties per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent), allowing the second least sacks in the NFL (21), and the 4th best at run blocking, with only 15 percent of runs where the RB is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage.

So far in the playoffs, the Steelers blew out Miami at home, then struggled against the Chiefs on the road.  As I predicted last week, this could be due to Roethlisberger’s striking home/road splits, in that he’s much less effective on the road.

Again for your reference, here are his 2016 splits for home and away.

__________________

Completion %

Touchdowns

Interceptions

Passer Rating

Home

70.8

20

5

116.7

Away

59.4

9

8

78.4

Roethlisberger had similar splits in 2015 as well, so it can no longer be attributed to chance.  Whether it has to do with field conditions, weather, fan support, comfort level or something more psychological is unclear.  But what is clear is that Ben is not the same QB on the road as he is at home.

Patriots Defense

Although the Patriots are most known for their unstoppable offense, their defense has been solid all season long as well.

The Patriots only have the 16th ranked total defense per DVOA this season, but they have the 11th ranked weighted defense, which weighs more recent performances above those from earlier in the season to better reflect how the defense is doing at the end of the regular season as opposed to an average over all 16 games.  But even looking over the season as a whole, the Patriots have allowed the least amount of points to opponents per game (15.6) in regular season.

In fact, the Patriots run defense has been particularly effective, as they ranked 4th in the league per DVOA, have allowed only 6 rushing touchdowns (best in the league) while forcing 8 fumbles on running plays and were one of just three teams to not allow a single 100-yard rusher this season.  Of course, they’ll face Bell, who had almost 6 yards per carry against the Chiefs in the Divisional Playoffs, but they’re certainly no push over.

More problematic for the Patriots will be their 23rd ranked pass defense per DVOA.   Worse is that the Patriots are only 20th defending WR1s and 20th defending RB targets, meaning that two of the big 3, Brown and Bell, have plenty of opportunity.

Patriots Offense

Do we have to talk about the Patriots offense?  Clearly, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are one of the most unstoppable duos in NFL history.  The Patriots have lost only one game this season with Brady under center, and that was back in Week 10 to the Seahawks.  Since then, the Patriots have barely had to sweat.

They have the 1st ranked weighted offense and 2nd ranked total offense per DVOA.  They scored the 3rd most points per game (27.6), have the 4th most total yards per game (386.3), got the 5th most total 1st downs (351) and have the 4th highest 3rd down conversion rate (45.8) in the NFL.  And regardless of who they have behind center, they’re pass offense has been deadly, ranked 2nd per DVOA this season.

If there’s a weakness, it’s their 17th ranked run offense per DVOA.  LaGarrette Blount has been incredibly solid pacing all RBs with 18 rushing TDs this season, and Dion Lewis’ return has bolstered the backfield significantly, but the ground game significantly under performed in the Divisional Playoffs.

LaGarrette Blount & Tom Brady – Boston Herald Photo

But regardless, the Patriots have highest net yards per drive, which means that for every set of offensive and defensive drives, the Patriots outgain their opponent by an average of 6.66 yards, with 74.2% of offensive drives leading to at least a first down or a touchdown, good for 5th best in the NFL.  And the Patriots know how to hold on to the ball as they have the 5th highest average time of possession (31:13).

If you look at their games as a whole, they average 44:03 minutes per game in the lead and only trail an average of 8:06 minutes per game.  Both are best in the NFL.  In other words, the Patriots aren’t used to playing from behind.

Plus, the Patriots offense only has 0.046 turnovers per drive, also good for best in the NFL.  In fact, they have the least number of giveaways (11) of any team in the NFL during the regular season and, as compared to takeaways, they have a whopping +12 turnover ratio over the course of the season.

And if all that wasn’t intimidating enough, the Patriots are tied for 3rd least total penalties (93) and 4th least number of total offensive penalty yards (819).

Said another way, the Patriots are crazy good on offense and rarely make mistakes.  So what can the Steelers do on defense to neutralize this?

Steelers Defense

The Steelers have adjusted their defense to account for the lost of Cam Heyward, and a significant part of their current success is due to 2nd round 2014 draft pick, Stephon Tuitt.  In fact, Tuitt was named AFC Defensive Player of Week 11 with his 6 tackles and 2.5 sacks against the Browns.  The Steelers are tied for the 7th most sacks (38) for the 7th most lost yards (259) and are tied for allowing the 5th least passing TDs (20) this season.

All of this will come into play on Sunday, as the Steelers will need to have an effective pass rush to disrupt Brady.  We know it can be done, as the Giants did it twice with significant edge pressure in two Super Bowls, and the Texans were able to hit Brady 8 times with inside pressure.  Bud Dupree and James Harrison, who’s had 2.5 sacks in the postseason so far but is nursing both shoulder and triceps injuries, will need to play a near perfect game if they want any shot at a W.

On the ground, the Steelers have the 9th best rush defense per DVOA in the NFL.  The Steelers were gauged by Blount’s long runs in their first meeting, and will have to avoid that and contain Dion Lewis and James White if they want to stay competitive.

Keys to the Game
  • Turnovers.  The Patriots don’t normally commit them, but we saw what the Texans were able to do last week.  The Steelers will need to follow suite and make the Patriots uncomfortable on offense with inside pressure on Brady.
  • Ball Control.  Long drives behind Le’Veon Bell will be important to keeping the high powered Patriots offense off the field and maintain field position on non-scoring drives.
  • The Red Zone.  6 field goals in a playoff game is impressive, but trading field goals with the Patriots is not a recipe for success.  The Patriots will score TDs, and the Steelers will have to do the same.  On the flip side, since 2015, the Steelers defense has allowed opposing offenses to score an average of only 3.74 points per red zone trip, lowest in football.  If the Steelers can hold the Patriots to a few field goals instead of TDs during red zone trips, they’ll keep themselves in the game.
  • Will “Home” or “Away” Ben show up?  If “Away” Ben shows up, the Steelers have little chance of beating the Patriots.
Prediction

The Patriots hold court against a serious offensive effort from the Steelers and proceed on to yet ANOTHER Super Bowl.

Patriots win, and cover the spread.

I also predict that the Olsen twins manage to earn another Billion dollars this year.  You can take that one to the bank.

Yikes. I miss the baby Olsen Twins…

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