The AFC Championship game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots in Foxborough, Massachusetts is tomorrow. This is the Patriots sixth straight AFC Championship Game appearance and is the first appearance for the Steelers in six years. According to CBS, the Patriots are six-point favorites and are picked to win the game by many other experts.
The Steelers are currently on a nine-game winning streak and are arguably playing their best football all season. However, Steelers quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, has not been at his best during the winning streak. In his last nine games, Roethlisberger has, threw less than 200 yards twice in the streak, three multiple interception games, not had a 300-yard passing game. He has specifically has struggled on the road, with an average passer rating of 67.8 in his last three road games. With Roethlisberger's struggles, can the Steelers pull off the upset against the Patriots?
During the Steelers win streak, Roethlisberger is the only part of the team that has not been performing. Running back Le’Veon Bell has had over 100 yards from scrimmage in each game, broke the Steelers’ single-game postseason rushing record in back-to-back games, and has been the heart of the Steelers offense. He is also the key to the Steelers winning the game. The Patriots offense is so potent that the Steelers need to control the clock and possession. In his last nine games, Bell has averaged over five yards per carry. In the regular season, the Patriots allowed 117 rushing yards per game which was the seventh worst in the league. This is a huge weakness the Steelers need to exploit.
Also, with Roethlisberger's struggles, Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown need to be more involved in the passing game. Roethlisberger needs to focus on short passes because of their playmaking abilities. If this happens early, Roethlisberger can get in a rhythm and the Steelers can use the pass to set up the run for the majority of the game. The Steelers offensive line has also only allowed two sacks in the playoffs and needs to continue to create running lanes for Bell and keep Roethlisberger clean in the pocket.
With Roethlisberger struggling, the steelers are not scoring as much as they are capable, which was seen last week against the Kansas City Chiefs when the Steelers kicked six field goals. This means the defense needed to step up. Their defense has also been of the best in the NFL over the stretch. The have allowed just under 17 points per game and have done that by forcing turnovers, getting pressure on the quarterback, and allowing field goals instead of touchdowns. In the postseason, the Steelers have six sacks and are a plus-two in turnover differential. The Steelers defense is going to have to do all of that on Sunday to slow down Tom Brady and the Patriots offense.
The Steelers have been built to win without big performances by Roethlisberger. The Steelers offensive line, Bell, and Brown will be the key for the Steelers offense to thrive on Sunday. Their defense needs to play as well as it has over the winning streak. It will not be easy for the Steelers, but if everyone is able to do their job, the Steelers have a shot at upsetting the Patriots.
One year removed from representing the NFC in the Super Bowl, the Carolina Panthers (6-8) currently sit in last place in the NFC South and are just about out of the playoff race. The Panthers already have seven more losses this season than 2015 and took a huge step back in 2016, so where did they go so wrong?
The first and most obvious place to look is one critical mistake the front office made this offseason: letting their star cornerback, Josh Norman, leave in free agency without getting anything in return. Norman ended up signing with the Washington Redskins after the Panthers rescinded their franchise tag on him.
In 2015, the Panthers had one of the best defenses in the NFL only allowing 19.2 points per game and 234.4 passing yards per game. However, in 2016, they have one of the worst defenses in the NFL, allowing 25 PPG and an NFL-worst 274.8 passing yards per game.
Is that all because of the loss of one cornerback? No, they have had injuries on the defensive side of the ball that includes star linebacker, Luke Kuechly, who is currently recovering from a concussion.
Surprisingly, the Panthers lead the NFL with 40 sacks in 2016, which is only four off of their total in 2015. This points to the secondary and defensive backs being the problem for Carolina. The loss of Norman hurt and the Panthers could be a different team with him on their roster.
The second weakness for the Panthers has been their offensive line. The line has not changed drastically this season but they are not playing at a Super Bowl level. In all of 2015, their offensive line allowed 61 quarterback hits on Cam Newton, but in 2016 they have already allowed 84. Even though Newton has been in under so much more pressure in 206, he has only been sacked 31 times compared to 33 in 2015. Newton is not getting as much time in the pocket and his production is hurting.
In 2015, Newton’s quarterback rating was 99.4 percent, one of the best in the NFL, but in 2016 his rating dropped about 19 points to 80.9 percent. Newton has been known for his big play-making abilities, but if he does not get any time in the pocket, he is not going to have an opportunity to make those plays, which is happening this season.
Another effect of their offensive line struggles has been a struggling running game. In 2016, the Panthers are only averaging 3.9 yards per carry, which is in the bottom half of the NFL. Their lead back, Jonathan Stewart, is averaging 3.8 yards per rush and only seven touchdowns. This puts more pressure on Newton to make plays in the passing game which he has not been able to do.
Going into the 2017 season, for the Panthers to get back to the Super Bowl they, need to one, solidify their offensive line and two, draft or sign a cornerback that can come in and make an impact. As the NFL saw last year, the Panthers are not that far away from getting back to the top of the NFC south or another Super Bowl appearance.
The Jacksonville Jaguars (2-14) have not had the season that they were hoping for.
After a 21-20 loss to the Houston Texans this past Sunday, head coach Gus Bradley was fired after going 14-48 in parts of three seasons. The Jaguars have not made the playoffs since 2007, which was their last winning season (11-5). It was clear that Bradley was not getting the job done. Let's take a look at the top five candidates to be the Jaguars head coach in 2017.
5. Mike Shanahan
A two-time Super Bowl champion, Mike Shanahan made his name known during his tenure with the Denver Broncos from 1995 to 2008 when he won two Super Bowls.
However, Shanahan also had tenures with the Los Angeles Raiders and Washington Redskins with mixed results. John Elway won his two Super Bowls with Shanahan as his head coach, but Shanahan has only had one winning season outside of Denver in five years. Is Shanahan only able to win with one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history?
4. Scott Linehan
Scott Linehan is currently in his 28th season as a football coach across the college and NFL levels and is in his second season as the Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator.
He has done a fantastic job in Dallas this season with its rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, who is looking like the next great quarterback. He has been able to balance the passing and rushing attack to get the most out of his rookie contributors, Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott.
Linehan was the St. Louis Rams head coach for two-and-a-half seasons and posted an 11-25 record. The Rams were in a transition period from their dominant teams in the late 90s and early 2000s and Linehan did not have a lot to work with.
After his success in Dallas, Jacksonville could use Linehan to come in and bring a new look to their offense and young quarterback Blake Bortles.
The Pittsburgh Steelers coach that has been talked about the most for head coaching positions has been offensive coordinator Todd Haley. However, offensive line coach Mike Munchak should be the one being considered for a head coaching position.
After a Hall of Fame career as an offensive lineman, Munchak was the Tennessee Titans offensive line coach from 1997 to 2010 then he became the head coach after 2010. In three seasons as head coach of the Titans, he went 22-26.
Then, in 2014, Munchak became the offensive line coach of the Steelers and turned their offensive line into one of the best offensive lines in football. The Jaguars offensive is struggling running the ball (97 rushing yards per game) behind a subpar offensive line. Bringing in Munchak and building around their offensive line could stabilize their offense.
Doug Marrone, who was the Jaguars offensive line coach, was named the interim head coach after Bradley was fired.
After leading the Bills to a combined 15-17 record in the 2013 and 2014 seasons, Marrone opted out of his contract. Marrone did a decent job with the Bills where he made Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller one of the most dynamic running back duos in the NFL.
However, Marrone made his mark on the Bills by drafting quarterback E.J. Manuel, who has not lived up to expectations and lost his starting job in 2015 to Tyrod Taylor.
Marrone had his flaws as a head coach but he could build one of the best offensive lines in football, which is the new way to succeed like the Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks have demonstrated.
1. Tom Coughlin
Make the Jaguars great again! Tom Coughlin was the first coach in the Jaguars history spending eight seasons with the young franchise. He has also been their best coach in franchise history, with four playoff victories and two division titles.
After Jacksonville, Coughlin spent 2004-2015 with the New York Giants and drafted Eli Manning. Manning blossomed into one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and a two-time Super Bowl champion. Coughlin’s downfall ultimately was a combination of the New York media, complacency, and an awful defense.
A change of scenery and a new challenge of coming back to his first NFL head coaching job should spark new life into the old-school coach. The Jaguars have a lot of talent but have not been able to put all the pieces together, Coughlin could bring back his expertise and make the Jaguars relevant again.