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AFC championship preview: Running back could carry team to victory

Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount stretches to get the ball across the goal line to finish a 13-yard touchdown run against the Colts in the AFC championship game on Jan. 18, 2015.
(Matt Slocum / Associated Press)
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Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount once shared carries for the Pittsburgh Steelers and they remain good friends.

Now they will try to keep each other from going to the Super Bowl.

Most of the attention going into Sunday’s AFC title game at Gillette Stadium is on New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

But the outcome could be decided by the performances of running backs.

Bell, a fourth-year pro from Michigan State, rushed for 1,268 yards and seven touchdowns during the regular season and has turned it up in the playoffs.

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The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Bell carried 29 times for 167 yards and two touchdowns against Miami and 30 times for 170 yards last week against the Kansas City Chiefs, both Pittsburgh records for rushing yards in a playoff game.

Bell rushed for 81 yards and also caught 10 passes for 68 yards in a 27-16 loss to the Patriots on Oct. 23, when Roethlisberger did not play because of injury.

“I’ve never seen anyone do that — to be as effective as he is,” Blount told the Associated Press, adding, “You can’t really describe what he can do.”

Blount, a seven-year veteran from Oregon, ran for an NFL-best 18 touchdowns during the regular season and was 12th in rushing with 1,161 yards.

He rushed for a season-best 127 yards and two touchdowns against the Steelers. The 6-foot, 250-pound Blount gained 31 yards in eight carries in last week’s victory over Houston.

Before the 2014 season when they were teammates, both drew short suspensions by the league for their role in an incident that violated the league’s substance abuse policy.

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Blount was waived after 11 games, two days after he jogged off the field with time left on the clock of a Monday night victory over Tennessee that featured a 204-yard performance by Bell.

Blount got picked up by the Patriots and helped them win the Super Bowl.

Bell would, no doubt, like to even the score.

Pressure packed

In last season’s AFC title game, the Denver Broncos provided a pretty effective road map for beating the Patriots: Pound Brady.

The Broncos hit Brady 20 times in a 20-18 victory that sent them on their way to the Super Bowl.

Look for the Steelers to try to do something similar.

Steelers linebacker James Harrison has 2½ sacks and a forced fumble in two playoff games. Linebacker Lawrence Timmons has two sacks for a Steelers defense that has recorded 31 sacks during a nine-game winning streak.

“They’ve been dominant,” Brady said. “They’ve been great just rushing the quarterback, making plays for their team, strip sacks, forced interceptions, a lot of big plays.”

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The Patriots will try to pressure Roethlisberger, who has been sacked twice in two playoff games.

Patriots end Trey Flowers had a team-best seven sacks during the regular season.

By the numbers

How teams compare statistically. All stats are per-game averages, except for sacks and turnover differential, which is for the season (league rank in parentheses):

Category: PIT | NE

(NFL rank in parenthesis)

Points scored: 24.9 (T10) | 27.6 (3)

Points allowed: 20.4 (10) | 15.6 (1)

Pass offense: 262.6 (T5) | 269.3 (4)

Rush offense: 110.0 (14) | 117.0 (7)

Pass defense: 242.6 (16) | 237.9 (12)

Rush defense: 100.0 (13) | 88.6 (T3)

Sacks: 38 (T9) | 34 (T16)

Penalty yards: 66.8 (27) | 51.2 (4)

Turnovers: +5 (9) | +12 (3)

Sam Farmer’s pick

It’s hard to bet against Brady at home, particularly with the Super Bowl in his cross hairs. The Steelers are hot, so this could be their year, but it’s more likely that Bill Belichick draws up a way to slow Bell, and New England wins.

PATRIOTS 30, STEELERS 24

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