The stage is set for the AFC Championship between the Patriots and Steelers Sunday at Gillette Stadium. (Mike Petraglia/WEEI.com)
FOXBORO — The stage is set at Gillette Stadium for NFL history to be made.
The winner of the AFC championship will become the first team ever to appear in nine Super Bowl games.
When the Patriots and Steelers square off, the weather will be relatively mild. Temperatures are expected in the mid-to-upper 40s for the 6:40 p.m. kickoff. There is a chance of precipitation around 8 p.m. or around halftime of the game. Wind could be a factor, with a gust out of the northeast expected between 10 and 12 MPH.
Otherwise, cloudy skies will give way to darkness as the two teams battle for the third time in AFC championship history. The previous two encounters have taken place at Heinz Field. In Jan. 2002, the Patriots beat the Steelers, 24-17, to advance to Super Bowl XXXVI. Three years later, the Patriots beat the then-rookie Roethlisberger, 41-27, to head to Super Bowl XXXIX. In that game, Rodney Harrison intercepted Roethlisberger just before halftime and raced for the touchdown that gave the Patriots a 24-3 halftime lead.
Tom Brady is looking to advance to his record seventh Super Bowl, as is head coach Bill Belichick. The Patriots are 4-1 in the five previous AFC championship games at Gillette Stadium and Brady has never lost to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger at Gillette, going 4-0 against him. Roethlisberger’s only win at Gillette came in Nov. 2008 when he beat the Patriots, 33-10, in a game that featured Matt Cassel as the New England signal caller.
The Patriots are making their record sixth straight AFC championship game appearance and 13th overall. They are 8-4 overall in the previous 12. They have lost three of the last four. Pittsburgh is making its record 16th appearance in the game, and have a 8-7 mark in the previous 15.
On the injury front, Malcolm Mitchell is expected to dress and be active for the game after missing the regular season finale and the Texans playoff game with a knee injury. The activation gives the Patriots the chance to dress five pure wide receivers if they so choose. Meanwhile, according to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, tight end Martellus Bennett has been playing with cracked bone and bone chips in his right ankle since suffering the initial injury against the Browns on Oct. 9. Bennett had just one catch for four yards in the 34-16 win over the Texans.
The Steelers dealt with the flu all week, as up to 15 players were reported to have symptoms that limited them in practice during the week. Le’Veon Bell missed practice Wednesday and Thursday for personal reasons before returning Friday.
The Steelers also had their sleep disrupted Saturday night as someone pulled the fire alarm at their hotel.
Chris Price has the complete scouting report while Ryan Hannable has 20 fun facts to consider heading into the game.