The Divisional round saw much more exciting action and closer contests than the Wild Card round. Now, the Conference Championship round features a trio of Hall of Fame quarterbacks, and one quarterback who has finally broken through.
#4 Green Bay Packers at. #2 Atlanta Falcons
Last week, the Green Bay Packers upset the Dallas Cowboys with the help of two late field goals by Mason Crosby. Aaron Rodgers, once again, led the game winning drive for a Packers team that has won eight in a row. Rodgers threw for 355 yards, without his top target, and two touchdowns in the win. The defense almost blew it, again, by allowing 18 points in the fourth quarter and somehow let Dak Prescott throw for over 300 yards.
The Falcons dominated the Seahawks, and proved they were a legit Super Bowl contender. Matt Ryan was terrific throwing for over 300 yards and toss three touchdowns. The defense limited Russell Wilson’s space and didn’t allow him to scramble and pick up yards on the ground consistently and forced him into two interceptions.
This matchup will feature two prolific offenses going up against a pair of awful defenses. Both Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers should be able to throw the ball all around the field.
Matt Ryan will go up against a banged up Green Bay secondary that could be without Morgan Burnett and Quinten Rollins. The ground game for Atlanta could be in for a rough day, as the Packers boast one of the best front sevens in football and are good against the run. It seems obvious to say, but Julio Jones could be in for a huge day against a Green Bay secondary that can’t stop a nosebleed. Getting pressure on Matt Ryan and forcing him make quick decisions in an offense that likes to push the ball down the field should be a key for Green Bay’s defense.
The Packers’ receiving corps is banged up, but Jordy Nelson and DaVante Adams are both going to try and play. For as elite as the passing attack for the Packers is, Ty Montgomery will be the X-Factor in this one. If he can run the ball effectively and keep Green Bay’s defense off the field and well rested, the Pack should walk away with a win.
The Packers are a one-dimensional team, but stopping that one dimension has been an impossible task for the last two months. Rodgers is playing the position at an unmatched level. Pressuring Rodgers only causes him to roll out, where he’s arguably more deadly throwing on the run and extending plays.
The NFL wants, and needs, a Rodgers vs. Brady Super Bowl. However, the Falcons offense is too good, and in the final game in the Georgia Dome, the Falcons be motivated to give it a proper sendoff.
PREDICTION: Green Bay 33, Atlanta 38
#3 Pittsburgh Steelers at. #1 New England Patriots
For the sixth straight year the New England Patriots are in the AFC Championship Game, but unlike in the Divisional round, they’ll have to play a clean game for 60 minutes.
The Pittsburgh Steelers come into Gillette Stadium after beating the Kansas City Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium on the strength of six Chris Boswell field goals. Ben Roethlisberger didn’t play particularly well, throwing for just 224 yards and had an interception in the end zone. Antonio Brown had six catches for 108 yards, but other than Jesse James, no other receivers made an impact. Le’Veon Bell carried most of the load offensively, rushing for 170 yards on 38.
However, the defense was the story of the game, as the Steelers rapidly improving defense shut down Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.
As for the Patriots, last week was their worst game of the year, and they still won by 18, but it was far from pretty. Tom Brady did not play well at all (for his standards in the playoffs), and he knew it. Brady finished 18/38 with 287 yards, two touchdowns and two picks.
Dion Lewis was the story on offense, scoring three touchdowns, each in a different way. His 98-yard kickoff return ignited a team that seemed a step off in the first quarter. The defense was absolutely outstanding, and if it wasn’t for three Patriots turnovers on their own side of the field, the score easily could have been 34-3.
This game, however, will be a rematch of a week seven matchup, in which the Pats beat the Ben Roethlisberger-less Steelers 27-16. Now, the two future Hall of Famers will face off in the playoffs for the first time in 12 years. Brady and Big Ben are two of the greatest postseason quarterbacks ever, but there are plenty of other storylines in this one.
The Patriots offensive line could be in for a test. The played well all season long, but they struggled last week with the speed of Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus. The Steelers have two speedy linebackers of their own in Ryan Shazier and budding star (sorry) Bud Dupree. Everybody knows that if you pressure Tom Brady early, especially up the middle, he’ll be off the rest of the game.
Despite Dion Lewis’ big game last week, I would expect a lot more of LeGarrette Blount than we saw last week, as his ability to move the chains on the ground and kill the clock and keep the explosive Steelers offense off the field.
On defense for the Patriots, for as good as Antonio Brown is, shutting down Le’Veon Bell should be the main focal point. Bell had an outstanding game against Kansas City last week, and can hurt team both on the ground and through the air. Bell has unmatched patience and waits for holes to open up. Instead of waiting for Bell at the point of attack, the front seven should shoot gaps and holes aggressively, cutting down Bell’s time to make a decision. The Patriots are notorious for shutting down what an opponent does best. Right now, the Steelers are running the ball with authority.
These teams are very familiar with each other, which could lead to a close and competitive battle until the final minutes. Both quarterbacks didn’t play their best football last week, and know they’ll have to step their game up a few notches if their team wants to go to Houston. But, the Pats are at home, and Tedy Bruschi is the honorary captain. When Bruschi is the honorary captain, the Patriots are 8-0, and will make it 9-0 tonight.
PREDICTION: Pittsburgh 17, New England 27
Cover Photo via CBSLocal