NFC and AFC Championship Picks

Posted: 01/22/2017 by levcohen in Football

It’s time for the last two real football games of the year. We have the Pro Bowl next week, but not even the players care about the Pro Bowl. Then, of course, there’s the Super Bowl, but that’s as much of a production — the halftime show, etc. — as it is a football game. Yes, football fans enjoy the Super Bowl (it’s supposed to be a game between the two best teams in football, after all), but this weekend is generally far more enjoyable for hardcore fans who care primarily about the quality of the games. Good news: today’s matchups promise intrigue, close games, and, best of all, points. The top storyline of the week has been the fact that four of the best quarterbacks in the NFL are still alive. If it isn’t the most talented QB quartet playing on Championship Game Sunday ever, it’s pretty darn close. That, along with the lack of defensive talent, is why the projected point totals are so high.

Green Bay Packers (12-6, 11-6-1 against the spread) at Atlanta Falcons (12-5, 12-5):
Spread: Falcons favored by 5.5
Over/under: 61
My prediction: This is the highest over/under in playoff history, and I still can’t imagine ever picking the under. All of the ingredients are here for a total shootout. It’s the two hottest QBs in the NFL, both of whom have relatively healthy offenses (assuming that Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, and Geronimo Allison are close to full strength). It’s also two of the worst defenses in football, although Atlanta’s defense has improved a lot recently even without the services of top cornerback Desmond Trufant. Given that both defenses are especially soft in the red zone, it’s safe to expect a lot of touchdowns.

For my money, Aaron Rodgers is easily the most talented quarterback in the NFL. I haven’t been watching for long enough to definitively call him the most gifted quarterback ever, but it’s hard for me to imagine anyone challenging him for that title. Rodgers has a strong arm and he’s accurate, but the magic really happens when he is chased out of the pocket. All you need to do is watch the throw Rodgers made to Jared Cook last week and listen to what people say about him. There are very few players in any sport who are as universally feared/revered as Rodgers now is. LeBron, Brady, Kershaw, Trout, Crosby, McDavid… it’s not a long list. That’s why I’m so surprised that the Falcons are favored by more than a field goal. Rodgers threw a pick last week to end his stretch of eight games without one, but he still looked downright unstoppable. The Packers have scored 30+ points six straight times. I wouldn’t expect that streak to end against Atlanta, especially with top targets Nelson and Adams active (if not 100%). Atlanta’s pass defense is improving, but it’s nowhere near good enough to stop Rodgers if he has time. And he’s going to have time against a pass rush that was made look good by Seattle’s porous offensive line but has been very weak all season. Simply put, the Falcons don’t have the talent or experience to slow Rodgers down. Conventional wisdom says this is going to be a shootout, and conventional wisdom is going to be correct unless Rodgers falls into an unexpected rut.

I have even more confidence in Atlanta’s offense. Because while Rodgers is the better quarterback than Matt Ryan, Ryan’s Falcons have the superior overall offense. Kyle Shanahan, the offensive coordinator, has done such a good job that he’s heading to San Francisco next season to be the 49ers’ head coach. The Falcons have terrific schemes, and they also have great talent. Their running back duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman had a field day against the Seahawks, and more of the same should be on tap against a Green Bay defense that’s had its run defense fall apart over the last few months. And if the Packers manage to stop the rushing attack, Ryan has a lot of options to throw to. In addition to Freeman and Coleman, both of whom are good receiving backs, there’s a healthy Julio Jones, maybe the best receiver in the NFL. Then there’s Taylor Gabriel, a speedster who is well suited to burn Green Bay’s porous secondary deep. And Mohamed Sanu has become a tremendous third down and red zone option. The Falcons had the best offense in football this season, as Ryan averaged an incredible 9.3 yards per attempt. He had a 125.7 passer rating last week, throwing for three touchdowns without an interception and passing for 9.1 yards per attempt. He’s home in a plush matchup against a weak defense. Clay Matthews is a good player, and the Packers are going to try to get after Ryan with blitzes and different looks, but it’ll be nothing that Matty Ice hasn’t already seen and defeated this year.

The spread seems high, but it’s not going to change my pick in this one. While Rodgers is the better quarterback and has carried the Packers to this point, he’s not meaningfully better than Ryan, and Ryan’s surrounding pieces and scheme are vastly superior. And if field goals come into play, Matt Bryant is better than Mason Crosby, two 50+ yard field goals last week aside. The Falcons have been better all season and are playing at home. Of course, I could have said the same thing about the Cowboys last week, and the Packers still managed to knock off Dallas. But I’m counting on Green Bay’s luck to run out this week. Falcons win 38-31.
Falcons cover
Over

Pittsburgh Steelers (13-5, 11-7) at New England Patriots (15-2, 14-3):*
Spread: Patriots favored by 6
Over/under: 50.5
My prediction: I said above that the top storyline of the week has been about how good the four quarterbacks are. I think that might be giving one of the QBs a little too much credit. As you read above, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers are certainly as advertised. And Tom Brady is an all-timer who had one of the best seasons of his career. At this point, though, I don’t think that Ben Roethlisberger belongs in that conversation, especially on the road. I mentioned Big Ben’s home-road splits last week. After a game that the Steelers won without a touchdown, those splits don’t look any better this week. He improved to 18-15 in road games since 2013 thanks to the Chiefs’ stagnant offense and six field goals from kicker Chris Boswell, but he now has a 38:30 TD:INT ratio on the road since then and is still averaging 7.3 yards per attempt — he had a pick and averaged 7.2 yards per attempt last week. He’s now thrown at least a pick in three straight games and five of six, so I think it’s fair to expect a turnover or two from the quarterback in New England. That puts the Steelers in a huge hole right off the bat.

The main reason that most people haven’t really noticed Roethlisberger’s struggles is that the Steelers keep winning. They’ve now won eight games in a row. Most of that credit should go to an improved defense and Le’Veon Bell. Bell racked up 170 more yards last week and has the whole country raving about his unique running style (which is basically just to stand at the line of scrimmage until a hole opens up for him). It’s hard to win against a team whose running back is averaging 146.5 yards per game on the ground, as Bell has over the past eight games. But guess who has made a career out of taking away the other team’s most dangerous weapon? That’s right: Bill Belichick. I find it very unlikely that Bell has the same joy on the ground against a team that almost never gets beaten in the playoffs by a running back. Not to mention that the Patriots are fourth in DVOA against the run this season. Bell’s running style is indeed unique, but it also seems stoppable. Last week, a linebacker I had never heard of (Ramik Wilson) had some success when he stayed back, waited for the blocks to developed, and then attacked Bell before he decided which hole to accelerate through. Think of it kind of as a spy against the running back. Most defenses teach aggression against running backs, because most running backs jump through the first hole they see. Bell is a lot more patient, so the defense should be too. Expect the Patriots to figure that out and slow down the running back, which leaves us back where we started: with Roethlisberger. If he can figure things out this week, the game will be close. The Patriots have been relatively weak against the pass, and they have barely been challenged. Look at the list of quarterbacks they’ve faced since their BYE, starting last week against Houston and going backward: Brock Osweiler, Matt Moore, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Trevor Siemian, Joe Flacco, Jared Goff, Bryce Petty, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson. Guess who the one loss came against? Wilson’s Seahawks, in New England. Wilson tore up the Pats for 348 yards and three touchdowns. Heck, the Patriots didn’t even have to face Roethlisberger when they played the Steelers earlier this season. The signal caller was injured, so they got to play against Landry Jones. The point is that the Patriots have been vulnerable against good quarterbacks. If Roethlisberger plays well, the Steelers will score touchdowns as well as field goals this week. One other thing: with Bell likely to find little success on the ground, look for him to get involved in the passing game. He’s totaled just 18 receiving yards in the last three games, but that’s because he’s gotten everything he’s wanted on the ground. There was a six game span earlier this year during which Bell averaged eight receptions per game, and that’s along the lines of what I think will happen today. The Steelers need to get the ball in his (and Antonio Brown’s) hands.

If New England’s offense plays like it did against Houston, they’re going to lose this game. Tom Brady didn’t look like himself last week against a ferocious pass rush. He got hit a lot and completed just 18-38 passes while throwing as many interceptions as he threw all season (2). I normally would chalk this up as a total fluke, but remember that Brady also struggled in his last playoff game, a loss to the Broncos in last year’s AFC Championship Game. He went 27-56 in that game and had two more picks. Those are the only two games in the past two years that Brady has completed under 50% of his passes, and two of only three games with a pair of picks. It’s something to keep in mind. In both games, the opponent harassed Brady with a ferocious pass rush. That’s what the Steelers have to do today. But they can’t commit too many rushers, because then Brady will tear them up. They have to get pressure with three or four rushers, something they’ve been unable to do much this season. The Patriots aren’t as explosive offensively as they usually are at this time of year, largely because they’re without Rob Gronkowski. But they still have plenty of weapons who can tear up the Steelers if Brady has the time to find them. Dion Lewis exploded last week, and Julian Edelman had eight catches for at least 130 yards for the second straight week. Brady needs some more consistency from Martellus Bennett, Chris Hogan, and Michael Floyd. I expect at least one of those guys to have a big game this week. And this might be a week of redemption for LeGarrette Blount after he was held to 31 yards on eight carries last week. I think we know what we’re going to get from the Patriots’ offense against a solid but unspectacular Pittsburgh defense: very few mistakes and a lot of sustained drives. I don’t expect many big plays, though, which should keep the Steelers in shouting distance.

This game really rests on Big Ben’s shoulders. The Patriots are vulnerable. I don’t think they’re as good as their record indicates, largely because they’ve had such a soft schedule. Can Roethlisberger make them pay? Recent history seems to suggest that the answer is no. But my gut says that he can come up big, so I’m going to go against recent history and say that the Steelers will win a close one. Steelers win 27-23.
Steelers cover
Under

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