NFC Championship Game
My gut tells me the Packers will win. I think it’s because they are on a winning streak and Aaron Rodgers is playing at an otherworldly level.
That said, I also think I could be selling the Falcons short just because they are the Falcons, and Falcons teams of yesteryear always choked in big moments. Which is very unfair to them–they are not the Falcons of yesteryear; they are their own team, and they have been good enough to earn the number 2 seed in the conference.
Both teams have very good offenses. But, being football experts, we know that’s all well and good for the regular season, but defense is what matters in the playoffs.
So, which team has the better defense? As it turns out, neither of them are stellar, but Green Bay’s looks to be slightly better. But it’s close.
Accordingly, I predict a narrow Packer win:
AFC Championship Game
At this point, it’s starting to feel like it should be called the “Patriots vs. Special Guest ________ Game”. Six conference championship game appearances in a row is crazy. That said, the Steelers are kind of like a mini-dynasty within New England’s 15-years-and-counting reign. They’ve reached three Super Bowls in that time, and it could have been more if not for two conference title game losses… to the Patriots.
The Steelers have some incredible offensive firepower, to be sure. Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown are the top QB/WR combination in the league. Who really stands out though is Le’Veon Bell. I’ve never seen a running back like him.He takes the handoff and then just stands there, waiting and watching for his opportunity. Then, when he finally commits, he doesn’t seem to run so much as glide through the defense. It’s weird and beautiful to watch. I don’t think many teams know how to handle it.
But the Patriots have this guy, Belichick–maybe you’ve heard of him? He’s only been making a career out of neutralizing top offensive players for about 30 years. The Bills’ seemingly unstoppable no-huddle offense of the 1990s? He stopped it in Super Bowl XXV. The Rams’ nearly-invincible “Greatest Show on Turf”? He destroyed it so bad it ceased to exist after Super Bowl XXXVI. The great Peyton Manning? He shut him down twice in the post-season. LaDainian Tomlinson, Andrew Luck… the list of offensive stars he has defeated over the years is long.
The teams that beat the Patriots in the playoffs are the teams that have no true stars, but instead simply play well-balanced, efficient football. (And their defense rattles Brady. But I’m getting ahead of myself.) If a team is reliant on a few superstars, Belichick will defeat them, because he knows he only has to take away one or two guys and then his work is done.
The Steelers are reliant on two superstars–Brown and Bell. This bodes ill for them.
But there’s another dimension here: what about the Patriots’ offense vs. the Steelers’ defense?
Last week’s win against Houston was one of the sloppiest, stupidest offensive games I’ve ever seen New England play. Time and again, Brady would drop back to pass, find no one open, and start scrambling before receiving a vicious hit from a defender.
Even late in the game, while holding a double-digit lead, New England stubbornly refused to run the ball and milk the clock. Brady continued to throw–often incomplete, slowing down the game–and absorbing tons of punishment.
On those rare occasions when they did run, it was with a small running back or a wide receiver on a reverse.(In perhaps the stupidest call of all, they actually had Brady blocking for a reverse at one point in the 4th quarter. The Football Gods will one day punish this arrogance.) They seemed unwilling to put in Blount and simply play power football.
If I thought the Patriots would play that type of game again this week, I’d feel better about Pittsburgh’s chances. But my guess is that Belichick has reamed out everyone involved with the offense, including Brady, and they are not going to let it happen again. Especially not against a Pittsburgh defense that they have pretty consistently owned over the years.