It’s always good when we get to this part of the season and the best teams have made it through to the two title games.
Last year, there was a looming issue with Denver and Peyton Manning that added high drama to their Super Bowl run, but for our purposes, I think it made the pick’em a little lopsided from the experts, who flocked to the Panthers for the first time en masse all season. It’s well documented on these pages that the Panthers then wilted under the pressure of being favorites, but this year, no matter who wins these two games, I’m not sure there’ll be an overwhelming favorite.
Here are my picks for the two title games today.
NFC Title Game: Green Bay @ Atlanta
The teams in the AFC and NFC title games have won a combined 30 straight games between them, which makes it a little difficult to take form as a guide. These are four teams that have a hugely impressive regular season and postseason record, so looking for trends can be a bit of a forlorn hope at times, but thankfully, the Packers have turned up one.
The Packers have performed now in two major matchups against NFC playoff teams as underdogs. Last week against the Cowboys, they started hot and then let Dallas back into a game that should have been buried shortly after HT. Chris Burke of SI said last week that he felt the Cowboys simply wouldn’t be able to stop Aaron Rodgers making one great play to win the game, and so it turned out. I’m a massive Rodgers fan, I think he was unfairly maligned during their midseason slump, and it’s still not grown old that certain sports writers are now backtracking on their criticism now that they’ve realized they may well have a date with Rodgers on Radio Row at the Super Bowl in two weeks time…
Atlanta have been far more explosive as an offense (they scored a ridiculous 33.8pts per game, over 4pts more than their nearest contender during the regular season) and lived up to that billing against the league’s premier defense in the divisional round against Seattle. Putting up 36 points against that team, even missing Earl Thomas, is a big achievement and legitimizes this offense if there were any lingering doubts about whether they would turn up in the playoffs.
One thing that is of course a factor is that it is a rematch of the regular season matchup from week 8, where the home Falcons began the aforementioned Packers slump in earnest with a 32-33 win. It’d be easy to talk up the Atlanta offense at this point, but lets just out that loss into perspective – Aaron Rodgers put up 4 passing TD’s and scored seemingly at will during that game. ¬†It was only the lack of time at the end that prevented him getting the Packers into field goal range and a potential win. There is plenty of reason to believe that the Packers can beat the Falcons, given that the first game happened at arguably one of their lowest ebbs of the season.
The worry for Atlanta will be that the same strengths that they have over Green Bay in terms of their run game are exactly what the Packers were able to handle from the Cowboys last week. The big difference? The Cowboys didn’t have Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, Taylor Gabriel or any of the many other receiving threats that Atlanta have had this season. I’m not sure how the Packers can handle those players plus the combination of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, the classic inside and outside threats from the backfield who have a propensity to make big plays. At times Ezekiel Elliott was really effective last week, and in fact got the anaemic Cowboys offense going. I expect the Falcons to go the opposite way, targeting a weakened Green Bay secondary and then using the run game to steamroll their way to victory.
Straight Up: Atlanta
vs Spread: Atlanta (-4.5)
Pittsburgh @ New England
Fire alarm shenanigans aside, this is definitely the more intriguing of the two matchups. I think there’s a case that can be made for the Steelers here, because the Patriots defense is, as pointed out in an otherwise terrible piece by Colin Cowherd this week that actually tried to edge Tom Brady towards the Foxboro exit doors. That’s our prediction tracker by the way, keep an eye on that over the offseason for more lunacy on the part of people who have to say stuff for a living, regardless of apparently living on Planet Earth,
I really hate the Pats in this spot. If it was a regular season game I’d feel differently, but the Steelers are a great team and have the best pure runner in football (Le’Veon Bell), the best receiver (Antonio Brown), and an offensive line that is consistent enough to dominate what I would call a sub-par New England pass rush.
It’s hard to see what the biggest flaw is on offense for the Steelers. Maybe receiver depth could be an issue, but I think Eli Rogers has a big part to play in this game as Belichick looks to take away Brown over the top. I’m not sure why Andy Reid thought putting a linebacker on Brown last week was a good idea, but apparently he did. I don’t think that happens this week, but I do think that Brown still has enough to get open if Ben Roethlisberger can hit him.
The Steelers have not won a game this season where they were underdogs, however, including the week 7 matchup between these two teams at Heinz Field, but consider that Landry Jones started that game in place of Roethlisberger, and it’s almost an irrelevance given the gulf in quality between those two players and their influence on the game.
The Pats are dominant against weak teams, there’s no doubting that, but I do think that this will be their first serious test in a long while. The Broncos game in mid-December was one such game, but that was as anemic an offense as you could imagine by that point, so really the last parallel would be the Seahawks game in week 10. The Pats lost that game at home despite being heavily favored, and it’s worth considering that for a moment given that the Seahawks exploited the Pats D mercilessly, with Doug Baldwin snagging 3 TD’s. The thing that stands out though, is that they did so without a running game, quite the opposite to how the Steelers will line up tonight.
This is so tough. My head says the Pats rise to any challenge and simply haven’t faced a good team by a quirk of the schedule, but I just can’t shake that the Steelers are a far better team than the Pats. Sure, the Patriots have Tom Brady, who like Aaron Rodgers is as big an X-factor in the game today, but then so are Russell Wilson and Eli Manning, and they’re watching on TV now. One great player can’t always disguise the flaws of a whole team, and I think that’s what will happen today.
Straight up: Pittsburgh
vs Spread: Pittsburgh (+6)