2017 NFL Conference Championship Predictions

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It’s time to determine who’s going to the Super Bowl! Sports fans have an exciting Sunday to look forward to, as the NFL Final Four takes place in Atlanta and Foxboro. In Atlanta, two identical playing styles clash with countless storylines underneath. Up in New England, the perennial Super Bowl favorite faces another tough test, and hopes the challengers won’t be their undoing. All four teams have high powered offenses, so in this season more than ever… Defense Wins Championships. Let’s take a look at how teams can make it to the last game of the season.

 

Packers at Falcons    3:05 PM ET    FOX

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It’s not déjà vu. The Packers and Falcons played in Atlanta earlier this season. Back in October, the Falcons won 33-32 on a touchdown with just 30 seconds remaining in the game. This Sunday the scoring may be even higher, as both offenses have certainly improved from that point if you can believe it. The question is, have the defenses improved too? By the end of this game, obviously the winner will be determined by who scores the most. However, the result does not rely on the #1 and #2 offenses, but on which defense can stop them the best.

The Packers enter with an astounding 8-game win streak. Quarterback and superstar Aaron Rodgers led this team from a 4-6 record, nearly out of playoff contention, to the NFC title game. That in itself gives him a strong case for league MVP. It seems like every game he makes a miracle play that surpasses his greatness from the week before. If that trend continues, who knows what fans will get to see on Sunday. Even scarier, he may have his #1 wide receiver Jordy Nelson back in the lineup. Rodgers always distributes the ball with ease, and to add another gritty playmaker to this already dangerous offense is mind boggling. Furthermore, “running back” Ty Montgomery is coming in clutch in the red zone. While the Falcons are definitely preparing to limit the passing game, Montgomery could sneak up and score too.

So with the obligatory offense praise out of the way, the defense and special teams will be the difference. Kicker Mason Crosby came up big against the Cowboys, and he’ll likely be called on many times again this weekend. His inconsistency in the regular season seems to be behind him, but this postseason field goal streak has to end sometime. If he misses out on a key 3 points, the Packers may fall behind the 8-ball and never catch red-hot Atlanta. Unless of course, the defense slows them down. Again, there will be no stopping either team from scoring, but forcing one or two punts could be the difference. The Packers will need to disguise blitzes and hang tight on the quick receivers. Forcing Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to squeeze the ball into tight windows could be crucial. He’s not known for mobility, so expect him to try to make things happen fast if the pocket collapses. This is a huge task for Green Bay, of course, and it won’t be easy. But the suspect secondary shut down OBJ and the Giants, and outlasted the Cowboys attack. This challenge will be the toughest of all, but if they keep up their hot play and cornerback Micah Hyde continues his leadership and tenacity, the Packers could be unbeatable.

As for the Falcons, the game plan is no less challenging. Aaron Rodgers seemingly has all the answers. If you blitz, he evades pressure and throws darts downfield. If you drop back in zone, he finds gaps and can thread the needle like nobody else. If you play man-to-man, the Green Bay receiving core can make an endless amount of highlight reel catches. In other words, there’s no way to win. The Falcons will want to get in Rodgers’ head. This can be done the hopeful way or the hard way. Hopefully, Atlanta will want to try to break up passes and mess up Rodgers’ rhythm early in the game. If he’s out of his comfort zone and overthinks his throws, he could dig himself in a hole as time wears on. The hard way, and far more likely attempt, will be to stay ahead on the scoreboard. Getting the ball first and scoring will be important for both teams. If they can put the pressure on the opposing team from the onset, playing from behind can always affect a quarterback’s mindset. I believe Atlanta’s defense has more talent and more speed than Green Bay’s defense, which is a big advantage. However, the Packers have the heart and willingness to risk everything for each other, and that is a huge part of how they’ve made it this deep in the postseason. These teams will bring out the best in each other, and this game will definitely come down to who wants it more.

There’s an interesting development for Atlanta on offense. I’d like to think the 49ers read my last post, as they plan to offer their vacant head coaching position to the Falcons’ offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan. In just two years with the program, he has completely turned the team around into the #1 offense in the league. Matt Ryan is in his prime, and the chemistry is tangible between him and his speedy receivers. The back field is great too, as Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman could be elite star running backs with any team, but unselfishly split carries in Atlanta. This kind of team play wins championships. With the 49ers publicly stating the intent of Shanahan becoming their next head coach, you wonder if this chemistry will be broken for the Falcons down the final stretch. With both teams gelling so well, it’s hard to imagine. However, if Shanahan knows he’s potentially on the way out, and the players sense his mind is elsewhere, the #1 offense may fail to compete at the high level they’re used to, and thats just what the Packers need.

Packers prevail, 37-34.

 

Steelers at Patriots    6:40 PM ET    CBS9636955.jpg

This matchup of two storied franchises is equally hard to call. The Steelers come in winning a league best 9-straight. And as I’ve said before, the Patriots enter their 6th straight conference championship; that accomplishment cannot be over stated. However, they’ve only won twice in the past 5 tries, and gone on to win the trophy once. But Tom Brady knows Pittsburgh well, having beat them all four times he’s played them at home. He even beat them in Pittsburgh earlier this year, 27-16. That shouldn’t mean too much though, as Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was replaced by backup Landry Jones due to knee surgery. Also, that was back when the Patriots still had big tight end Rob Gronkowski. With two important roles changing hands, little can be taken away from the last meeting. I could go on and on about past records such as these, but let’s get to the good part.

The Steelers are arguably the healthiest they’ve ever been this late in the season. Injuries have ultimately been their undoing in past seasons, and they are thrilled to have all their stars ready to go for the biggest game of the season so far. Their biggest problem this season has been a lack of discipline. This issue already came up before the team even left Kansas City last week. During a post-game talk by head coach Mike Tomlin, star wide receiver Antonio Brown recorded a Facebook Live video that captured all of Tomlin’s private comments. He was heard saying many things, among which were to “keep quiet on social media”. He didn’t want distractions and asked his team to lay low for the week as they prepare. After Brown heard this, he continued to stream the locker room for 15 more minutes! This may not be a big deal, but there is an underlying problem when one of the best players on the team shows a blatant disregard for his head coach. Not only does he appear not to care about this private, family-like meeting, he completely disobeyed Tomlin’s message and caused a distraction that lasted all week. The Steelers have repeatedly said they will not let the incident affect them as it has already been handled internally, but just the fact that they must keep answering the media’s questions about the issue is enough. That aside, they have enough problems to deal with on the field.

The Steelers’ offense is clicking, that much is certain. The concern is the red zone scoring. Last week, after putting together many well-played drives, they failed to score a touchdown. Their main offensive goal this week is to finish what they start. Coming up with long drives is great. It demoralizes a defense and gives a team good momentum, but the best way to give it back is to settle for a field goal or turn the ball over. And that’s just what the Steelers tend to do when they get close to the goal line. Look for Pittsburgh to address this in practice this week, and watch out for an expanded playbook as they near the red zone. As for defense, the Steelers MUST rush Brady. Let Patriots running back Legarrette Blount run. Trust the secondary to cover the New England receivers man-to-man. If the Steelers do not rush Tom Brady, they will lose. Period. The only way Brady has been stopped this year, is when he’s felt the pressure from the defensive linemen. Look at Houston. The way the Texans stayed so close last week is because of the Mercilus pressure (pun intended).  As soon as they dropped back in coverage late in the game, the Patriots took over. Anytime the Steelers don’t rush 5 or even 6 men, Brady will get yards one way or another, with the exception of the occasional drops by the receiving core. Even better, the blitz will stop Blount’s progress too. The only way the Steelers have a chance to advance into the Super Bowl is to bring back Blitzburgh.

As for the Patriots, their game plan is to stop the Steelers’ #1 man. That is Le’veon Bell. He followed up his 167-yard performance against the Dolphins by breaking his own record the next week against KC with 170 yards. It’s incredible to watch his patience as he waits for holes before accelerating through the line of scrimmage. It’ll be the Patriots’ job to plug those holes for as long as possible, and get to Bell before he gets started.  I expect this to come to fruition, as Belichick has made a living at preparing his defense to stop the #1 man each week, whomever it is. So, that only leaves two Killer B’s left. If the Pats do indeed stop Bell, it takes a lot of pressure off the secondary as they focus on breaking up the Ben-to-Brown combination. On offense, just let Brady take care of business. The offensive line will need to give him time and space to work, but as long as he’s comfortable, there’s no throw he can’t complete. Don’t expect the pressure of the situation to get to him either; he has the NFL record for most playoff appearances and wins by a large margin. Many of his teammates have experience in the playoffs too, and that is always important. This game will be about keeping composure and sticking to the plan.

The Steelers are already out of rhythm with the distraction caused by Brown, but once the game kicks off, all of that will fade away. Any play while on defense that does not have 5 or 6 Steelers in the box will give an advantage to Brady and the Patriots to smoke the Steel Curtain as they’ve done in seasons past. The Patriots just need to give Brady time to work and lead the team to the Promised Land once again. Stopping Bell will be very important, and if Belichick doesn’t have his team ready for what Bell’s capable of, the Killer B’s will sting them for sure.

Patriots survive, 27-23.

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