Possibly the best Sunday of the football season is finally upon us. That’s because unlike the Super Bowl, we have two games to watch as the best each conference has to offer square off on the same day. Unlike some instances where teams with dominant defenses reach this point, that isn’t the case this year. Instead, this season came down to quarterbacks. While the 2016 season wasn’t Ben Roethlisberger’s best work, he was the clear second best quarterback in the AFC playoff field behind Tom Brady. Due to that, this matchup is actually one many projected in the preseason. For the NFC the matchup is a surprise to many, but how they reached this point isn’t. Aaron Rodgers has been in an otherworldly zone the past month and a half while Matt Ryan is playing at the MVP caliber level he has the entire season. This weekend of football should feature plenty of drama and offense which is all a lot of fans ask for.
Divisional round results:
Straight up: 2-2, Postseason: 6-2
Against the spread: 2-2, Postseason: 4-4
Packers 27 Falcons (-4.5) 24: These two teams played a highly entertaining game earlier in the year, but much has changed since that point. Not only is now Rodgers in a rhythm that few quarterbacks could ever match, but Clay Matthews will be playing this time around to help aide the Packers on the defensive side. While the Falcons secondary is vulnerable, what worries me is that at the time of this writing, there’s a chance Rodgers will be dealing with a very banged up receiving corps.
We all know that Jordy Nelson is unlikely to play, but Davante Adams with a balky ankle isn’t a guarantee to suit up for this one. That would leave Randall Cobb and Jared Cook (neither of whom played in the previous meeting) to absorb most of the targets. We saw how Cobb performed last year as the de facto number one receiver (it wasn’t ideal) and the Falcons have the speed at linebacker to potentially eliminate the areas of the field where Cook can win. In that case, the x-factor for the Packers would be rookie Geronimo Allison who has shown some big play ability in recent weeks.
In the previous matchup, the Packers were well aware they could not stop Julio Jones one on one, so they sold out to limit him. That allowed Ryan to carve up the Packers secondary with his running backs, tight ends and his other receivers. While Jones has been limited due to injury, he still insists he will play, so the Packers will likely once again sell out to limit him. That is great news for Mohamed Sanu who saw ten balls thrown his way in the last matchup against the Packers. In response he recorded nine catches for 84 yards and a touchdown.While Devonta Freeman figures to see plenty of work in both the passing and rushing attack, the real running back who should concern the Packers is Tevin Coleman.
Coleman was forced to miss the week eight matchup with an injury, but he’s a big play waiting to happen. Kyle Shanahan has excelled at creating matchups for Coleman often against inside linebackers that lack the speed to keep up with him. Don’t be surprised if Coleman makes a real name for himself in this game. While what I’ve written would tend to seem that the Falcons could win big, I just don’t feel comfortable betting against Rodgers here.
Despite dealing with a underwhelming and banged up receiving corps, Rodgers has brought his absolute A game at the perfect time. There are only a few quarterbacks a decade that make opposing fans hold their breath whenever they drop back to pass, and Rodgers is certainly one of those guys. He told the media and fans alike to not count the Packers out when they sat at 4-6, and the team hasn’t lost since. Now wouldn’t be a great time to doubt him.
Steelers 21 Patriots (-6.5) 28: For the last 13 seasons, only four quarterbacks have reached the Super Bowl from the AFC. Joe Flacco with one is the outlier, so the conference has basically been represented by Peyton Manning or these two quarterbacks facing off Sunday. These teams also faced off in the regular season, but Landry Jones was starting in place of an injured Roethlisberger. Besides Russell Wilson, you could make the case that any from the group of Carson Palmer, Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Tannehill and Andy Dalton was the second best quarterback the Patriots have faced this entire season. While the Patriots are obviously very good, the case could be made this game, their 18th of the season is only their second real test.
Roethlisberger and the Steelers high octane attack certainly are a threat, but for some reason they just don’t put up points the same way they do at home. My guess would be that the Patriots play a “bend but don’t break” defense in this one. Le’Veon Bell is obviously going to get his touches, but it could be tough sledding against a run defense that is looked on favorably by advanced metrics and is one of efficient tackling teams. Antonio Brown is obviously going to see plenty of passes thrown his way and will likely be shadowed by Malcolm Butler who has been fantastic down the stretch. While Brown should still get some of his numbers, it just makes it more important for a player like Eli Rogers or Jesse James to step up in the passing game.
While by now teams might figure how the Patriots will attack them, it’s obviously much harder to deal with than discussing it. Even without Rob Gronkowski for the majority of the year, Brady has been able to successfully throw in all areas of the field. In this game, don’t be surprised if it’s another one where Dion Lewis is a huge factor. The Steelers are one of the more vulnerable teams to opposing backs out of the backfield, and with Lewis and James White, the Patriots can certainly exploit that. While Lewis missed most of the season, he has hit his stride just in time as he has shown to be the true offensive weapon that broke onto the scene in 2015.
The last time they met, the Steelers seemed comfortable leaving linebackers such as Lawrence Timmons in coverage against Julian Edelman. While it didn’t burn them that time around, it’s certainly playing with fire. Edelman should be able to win those matchups, and all it would take is a few missed tackles to create what could be some chunk plays. While other Patriots receivers such as Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell are banged up, don’t be surprised if Brady takes a few deep shots to either them or newly acquired Michael Floyd. Even though Artie Burns has shown promise this season, it wouldn’t be surprising if Brady took his chances against the rookie. With the Steelers having some questions to answer on both sides of the ball entering this one, it’s hard to go against a Patriots team which has proven to be a strong on both sides of the ball.