Championship Weekend Breakdown
Insight, analysis, and predictions for the AFC & NFC title games
The road to Super Bowl LI in Houston runs though Atlanta, as Matt Ryan and the Falcons take on the red hot Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship game.
The last time Aaron Rodgers played Atlanta in the post-season, he raised the Lombardi Trophy a few short weeks later.
To break this matchup down, here is the most important thing each team has to do to secure a spot in the Super Bowl. First up, the home team: the Atlanta Falcons.
How does Atlanta avoid taking another beating from Rodgers in Atlanta, like what General Sherman did there 152 years ago? By beating Rodgers at his own game; putting points on the board.
Throw it back to week 8, when these two teams met in Atlanta and Mohamad Sanu reeled in the game-winning touchdown pass with half a minute to go to make the final score 33-32. After that game, Green Bay went on to lose the next three games, but not because their offense wasn’t putting points on the board. In fact, over those three losses after Atlanta, the Pack averaged scoring 25 points a game. On the other hand, of their six losses, they gave up an average of 33 points per game. That is their Achilles heel.
So how can the Falcons slow down Rodgers enough to silence his guns in this shootout? Ignore the popular saying, “we have to stop the run game,” because Rodgers quite frankly could not give a damn about the run game. Ty Montgomery led the Packers on the ground against Dallas last week with just 47 yards. And putting pressure on the quarterback is always helpful, but Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks against the blitz.
Even if Atlanta shuts down the Packers’ run game and brings down Rodgers a handful of times, Green Bay has still found ways to win, so Atlanta’s best defense has to be a good offense.
Green Bay has lost three of the six games this year in which they gave up more than 100 yards on the ground. When Green Bay loses in the run game, they can be beaten.
So come late in the fourth quarter, if Atlanta has the lead and the ball and needs to run out the clock but Green Bay needs a stop, then whoever wins that battle will win the game. Give Rodgers the ball back with 50 seconds and no time-outs, and he will find a way to win. Look at what he did against Dallas last week with just a little bit of pocket change on the clock.
Let’s talk about the cheeseheads now and what they need to do to end up in Houston. Looking at Atlanta’s five losses, they did not lose with their tail between their legs on offense. Matt Ryan’s offense averaged 24 points in their five losses.
But the difference maker for Atlanta is Matt Ryan in losses. Ryan threw 38 touchdowns this season, yet in his five losses he only threw eight touchdowns. His completion percentage also dropped from 73 to 63 when he lost.
Where does Green Bay capitalize then? 4th quarter. Let’s look at how Atlanta’s offense has done in the 4th quarter in their five losses. Versus Tampa Bay: 0; Seattle: 0; San Diego: 3; Philadelphia: 6; Kansas City: 12 points. Yet, when Atlanta goes into the 4th quarter with a lead this season, they are 11-2. On the flip side, when they go into the 4th quarter trailing, they are 0-3. Which means that, if Atlanta goes into the final quarter ahead, they will be relying on their 25th-ranked yards-allowed-per-game defense to stop Rodgers and the Pack offense.
Prediction: 33-30 Green Bay
For the sixth straight season, the road to the Super Bowl for the AFC runs through Tom Brady. As for the Steelers, this is their first AFC championship appearance since the 2010-2011 season, when they beat the Jets but later fell to the Packers in Super Bowl 45.
Let’s break down this matchup featuring two future hall of fame quarterbacks and identify what each side needs to do to punch its ticket to Houston.
Big Ben and the Steelers are the underdogs in this one, as they head up to Foxborough. Like every one of the four teams remaining, the Steelers are coming in on a red hot, on a nine game win streak. How do they extend this streak to 10?
Unfortunately for the Steelers, the Patriots’ greatest strength may be their ability to not have a weakness. That may sound impossible, but the Patriots are masters of not having one part of their game that holds them back.
One of their two losses was without Tom Brady at the helm, and the other was against the Seattle Seahawks in week 10. Seattle beat the Pats by slowing down Brady and then capitalizing on it. Seattle’s defense forced two punts and two turnovers on the Patriots. That can be an accomplishment on its own, but the real accomplishment was that they turned those stops into points on their next drives. Big Ben will need to make the most out of any stop or stolen possession his defense gives him.
That begs the question, how do the Steelers respond after creating turnovers? And how do they create those turnovers? First off, New England is tied for best at holding onto the ball, only committing 11 turnovers. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, is tied with New England at 14th for turnovers created with 23. The Steelers need to force turnovers on a team which is best at holding onto the ball.
As for the other sideline, rewind to week 7 at Heinz Field, where Brady and the Patriots walked over the Steelers, who were without Roethlisberger. The Patriots’ defense slowed down Le’Veon Bell and held him to 81 yards. That’s not the only game where Bell had a leash on him. In fact, Bell averages nearly two yards less per carry in losses. Pittsburgh lost four games with Bell in the lineup; in those four losses, Bell averaged 55.75 yards on the ground. Yet, he averaged 105 yards per game throughout the whole season. Clearly, the Steelers live or die on the run game.
With that, how do the Patriots fare in the run game defensively? Throughout the regular season and the post-season, New England played a total of six games against teams which were in the top 10 at rushing yards per game. New England’s record in those six games was 5-1. Defensively, the Patriots ranked third against the rush, only giving up 88 yards per game. Game plan for the Patriots has to be stop Bell and then book a hotel in Houston.
Prediction: 29-21 New England