After a couple thrilling finishes in the Divisional Round, we are left with four top-flight teams in the Conference Championships this Sunday (Jan. 22, 2017). When the Falcons host the Packers and Patriots host the Steelers, we’ll see arguably the three best quarterbacks in the game right now (Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Tom Brady) plus a fourth (Ben Roethlisberger) who already has two Super Bowl rings to his credit and would rank in anyone’s top-ten.
Quarterback play will undoubtedly be a major factor this weekend, but it won’t be the only one.
As has been the case the majority of these playoffs, both Conference Championships present rematches from earlier this season. Thus far, the team who won the first matchup is 3-4 both straight-up and against the spread in the playoffs. Can we trust that trend this weekend when Green Bay travels to back to Atlanta and Pittsburgh heads to New England?
The first meeting between these two came back in Week 8, with Atlanta coming out on top, 33-32. Aaron Rodgers was given the ball with 31 seconds and two timeouts remaining, but failed to get the Packers into field-goal range. That sounds preposterous now. Remember, we were dealing with the old Aaron Rodgers back then, the one who was a little lacking in the seemingly-impossible-throws department. Over the last eight weeks, Rodgers has treated us to a level of quarterbacking we have never witnessed before.
Atlanta’s defense has played a little better of late, but will have to slow the league’s hottest passing attack without Desmond Trufant this time. Fortunately for the Falcons, it’s unlikely Jordy Nelson suits-up for Green Bay this week, and Davante Adams may be slowed by the ankle injury he suffered late in last week’s game. Robert Alford and Jalen Collins will still have their hands full, though.
So will Green Bay’s own banged-up secondary. No team scored more points than the Falcons this year. In nine games at the Georgia Dome this season, Matt Ryan and company averaged just over 35 points per game. The NFL’s soon-to-be MVP finished the regular season with a 117.1 passer rating, fifth-highest in league history, and led the greatest show on turf since “The Greatest Show on Turf.” If there’s an offense that can exchange blows with Aaron Rodgers right now, it’s Ryan’s group.
There are two matchups that will decide this game: (a) Ladarius Gunter against Julio Jones, and (b) Vic Beasley versus the Packers’ offensive line. Gunter was torched last week by Dez Bryant. Getting lit up by a number one receiver isn’t anything out of the ordinary for Gunter. Julio Jones is even better than Dez and Ryan can get him the ball anywhere on the field. If Gunter can’t at least slow Jones, the Packers will have to give him extra help, allowing Taylor Gabriel or Atlanta’s dynamic backfield duo to feast.
In the second key matchup, Vic Beasley will need to get after Aaron Rodgers. If number 12 is given all day in the pocket, or allowed to get outside of it and extend plays, this will be a long game for the Falcon defense.
There is not much reason to believe these two offenses can be consistently stopped, especially by either of these defenses, and I foresee another thrilling finish. This is too many points for a game that could go either way, and Aaron Rodgers is far too hot to bet against right now.
Pick: Packers (+4.5)
The Patriots breezed through a Roethlisberger-less Steelers team back in Week 7, winning 27-16. But this time around, Bill Belichick will have to deal with Big Ben under center for Pittsburgh. The Pats head coach is also going to have to do what no team has since early November: slow Le’Veon Bell.
Right now, Bell is the Aaron Rodgers of running backs. Over the last eight weeks, he is averaging just under 179 yards from scrimmage per game, and has displayed a patience behind his offensive line that is unprecedented. New England ranks third against the run and was able to hold Bell to 81 yards on the ground when they met earlier, but he did add 68 yards receiving.
The player who will receive the most media attention heading into this game is Antonio Brown. After the star wide receiver foolishly decided to live broadcast Mike Tomlin’s post-game speech following their win over the Chiefs, there is a lot of pressure on Brown to perform this Sunday.
Pittsburgh will need great performances from all of their Killer Bs this weekend, Chris Boswell included, to have a chance at taking down the empire that Belichick and Tom Brady have built. This is the most well-rounded Patriots team we have seen since 2007. Fortunately for New England, Eli Manning and the Giants aren’t around to spoil their party.
In the absence of Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman has turned into an ultra-reliable option while Chris Hogan continues to stretch the field. Since Week 11, Edelman has seen an average of 12.6 targets per game, turning them into just over 98 yards per game. However, last week quickly turned into the Dion Lewis show. The versatile back became the first player in postseason history to score a rushing, receiving, and kickoff return touchdown in the same game. Steelers inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier present a much tougher matchup in the short passing game, though.
Following an ugly 18-point win in the Divisional Round, Belichick is going to demand a better performance from his team, including Mr. Brady. Tom Terrific tied his interception total from the regular season last week (two), and will respond with a near-flawless effort this Sunday. But that won’t be enough to cover this big spread. Pittsburgh possesses too much talent at the skill positions and their offensive line is beginning to look very Cowboys-esque. Big Ben will play the game we have all been waiting for and keep this one close.
Pick: Steelers (+6)
Photo Credit: Keith Allison (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/].
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