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NFL Picks – Conference Championships

Aaron Rodgers was excellent against Dallas. To win the NFC, he’ll need help to get past Kam Chancellor and Seattle’s Legion of Boom. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

I kinda, sorta, maybe forgot about picking the games this weekend until Thursday night. Instead of writing, I saw American Sniper. (Good movie. Though it exaggerated portions of the book while ignoring others. I spent most of the time confused. It’s probably a better movie if you haven’t read the book.) Anyway, I’m throwing these picks up quickly. I’m 100% confident I got all the participants right. Other than that, I can’t guarantee anything.

Last Week:  2 – 2 – 0
Playoffs:     4 – 4 – 0

Sunday, January 18 (3:05PM ET)

(2) Packers at (1) Seahawks
With apologies to JJ Watt, Aaron Rodgers is the NFL’s best player. Without Rodgers, the Packers miss the playoffs and finish somewhere between 6-10 and 8-8. Rodgers is the only elite talent on that offense. Jordy Nelson has elite stats, but if you take away Rodgers for entire season, he’d simply be a good receiver. NFL defenses can generally eliminate or contain one elite talent. Great defenses suffocate them. That’s what’s happened to Rodgers and the Packers in recent years.

When facing one of the NFL’s top five ranked defenses, the Packers are a combined 3-7 over the last three seasons with Rodgers under center. If you include the playoffs, that record drops to 3-9. The three wins came against Chicago (twice in 2012) and Detroit (2014). Against the NFC West (Seattle and San Francisco), the Packers are 0-4 in the regular season and 0-2 in the playoffs.

Look back at any of those losses and you’ll notice Rodgers never had a truly horrific game. Buffalo two months ago was as bad as it got. Rarely did he throw for over 300 yards and multiple touchdowns, but he never devolved into a heap of garbage either. Rodgers was almost always good enough to win those games. Those around him weren’t. And there in lies the rub.

When you face off against elite pass rushers, the clock for receivers to get open ticks dramatically faster. When the opposing secondary features All-Pro corners and safeties, the challenge of getting open increases considerably. Green Bay’s offensive line has never been a dominant unit. Rodgers’ receivers aren’t overwhelmingly big or physical. They’re not going to win too many jump balls or run through a physical corner at the line of scrimmage.

Seattle’s pass rush isn’t as good as it’s been in the past. It’s not near the same level as the one that wreaked havoc on Rodgers for 60 minutes in Buffalo. If Rodgers can move as well or better than he did against Dallas, he’ll find more time than he’s had against the other elite defenses he’s faced of late. However, more time doesn’t mean he’ll find open receivers. Packer receivers will still need to wrestle free from the NFL’s most dominant secondary featuring All-Pros Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor. As explosive as Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb can be, I just don’t see them getting open on a consistent basis unless the officials decide to call a tight game, which, while possible, rarely happens in the postseason.

Green Bay could opt to pound Seattle with Eddie Lacy early to soften up the defense and catch the secondary cheating to the line of scrimmage. But that didn’t work earlier in the season and I doubt it works now. We know Rodgers will play well enough to win. It’ll be up to everyone around him to elevate their play. I just don’t see it happening. SEAHAWKS If I were Charles Barkley; Packers +7.5

Sunday, January 18 (6:40PM ET)

(4) Colts at (1) Patriots
Last week Bill Belichick decided he wasn’t going to pound his head against the wall all afternoon by running the football. Baltimore’s defense was vulnerable to the pass, so Belichick attacked their weakness. This week, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots ran the football 30-35 times. Why the Broncos didn’t do the same a week ago remains a mystery.

Running the football isn’t New England’s only path to victory. Outside of Vontae Davis, the Indianapolis secondary won’t pose too much resistance to Tom Brady. And no NFL team has an answer for Rob Gronkowski. Though Denver’s offense struggled mightily last week, I expect an explosive outing from the Patriots offense, which given New England’s defensive performance a week ago, may be necessary.

IF, and that’s a very big “if,” the Colts are to win, it’ll be in a shootout. New England’s defense looked vulnerable last week against Joe Flacco until midway through the 4th quarter. The Colts owned the NFL’s top ranked passing attack in 2014. Andrew Luck makes solid receivers out of guys you haven’t heard of until they’re pulling in 8 receptions for 126 yards and 2 touchdowns. Luck, like Russell Wilson, is a game-changer if you give him any time on 3rd down. Also, T.Y. Hilton is due for a huge game.

I wrote off the Colts quite easily last week against Denver. I don’t know what to think this week. I’m inclined to write them off again. I’ve heard some compare this Colts team to the 2012 Ravens who shocked everyone en route to a Super Bowl title. That Ravens team didn’t do any one thing exceptionally well. They just continued to eliminate superior opponents. I don’t think the Colts have done that. The Bengals were without their top two receiving targets.. The Broncos offense was completely neutralized by Manning’s noodle arm. I’m inclined to believe the Colts have been more fortunate in the 2015 playoffs than they’ve been good. PATRIOTS If I were Charles Barkley; Patriot -7

*****

Last Week: 2 – 2 – 0
Playoffs:    3 – 5 – 0

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