NFL Picks – Conference Championships

Le’Veon Bell’s ground game has Pittsburgh thinking Super Bowl. Can Belichick and Brady slow him down? And who wins the expected shootout in the ATL? (PHOTO BY WILLIAM PURNELL/ICON SPORTSWIRE)

Before we get into the good stuff, let’s all appreciate the playoff seeds still remaining:
1. Patriots.
2. Falcons.
3. Steelers.
4. Packers.

I’ve been doing this nonsense for seven years (I think) and this is the first time the last four standing were of the 1, 2, 3, 4 variety. I know what you’re thinking; this isn’t a big deal at all,  and you’d be right. Simple minds, simple pleasures, I suppose.

Anyway, since I was already looking back, I decided to see how I’ve faired with my picks in the Conference Championship round. To my great surprise, I’ve been pretty good at this point in the postseason. I’m 11-3 in picking winners and 10-4 against the spread. Obviously, I’m excited to go 0-4 this weekend.

Last Week:  3 – 1 – 0
Playoffs:      6 – 2 – 0

Sunday, January 22 (3:05PM ET)

(4) Packers at (2) Falcons
Following the 2010 regular season the NFC East champion Eagles and the Wildcard Packers met on Wildcard weekend in Philadelphia. I said right here that the winner would represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. I was right. (Though sadly it wasn’t the Eagles.) Two weeks ago I considered a similar proclamation. However, after much thought (3-4 minutes worth), I opted against such an idea and even picked the Giants to end Green Bay’s playoff run before it started. Whoops. Now the Packers once again find themselves a game from the Super Bowl for the second time in three seasons and many believe they’ll win the NFC. Here’s why they won’t.

First of all, the Packers defensive backfield is in shambles. Dak Prescott is a fine quarterback but he’s not elite, at least not yet. Prescott torched that secondary up and down the field last week. Dallas scored points on five of their last six drives and the drive they didn’t score on was the result of a red zone interception. So yeh, unlike the 2010 Packers, Green Bay’s defense is atrocious. If you watched Sunday’s win in Dallas you’d notice the Packers generated no pressure on Prescott. Matt Ryan is a surgeon when you let him sit in the pocket. He was every bit as good as Aaron Rodgers in 2016 and maybe even better. Look at their numbers:

Rodgers: 4,428 YDs, 65.7%, 40 TD, 7 INT, 7.26, AVG, 78.2 QBR, 104.2 QB Rating
Ryan:       4,944 YDs, 69.9%, 38 TD, 7 INT, 9.26 AVG, 83.1 QBR, 117.1 QB Rating

Simply put, Ryan has too many weapons. No pressure means no victory.

Second, even Aaron Rodgers isn’t perfect. Rodgers ran out of steam in that 2nd half last week. He started missing open targets, his throws weren’t as precise, and he may have even panicked a little as evidenced when he yelled at Geronimo Allison after a failed 3rd down. This isn’t a knock on Rodgers. The guy is absolutely alone out there. It’s amazing he doesn’t panic after the opening kickoff. Rodgers has no running game to lighten the load, his pass protection, despite what Troy Aikman believes, is average at best, and he’s been playing without his best and most trusted receiver for the last two weeks. Rodgers is the best we’ve ever seen to play the position, but he’s still human. Let’s not forget that Rodgers and the Packers went scoreless on four of their last five drives prior to kicking back-to-back field goals in the final minutes.

Third, and I know I keep saying this, but Atlanta is really, really good. I picked Atlanta to win the NFC the day the playoff matchups were set. (I even have a small investment to prove it.) I never trusted Dallas’ defense against the Packers and didn’t trust the Cowboys as a whole against the Giants. The playoff field broke horribly for Dallas and perfectly for Atlanta. Seattle was a dead man walking since the Earl Thomas injury. Only the Giants defense could really contend with Atlanta’s offense and the Packers took care of that for them. Sure, Atlanta’s defense will be in for a long day against Rodgers, but that’s just it: It’s only Rodgers. The Packers can’t run the ball, they can’t keep Atlanta’s offense off the field. The Falcons, on the other hand, can torch your defense any way they want. They’ve passed for 500 yards in a game this year, run for 200 in three others and totaled over 500 yards of offense three times. The Falcons led the NFL in scoring by 4.5 points over the 2nd place Saints and a full touchdown over the 3rd place Patriots. The Atlanta defense certainly makes the Falcons beatable, but I don’t think there’s a defense left good enough to level that playing field. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and the rest of Atlanta’s plethora of weapons is just too good. FALCONS If I were Charles Barkley; Falcons -4

Sunday, January 22 (6:40PM ET)

(3) Steelers at (1) Patriots
I feel vindicated and stupid all at the same time in regards to the Pittsburgh Steelers victory last weekend. On one hand, I called the Steelers “the biggest phonies of Wildcard Weekend.” I stand by this comment and feel my assertion was correct. Pittsburgh couldn’t find the end zone Sunday in Kansas City and Ben Roethlisberger again looked pedestrian. If not for another dazzling performance from Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers would be FacebookLiveing from home.

On the other hand, I’m a big idiot. As a lifelong Eagles fan I should have known better than to trust an Andy Reid football team to play to its full potential in the postseason. I can’t believe how many ways the Chiefs managed to blow that game. Horrible play-calling, dropped passes, mindless penalties, and of course the signature Reid move; questionable decisions including poor clock management. Also, if your season is on the line and you need a stop on 3rd and 4, do you drop back in coverage or do you blitz? I’d blitz, and I certainly wouldn’t drop my best pass-rusher back in coverage to be covering one of the two best receivers in the league. I’m still bitter.

Anyway, this promises to be an interesting test for both teams. Like Pittsburgh, the Patriots didn’t perform up to expectations last week. Standard operating procedure for the Patriots is to win their first postseason outing by blowout and then fight tooth and nail from then on. The Patriots got the struggling out of the way against a great Texans defense, so perhaps the New England offense will really open up against a looser Steeler unit? I thought the Chiefs blew it last week by not stretching the field. Kansas City receivers were open many times but Alex Smith was either too afraid or too inept to get them the ball. Brady is neither. For the Patriots to win, they must protect Brady. Protecting Brady means opportunities downfield, which means points, which then translates to a lead and ultimately eliminates the Steelers ability to ride Bell. Take away Bell and the Steelers aren’t quite so lethal.

Yes, it sounds strange to consider a unit with Antonio Brown outside and Ben Roethlisberger under center less lethal than a ground game. It’s true, though. As I mentioned last week, this Roethlisberger isn’t peak Roethlisberger. He’s still injured. As he did last week, he can still make a few big plays, but he won’t be able to carry the Steelers to victory as he could if totally healthy.

I think the Steelers may win. Le’Veon Bell is that good and Antonio Brown has shown he can rack up 100 yards in a matter of quarters, not games. My concern is the Steeler defense. While they’ve looked pretty good the last two weeks, I’m not certain if they’re actually that good or the opponents were that bad. Miami was working with a backup quarterback that had his brain scrambled in the 2nd quarter. The Chiefs offense has never been explosive and proved as much once again last week. This may sound crazy, but I don’t really trust the Patriots in these situations, either. Let’s not forget they’re only 1-3 over the last four seasons in the AFC title game. I guess I’ve boiled this down to a defense I don’t fully trust or a team that’s been pretty disappointing in this situation of late. As such, I’m taking Bill Belichick over Mike Tomlin. PATRIOTS If I were Charles Barkley; Patriots -6


Last Week: 3 – 1 – 0
Playoffs:     5 – 3 – 0

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