#4 Green Bay Packers at #2 Atlanta Falcons
Saturday (1/22): 3:05 ET
The Packers roll into Atlanta after an epic 34-31 victory against the Dallas Cowboys. Once again, it was the 2-time MVP Aaron Rodgers who delivered in the game’s most crucial moment. His 35-yard missile to the toe-tipping Jared Cook propelled Green Bay into this NFC Championship showdown, and Green Bay will need even more magic from Rodgers if they are to reach the Super Bowl.
Likely playing without star wide-out Jordy Nelson won’t make life any easier for the Packers, but if anyone can overcome this, it’s Rodgers. He’s been absolutely on fire lately, leading his team to eight straight wins while throwing for 717 yards and 6 touchdowns in Green Bay’s two playoff victories.
With the offense clicking on all cylinders, Green Bay’s shortcomings lie solely with the defense. And sadly for them, they are facing an Atlanta offense who is just as lethal as Rodgers’ unit.
MVP frontrunner Matt Ryan has been phenomenal this season, particularly during the second half of the season. Since Week 12, Ryan is second in completion percentage (72.4%), yards per attempt (9.0) and total QBR (87.4). At home, the Falcons average 35.1 points per game, and enter with plenty of momentum following an impressive 36-20 dismantling of the Seattle Seahawks.
Flanked by a multitude of weapons, it’s far from surprising that Ryan put up 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns this season. And after seeing Dez Bryant torch Green Bay’s secondary last week, All-Pro Julio Jones must be licking his chops. Green Bay’s ability (or inability) to slow down Ryan’s favorite target will go a long way in determining which team emerges victorious.
With Rodgers and Ryan in peak form and both defenses showing no indication of being able to slow down their opponent, the Vegas over/under of 60.5 points can’t be considered surprising. Just like the first time these two teams played (a 33-32 Falcons victory), expect this one to come down to the final possession as Ryan guides Atlanta to a thrilling victory.
Prediction: 35-34 Falcons
#3 Pittsburgh Steelers at #1 New England Patriots
Sunday (1/22): 6:40 ET
The first postseason for the “Killer B’s” (Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown) has been exceptional so far. They smashed the Miami Dolphins 30-12, then earned a hard-fought victory against the Kansas City Chiefs last weekend 18-16.
While Big Ben and Antonio Brown have been more than solid, the ‘Steel Curtain’ are still alive thanks to Le’Veon Bell. The bellcow has totaled 337 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns this postseason and should continue against an untested Patriots defense. His ability to run the ball is crucial to Pittsburgh’s success, keeping defenses honest and opens up the pass game for Big Ben and his star wide receiver.
The Patriots use a similar approach on offense. LeGarrette Blount has been phenomenal all season, forcing defenses to respect the run, which has in turn opened up the field for Tom Brady and New England’s vaunted passing attack.
Even with stud tight end Rob Gronkowski out, the Patriots have plenty of weapons in Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Martellus Bennett, James White and Dion Lewis. In fact, New England is a sparkling 15-0 in games that Dion Lewis suits up for them. And on the heels of last week’s 3-touchdown performance, it’s fair to call him New England’s most dangerous weapon.
With both offenses looking to control the time of possession, this one should come down to red zone efficiency. Pittsburgh scored red zone touchdowns on an unimpressive 55.4 percent of possessions during the regular season, and didn’t instill any more hope by winning without scoring a touchdown last week against Kansas City. Scoring touchdowns will be paramount if the Steelers are to keep pace with New England.
Both defenses are peaking at the right time, meaning this one will come down to which eventual Hall of Fame quarterback plays better. It’s never a good idea to pick against Brady in the postseason – especially when playing at Gillette – and he has dominated the Steelers in recent years.
Just like the NFC Championship Game, this one should come down to the wire, but Belichick and Brady will emerge victorious and represent the AFC in the Super Bowl for the seventh time.
Prediction: 24-20 Patriots
Image Sources: USA TODAY Sports, SportingNews