We had to wait a week and a half for it, but the fun is finally back in the playoffs. This past weekend delivered big hits, Andy Reid clock management clock mishaps, and an instant classic at JerryWorld. I was minutes away from going 4-0 in my predictions for the Divisional Round until the Chiefs and Cowboys were undone by key mistakes. It was business as usual for the Patriots once they shook out some playoff butterflies against the Texans and Atlanta proved that they’re no gimmick by pounding Seattle, both offensively and defensively. Before we preview the shootout-promising conference championship matchups, let’s take a look at what spelled defeat for the teams who saw their seasons end during the Divisional Round.
- Falcons vs Seahawks: I expected Atlanta to score about 40 points, but what really impressed me about the Falcon’s 36-20 win over the Seahawks was the effort of their young defense, highlighted by rookie safety Brian Poole’s crushing hit on Russell Wilson. In the end there wasn’t one moment or matchup that you could isolate from this game and hold up as the key to victory for Atlanta. Seattle simply could not find a way to put out all of the fires that the Falcons were lighting simultaneously on offense, and they seemed to be caught off guard by Atlanta’s overwhelming pass rush.
- Patriots vs Texans: Nobody in their right mind outside the Republic of Texas thought the Texans had a chance to unseat the Patriots on Saturday night. It seemed as though it might be closer than expected when the Patriots made some uncharacteristic mistakes in the first half, but in reality the result was never in question. A weak secondary and inability to contain New England’s downfield passing betrayed a stellar effort from Jadeveon Clowney and the Houston pass rush. They key moment that meant doom for this Texans team was two weeks ago when they beat the Raiders on Wild Card Weekend. Find yourself a quarterback, Houston.
- Cowboys vs Packers: It may need some time to breathe, but Sunday’s matchup in Dallas was one of the greatest playoff games I’ve ever seen. It seemed like the pressure of the playoffs had gotten to Dallas’s young stars during the bye week as they found themselves in 21-3 hole. It was then up to Dak, Zeke, and some old guy named Dez to take over the game and bring Dallas’s Super Bowl dream back to life, and boy did they ever. Their determined effort only made Green Bay’s game-winning touchdown as time expired that much more excruciating for Dallas fans. After battling with the Packers for four quarters, the Cowboys found themselves with the ball on their own 25-yard line, down 31-28 with 1:33 left in the game. Dak Prescott immediately found Terrance Williams in the middle of the field for 24 yards. Right after, Prescott hit Jason Witten for 11 yards and another first down as Dallas drove towards the end zone. Then, inexplicably, with 50 seconds left and a timeout to burn with a chance to take the lead, Prescott spiked the ball on Green Bay’s 40-yard line. On 2nd and 10 Cole Beasley gained seven yards, but Prescott’s third down pass was batted down at the line forcing Dallas to tie the game with a field goal. The spike wasted a down that Dallas certainly could have used and wasn’t necessary by any means. If they elect to throw and the pass falls incomplete, the clock would stop anyway. Plus, you’re on your opponent’s 40 with just under a minute left and all of the momentum in your favor. Isn’t that an ideal situation? If you want to stop the clock and play for the tie I would imagine the best time for that is after you’ve already tried to score. Subsequently, Rodgers drove the Packers down the field for a game-winning field goal. In a season when it seemed that Jason Garret had exorcised his well-documented clock management demons, they reared their ugly heads once more at the worst possible moment for Dallas and its hopes of winning the Super Bowl.
- Chiefs vs Steelers: Late in the fourth quarter of this game Alex Smith led the Chiefs on a 7-minute drive, attempting to close the 8 point gap that separated the Chiefs and the Steelers. Kansas City would score a touchdown, a 1-yard rush by Spencer Ware that put them in position to tie the game with a successful 2-point conversion. The conversion was successful, but a holding penalty was called on KC lineman Eric Fisher which meant the Chiefs would have to try again from the 12-yard line instead of Pittsburgh’s 2. They were unsuccessful on the second attempt and the Steelers were able to gain a first down and then run the clock out for a victory. Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce was quoted after the game saying the ref (who called the holding penalty) “shouldn’t even be allowed to work at f***** Foot Locker”. I found this a bit ironic because Kelce is actually my key factor for Kansas City’s loss. Kelce has been the centerpiece of Kansas City’s offense all season, eclipsing 100 receiving yards six times this season and five times in the last eight weeks of the season. On Sunday Kelce had 5 catches for 77 yards, dropping several key passes downfield when the Chiefs needed him most. Paired with Alex Smith’s inability to get the ball to Tyreek Hill on the many, many times he was wide open 30 or 40 yards down the field it was the Chiefs’ offense that sealed their fate. The defense, which held Pittsburgh’s vaunted offense without a touchdown, did more than their share.
Does anybody else feel like these recaps are getting longer every week? Oh, well. No matter the circumstances, our conference championship matchups have been set and Sunday is set to be a whole lot of fun. We’ve been blessed with four of the NFL’s best quarterbacks making it through to the Conference Championships — two of which have been featured in eight Super Bowls since 2001. Over in the NFC we’ll get a battle between Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan who led the NFL in touchdowns this season so, yeah, you could say it’s a good weekend for football. I’ll apologize in advance for gushing over these two matchups 1,000 words past my welcome; they really are a football fan’s dream come true. Home teams in CAPS)
FALCONS vs Packers, Jan 22, 12:05pm PST
Like their Divisional Round matchup with Seattle, Atlanta will be facing a team this weekend that they saw earlier this season in a game that was decided by less than three points. The first edition of Packers vs Falcons was an instant classic that lived up to the hype surrounding its two star quarterbacks. Rodgers and Ryan threw a combined 7 touchdowns with no interceptions as Atlanta pulled of a 33-32 win.
Of course, Sunday’s NFC Championship won’t quite be a pure re-run – Atlanta’s leading rusher in that October matchup was none other than All-Pro Terron Ward, who rushed 6 times for 46 yards. Just in case the sarcasm isn’t translating, Ward isn’t an All-Pro the same way I’m not being considered for Trump’s cabinet: it was never even a thought in the conversation. Last week Atlanta’s backfield duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 102 yards and a touchdown against Seattle’s stout front seven, adding another 102 yards and touchdown through the air. Freeman and Coleman are the centerpiece of Atlanta’s offense and should be the focal point of Green Bay’s defensive game plan. If Ryan has early success finding receivers down the field and linebackers have to drop into coverage it will open running lanes for Freeman and Coleman, who are liable to break out for a 40-yard romp at any time. Their excellent receiving abilities out of the backfield make the Atlanta offense difficult to stop; even when nobody is open in the secondary Ryan can rely on check downs to Freeman and Coleman to convert on third down and keep the chains moving.
Conversely, Green Bay got just 71 rushing yards out of its main backfield options Ty Montgomery and Aaron Ripkowski. Montgomery added two rushing touchdowns, but both were from less than five yards out of the endzone. The offensive workload for the Pack falls squarely on the shoulders of one Aaron Rodgers. That’s not exactly a bad thing seeing as how Rodgers has accounted for 22 of the Packers’ 32 touchdowns since they began “running the table” after a troublesome 4-6 start. Rodgers is on a historic run that had led Green Bay right to the doorstep of Super Bowl 51, but he’ll need help if they’re going to beat the Falcons on Sunday. Rodger’s favorite receiver, Jordy Nelson, may be unavailable as he continues recovering from a rib injury sustained in Green Bay’s Wild Card win over the Giants. Because that wasn’t enough of a blow, breakout receiver Devante Adams may also be unable to participate on Sunday in addition to rookie Geronimo Allison who came up 3 catches for 46 yards last week against Dallas.
Rodgers may be known for maximizing whatever talent he has around him, regardless of injury or absence of stars, but the offense they’ll be trying to keep up with on Sunday isn’t just any group of guys. The Falcons scored 30+ points eleven times in the regular season and poured on 36 against Seattle last week. Stopping this Atlanta juggernaut becomes an even taller task when you consider that Green Bay will most likely be without star defensive back Morgan Burnett again, leaving LaDarius Gunter to be torched play after play by Julio Jones. Gunter shadowed Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant last week and all Bryant did was catch 9 passes for 132 yards and 2 touchdowns, which makes it even more puzzling that Dallas spiked the ball on that last drive instead of throwing the ball, but hey, I’m not an NFL coach. Green Bay’s biggest defensive weakness is definitely the secondary, especially deep down the field, so Matt Ryan and his speedy receivers that love to go deep early and often aren’t exactly an ideal matchup.
Luckily for Green Bay, Atlanta’s defense isn’t exactly the 2012 Seahawks, either. Atlanta has beaten teams this year by scoring a ludicrous amount of points every week and hoping the defense will come up with a key sack or a few turnovers along the way. Although they may not be what anyone would call a “shut down” defense, this unit has solidified over the season and last week’s win over the Seahawks was nothing short of a declaration. We already knew about Vic Beasley, Atlanta’s defensive end/whatever the hell he wants, who led the NFL in sacks for the regular season and has the ability disrupt even the most carefully crafted play. Last Saturday it was Atlanta’s secondary that introduced themselves to America as they limited Russell Wilson and generally bullied Seattle all over the field. Led by young defensive backs Keanu Neal, Jr and Brian Poole, both former Florida Gators, this Falcons defense is playing with the attitude it will need to stop Rodgers later today. Both of these quarterbacks are having seasons for the ages, but ultimately it will come down to who gets the most help from their defense. I see Atlanta sending the Georgia Dome off into the sunset with one last win before they move next door into what I can only assume from pictures is Megatron’s carcass. Just for good measure, I’m officially backing Matt Ryan as MVP. Love you, Nich. #MattVP Atlanta 45, Green Bay 36
New England Patriots vs Pittsburgh Steelers, Jan 22, 3:40pm PST
Alright folks, buckle up those seatbelts. I’ve been writing this thing since Wednesday, but predictably and perfectly on #brand for me, its 9 am on Sunday and I’m scrambling to get it done. This actually works out for you better than you might realize at first because it means I don’t have time to elaborate on the greatness that is the New England Patriots and their indomitable empire. The sacrifices I make for you people. Let’s get to it, shall we?
The Patriots defense has been criticized all year for not having to face good quarterbacks, but the real key to their success has been their ability to stop opposing running backs. The Patriots have not allowed a 100-yard rusher all season, heck, they haven’t even allowed a 90-yard rusher and whether or not they can limit Steelers back Le’Veon Bell will have a large impact on this year’s AFC Championship. When the Patriots and Steelers met earlier this season Bell only managed 81 yards on 21 carries and was unable to score any touchdowns. The quarterback in that game, Landry Jones, didn’t have the arm to test the Patriots deep and open running lanes for Bell to exploit. You can bet your bottom dollar (if you even know what that means, cause I’m still waiting for Annie to explain) that Ben Roeslithberger come out of the gate looking for receivers in the deep third of the field to put pressure on New England’s secondary and stop them from loading the box against Bell. Keep your eye on the matchup of Bell vs Patriots middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower who will be tasked with stopping Bell from breaking off long runs through the gut of New England’s defense.
New England will also have to account for Antonio Brown at all times. Brown caught 6 passes for 108 yards last time he saw this Patriots secondary and he’s probably an even bigger outing on his mind today. Brown will be followed by cornerback Malcolm Butler wherever he might line up on the field. You know, like that pizza commercial, but with none of the laughing and smiling. Butler is the undisputed leader of the New England secondary and will try to take Brown out of the game while Logan Ryan patrols whichever side of the field Brown happens to vacate. Safety Patrick Chung will most likely shadow tight end Jesse James who racked up the bulk of his 83 receiving yards against Kansas City on third down when Pittsburgh needed to keep drives going. That will leave free-safety Devin McCourty to stop Roeslithberger from attacking downfield with speedster Eli Rogers. It will be up to auxiliary linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts to ensure that Bell doesn’t turn a five yard gain into a 40-yard romp should he slip past Hightower. The centerpiece of the whole attack, Big Ben Roeslithberger, will be seeing a lot of veteran linebacker-turned-defensive end Rob Ninkovich who will lead New England’s outside pass rush and try to collapse the pocket to keep pressure on the quarterback.
While stopping Roeslithberger and this Steelers offense will be no walk in the park, Pittsburgh’s defense will face the unfortunate task of outsmarting Tom Brady and the Bunch (get it? come on, it’s 9:30. I’m doing my best). This Steelers defense slogged through the regular season without a real identity as a unit, but they and head coach Mike Tomlin have found Nirvana in the blitz, just as it was written by the ancients. The problem for Pittsburgh is that Tom Brady won’t be running naked bootlegs and double reverse flea-flickers on 3rd and 15. Brady is the best quarterback in the league against the blitz thanks to his impeccable pocket presence and ability to deliver in just a couple of seconds. Brady can diagnose a blitz at the line of scrimmage better than almost anyone and once he does, he knows exactly what to do with the ball. Tomlin’s favorite chess pieces, Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree, will have to penetrate the center of New England’s offensive line if they want to rattle Brady. If Brady has space to step up in the pocket and avoid the outside pass rush, Pittsburgh will be frustrated all afternoon while he checks down to backs Dion Lewis and James White or exposes a poor matchup and finds Chris Hogan or Julian Edelman deep downfield.
Ultimately, if Pittsburgh wants to beat this Patriots team that is playing in its sixth-straight AFC Championship, they will have to take a note from Houston’s first-half success and go after Brady. Should the 4-time Super Bowl winner remain untouched and be allowed time to pick apart the young Steelers secondary they will have no chance of keeping Brady from his seventh Super Bowl appearance. The difference in this heavy-weight matchup will be league leader in rushing touchdowns LeGarrette Blount. If Blount can pound the Steelers defense consistently and have success on the ground they will be forced to commit linebackers to stopping him and take some of the bite out of their blitz. Pittsburgh will also have to find an answer for Patriots receiver Julian Edelman who set franchise records for postseason catches and yards in a game last week against Houston’s #1 ranked defense. This New England offense is like a horde of zombies. Sure, you can kill a few and hold them off at first, but by the end of the movie you’re huddled in some freezer saying your goodbyes while they bust down the door. If New England can score consistently and keep the pressure on Roeslithberger they can lead him right into a costly mistake or two down the field. Patriots 38, Steelers 27
I don’t know about you guys, but I’m beyond jacked up for what could be the best Conference Championship weekend we’ve seen in years. Remember last season when Carolina used up all of their points one week too early and murdered the Cardinals? Oh no, today we’re talkin’ meaningful fourth quarters, genuine dislike between players, and maybe even overtime! Either way I’m just excited that the Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers are going to throw 100 touchdowns to keep my mind off of the fact that there are only three games left in the NFL season. No matter who you’re rooting for today just remember: the Patriots are better than your team and there’s always next year. To the couches!