It’s here at last. The top 4 teams have made it to the Conference Championship games, and with Pittsburgh, New England, Green Bay, and Atlanta in, we’ve got two excellent matchups.
Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons
We have the top two MVP candidates in Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers facing off against each other’s defenses in an exciting matchup.
Last week against Seattle, The Falcons dominated the entire way through, with Ryan, the run game, and Kyle Shanahan’s game plan playing exceptionally against an Earl Thomas-less Seattle defense to make it back to the NFC Title game for the first time since 2012.
In a thriller against the Cowboys, Rodgers threw one of the greatest passes you’re likely to ever see, helping convert a long first down on a tight throw to Jared Cook, ultimately setting up Mason Crosby’s game winning field goal against the #1 seed in the NFL.
The hot streak Rodgers is on is one of, if not the best stretches he’s ever been on, consistently throwing darts and giving his receivers so many chances despite their limited quality and crucial drops. He will need to continue to be on his A-game to counter the #1 offense in the league.
It’s true. The Falcons have exploded and have struck fear in almost every opponent they’ve faced this season, and have overcome a tough strength of schedule. Against the Packers defense, they’ll want to get creative right away and force Rodgers to play from behind. Atlanta is not afraid to stay aggressive and in the last game at the Georgia Dome, they’ll show it too.
This is a game where the Packers’ receiving group can’t afford drops. Vic Beasley against the Packers offensive line is another exciting showdown as well. With this said, the game can go either way, but Atlanta should be able to make it back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1998. Matt Ryan must continue his efficiency and strong execution of Shanahan’s offense for the Falcons to stay on top though.
Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots
This is the AFC matchup we’ve all been waiting for. Gronk isn’t available, and neither is Martavis Bryant, but we have the Killer B’s (Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Chris Boswell?), and Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, Martellus Bennett, and Dion Lewis.
The last time these teams faced off, Pittsburgh made it close, but New England ultimately pulled away in the 4th quarter. Big Ben was also absent from that game with a leg injury. He was excellent the last time he faced New England the season opener in 2015), but now is a different story. Ben has not been the usual quality we’ve expected him to be, and now is a better time than ever to get back to it.
Bell has been a one man wrecking crew in the first two postseason games of his career, and while he’ll certainly be needed to pound the rock, it is Roethlisberger that has to go aggressive against a weaker Patriots defense. The play calling needs to be on point and prevent itself from trying to outsmart New England. Rarely has that worked in Foxboro.
The key is to attack New England’s weak points on defense, because Tom Brady will be able to expose Pittsburgh’s. The Steelers’ defense has improved somewhat this season, but it’s still not enough where they can overwhelm Brady completely. The key is to force Brady to beat them deep, as he is the weakest of the top QBs in terms of downfield passing. Brady has been excellent in the past against the Steelers because he’s able to recognize their weaknesses and use the underneath game and pick apart the open receiver quickly. Should recent matchups be of indication, he’ll do the same here.
But this is not the same dominate Patriots team we’ve become accustomed to. Gronk being sidelined for the year has exposed the team, and while Belichick’s coaching makes everyone better, the team looked vulnerable against the Texans in Foxboro before Brock Osweiler cost Houston a win with his incompetence. As previously mentioned, the defense is weaker, and the offensive line is not of the same quality.
Pittsburgh was able to get by Kansas City with field goals at Arrowhead Stadium, but that’s impossible to do against the best team in the AFC. The red zone struggles from the previous week need to cease for Pittsburgh to have a shot.
I think New England will win, but I will not be surprised if Pittsburgh does. This is a dynamic offense with their top 4 pieces (Ben, Bell, Brown, OL) intact going up against a depleted New England roster. This should be a fun matchup.
(Featured image via thegridfe.com)