NFL Championship Sunday — football’s final four — is here.
All that’s on the line this weekend in the NFL is a ticket to deep in the heart of Texas for Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium in Houston. And we’ve got quite a slate.
Arguably the four best quarterbacks in football — Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady — lead their teams into battle Sunday hoping to either build on their budding legacies or add to their already Canton-esque résumés.
Championship Sunday also means we have just three NFL games left to sink our teeth into this season, and NESN.com’s Mike Cole, Ricky Doyle and Andre Khatchaturian are back to give their weekly takes on each matchup.
Here’s how they fared last week in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.
Mike Cole: (2-2, 4-4 overall)
Ricky Doyle: (1-3, 4-4)
Andre Khatchaturian: (2-2, 4-4)
On to the picks with lines, as always, courtesy of our friends at OddsShark.
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Green Bay Packers at (-4.5) Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET
Mike: Packers. There’s a reason the over/under for this game (60) is higher than any playoff game in NFL history. Both teams feature high-powered offenses with questionable defenses. I can’t help but go back to the Week 8 matchup and look at that Green Bay lineup compared to this one. What do Jared Cook, Randall Cobb and Ty Montgomery have in common? None of them played in that game, and they should all be good to go this weekend. And, yes, I know the Falcons didn’t have Tevin Coleman in that game … but they did have Adrian Clayborne (who had two sacks) and Desmond Trufant. Neither will play in this game.
And while the Falcons’ pass rush looked good last week against Seattle, the Seahawks’ offensive line pales in comparison to Green Bay’s, one of the best pass-protection units in the NFL. Oh, and Aaron Rodgers. In what should be a shootout with the team holding the ball last winning — just like in Week 8 — I’ll take the points.
Andre: Packers. Aaron Rodgers is the hottest player in football with 24 touchdowns and just one interception in the Packers’ last nine games. I don’t care what type of pass rush he goes up against, Rodgers is unstoppable right now. He showed against the Dallas Cowboys that no matter what type of pressure is in his face, he can escape and make plays. Also, Rodgers likely will shed a tear when the Georgia Dome closes down following Sunday’s game, because he practically owns the building. In four career games there, Rodgers has a 73.6 completion percentage, 10 touchdowns and one interception (the pick came way back in 2008).
On the defensive side, the Packers have been on fire. During their eight-game winning streak, the Packers have a plus-16 turnover differential, 20 sacks (fourth-most) and a league-best 12 interceptions. Sure, Matt Ryan will put up points, but I’ll take the hotter quarterback and the slightly better defense outright.
Ricky: Packers. I picked against Aaron Rodgers last week. I’m not making that mistake again. Green Bay’s offensive line should hold up against Atlanta’s pass rush and minimize Vic Beasley’s impact. That, in turn, will make life extremely difficult for the Falcons’ secondary.
This game could come down to which defense can finagle its way off the field, and the Packers’ offense owns the second-best third-down conversion percentage in the NFL, which bodes well for Green Bay’s attempt to control the clock.
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Pittsburgh Steelers at (-6) New England Patriots, Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET
Mike: Steelers. I originally thought the Chiefs would be a tougher matchup for the Patriots, but the Steelers do a lot of things really well. This certainly isn’t the best Steelers team of all time, but they do have some balance on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, there’s no denying the talent level. Antonio Brown is a matchup nightmare for anyone — even Bill Belichick and the mighty Patriots — and you have to figure Pittsburgh will find a way to get Le’Veon Bell into the game plan early and often, especially if New England tries to take away Brown.
The Steelers’ defense isn’t as good as the Houston unit that gave Tom Brady fits, but Pittsburgh’s defense has greatly improved since Bud Dupree’s debut, winning all nine games he’s played in, thanks in large to his five sacks. He didn’t play in the first meeting, and James Harrison played fewer than 50 percent of the snaps.
I’m not saying Brady and Co. won’t find a way to win at home, but I think this game also comes down to the wire, so I’ll take the points.
Andre: Steelers. I think this game will be shockingly lopsided in Pittsburgh’s favor. The Steelers are winning football games despite Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben has thrown 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions during his team’s nine-game winning streak, but the Steelers’ defense has been unreal.
Since their 10th regular-season game, the Steelers have a league-best 1.22 yards-per-play differential and have allowed a league-best 4.8 yards per play. Pittsburgh also has a league-best 31 sacks during that span.
New England’s defense, on the other hand, is extremely overvalued. Here are seven of the eight quarterbacks the Patriots have faced during their eight-game run: Brock Osweiler, Matt Moore, Bryce Petty, Trevor Siemian, Jared Goff, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Colin Kaepernick. The Patriots’ pass rush also doesn’t scare me, and they’ll have a tough time against the Steelers’ offensive line, which allowed the second-fewest sacks this season (21). I don’t see anything in the Patriots’ arsenal that can slow down Le’Veon Bell, who has 1,565 all-purpose yards in his last nine games.
Finally, Rob Gronkowski had four catches, 93 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting between these teams. He’ll be out. As for Dion Lewis, the Steelers did a pretty good job in shutting down a similar type of player in Tyreek Hill in the divisional round. He had just 45 all-purpose yards and wasn’t a factor in the return game.
Ricky: Steelers. History is in the Patriots’ favor, as Tom Brady has absolutely owned the Steelers throughout this career. Pittsburgh is 0-4 at Gillette Stadium against the Brady-led Pats. But while I ultimately think the Patriots will punch their ticket to Super Bowl LI, I think this game will be closer than the six-point spread suggests.
The Steelers have the offensive weapons to cause problems, as well as an offensive line that can give those weapons room to operate. On the flip side, Pittsburgh’s defensive line has proven disruptive, so New England’s O-Line will need to be on its toes to avoid a scenario similar to the one that played out in last year’s AFC Championship Game in Denver.
These teams are evenly matched and very similar in several areas, which is why we could be in store for some drama in Foxboro. The game might just come down to making plays in the red zone, where the Steelers struggled last week in Kansas City and have had problems all season on the road — Pittsburgh has the second-best red-zone offense at home (72.41 percent touchdown rate) and the 29th-ranked red-zone offense away from Heinz Field (37.04 percent).
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images