CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS – ANY TEAM CAN WIN THIS YEAR’S SUPER BOWL

21Jan17

When was the last time we reached the conference championship round of the playoffs and you found yourself able to make legitimate arguments for all four of the remaining teams to win the Super Bowl? It doesn’t happen often, but it has most certainly happened this year.

Clearly, we will be watching the four best teams in the league square off. That doesn’t mean that they have been the best all season long, but right here, right now, there is no doubt whatsoever that the cream has risen to the top.

In fact, the last time any of these teams lost a game was back in week 13, on December 4th, when the Falcons lost to the Kansas City Chiefs 29-28. For the Packers, it was week 11 and for the Steelers and Patriots, it was week 10, back on November 13th. Think about that for a moment. One of the teams in the AFC championship will lose their first game since two weeks before Thanksgiving!

And have you noticed one thing they all have in common? Let me give you a hint. Brady, Roethlisberger, Rodgers and Ryan! Makes you wonder if some of the other teams in the league are paying attention.

Let’s take a closer look at the games!

NFL Football

Green Bay at Atlanta.

This is tale of two very similar teams that arrived here having traveled very different paths. The Falcons led their division from week 2 and never looked back, cruising to a division title with relative ease. Meanwhile, the Packers struggled for most of the first half of the season, finding themselves at 4-6 and several games behind Detroit for the division lead. Their playoffs literally began in week 12, which is when they began the eight-game winning streak that they’re currently riding. Just think, if they had lost only one of those games along the way, they wouldn’t even be here this week.

So, what happened to generate such an historic finish to the season and a surge through the first two rounds of the playoffs? Well, several things, such as a defense plugging the multiple holes that existed in the early season, or an offensive line that began to play more solid games, allowing Rodgers more time to do his thing, or a running game joining the party after being non-existent for so many weeks.

Of course, having Mr. Rodgers running the offensive attack doesn’t hurt either. While others around him see doom and gloom, he casually pulls off miracle after miracle with apparent ease. Just ask the Cowboys, who, after making a furious late game comeback to tie the score, watched helplessly while Rodgers, running to his left, threw a 40-yard bullseye to Cook, with not even an inch to spare, to give the Packers an opportunity to win it with a long field goal.

With Rodgers leading the way, they can survive with an average defense. Well, at least they have been able to so far.

Enter Atlanta. Why were they able to lead their division for all but the first week of the season? The obvious answer is that Ryan is having a career season, leading most ballots for the MVP award. But if you look closer, you find arguably the most dangerous receiver in the league and the absolute best one-two punch at running back we’ve seen since the Dolphins of the early ‘70s. (Yes, I can remember watching football back then!)

What was a terrible defense a year ago, has become a solid unit this season. They are not the cream of the crop, but they are not to be taken lightly, either. They have shown that they can rise to the occasion when needed. Just ask the Seattle Seahawks, who ran into the Falcon buzz saw last week.

So, we have two teams with great offenses and average or better defenses going head to head this week. What does that mean? Well, that’s easy. It means there will be lots of fireworks and lots of points from both teams.

So, who wins this game? That’s not so easy. Both teams have shown that you can never count them out. They also have both shown they can score big and fast, so if either team lets up for a few minutes, they may find themselves down by double digits real fast.

These teams met way back in week 8, the day before Halloween, in Atlanta, where the Falcons pulled off a nail-biting 33-32 win. There is no reason to think the score will be any lower than that meeting, and most likely will be higher. Both teams are playing better now than they were back in that first battle.

This one will be exciting for all fans, regardless of which team they are rooting for. Neither team can ever be counted out, even if one team jumps to an early lead. Both teams are facing injury issues, with Jones hobbling on a bad toe for the Falcons, while Nelson is out and Adams is dinged up for the Packers.

But don’t let that make you think either team will run away from the passing game (pun intended). That’s how they both got here and they both have more than just one receiving threat.

Ultimately, I’m going with the hot hand and the experienced hand. No one has been able to stop Rodgers yet, and I don’t see it happening this week. It will be an offensive frenzy, with plenty of points scored by both teams, but in the end, the Packers will leave town with a first-class ticket to the Super Bowl.

Final score – Green Bay 41, Atlanta 37.

Packers Helmet

Pittsburgh at New England.

There are so many angles to work for this game. Steelers versus Patriots. Brady versus Roethlisberger. Tomlin versus Belichick. All of them make for great storylines, but there will be so much more to this game.

The Steelers are making their first ever playoff run with the three B’s (Ben, Bell and Brown) all playing. And when they are clicking, wow! They look great and are fun to watch.

Just think about the first ten minutes of the wild card game against Miami. Before the Dolphins knew what hit them, they had seen Ben hit Brown for a 50-yard TD and a 62-yard TD, and the game was all but over.

And watching Bell run is like watching a surgeon patiently waiting for the proper moment and location to make the incision. You think he’s about to be caught for a two-yard loss and BAM, he’s off to an eight-yard gain. You think you’ve contained him, and then you realize he’s run for 150 yards.

And unlike the NFC championship, this game will feature some very good defense. The Steelers D will be physical and will give Brady all he can handle. Any time Kansas City staged any kind of threat last week, the Steelers defense came up big to shut them down. The final score was not indicative of the game. If Pittsburgh had only scored one TD instead of one of their six field goals, the Chiefs would never have been close.

So how does Brady and Company defeat the Steelers? By doing what they always do. Open holes to establish a solid rushing attack. Get the ball out of Brady’s hands for a quick and precise passing attack. And don’t make any mistakes on defense. They must contain Bell and slow down Brown.

Sounds simple, right? Riiiiiiight!

Dr. Evil

Well, if any team can do it, it’s the Patriots. When these two teams met in Pittsburgh in week 7, LaGarrette Blount ran for 127 yards and two TDs, and Brady, playing in only his third game of the season, quietly threw for 222 yards and two more TDs, completing 73% of his passes. Short, on target and consistent. He is one of the most frustrating QBs to defend.

Although Big Ben did not play in that week 7 meeting, Brady still has an incredible 9-2 career record against the Steelers. So, how does Pittsburgh come to Foxboro and get a win?

Well, first of all, they cannot shoot themselves in the foot with penalties, something they tend to do. Also, they must complete their drives and not settle for field goals. Six field goals were enough to beat the Chiefs last week, but it won’t work against the Patriots this week. New England can actually move the ball and score. And they cannot have turnovers. Roethlisberger has thrown three interceptions in their two playoff games. If that continues this week, it may very well cost them the game.

All signs point to a physical, low-scoring game, with the team that makes the fewest mistakes walking away with the victory. That means that if the Patriots play their game, they will win. I think they will!

Final Score – New England 27, Pittsburgh 20.

Patriots Helmet

Before the playoffs began, I made my picks for the entire playoff picture. So far, I’m 8-0. Although you can make arguments for all four remaining teams to go all the way, I see no reason to change from my original picks, even considering injuries to star players.

But right or wrong, this Sunday is going to have some great football for all sports fans. So, get ready to fire up the grill and pop open a cold one. It’s gonna be a great Sunday in the NFL!

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