By Mike DeVito
Packers @ Falcons
The NFC championship brings us an exciting matchup between two of the best QB’s in the NFL. Aaron Rodgers has his team on an 8-game winning streak which includes two playoff wins against the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys. Over the last two weeks Rodgers has thrown 6 TD’s to 1 int with a 110 quarterback rating and he has done so without the help of some of his key offensive weapons. Matt Ryan has led the Falcons to an 11-5 record during the regular season with the number one offense in the NFL, scoring over 33 points per game (1st) with an average 415 yards of total offense per game (2nd). Both teams have really good offensive lines but the major difference is that Ryan is throwing to players named Julio Jones, Mohammed Sanu Sr, and Taylor Gabriel. To complement the passing game, Atlanta also has one of the best rushing offensives in the NFL led by Devonta Freeman who is having a monster year with over 1,000 yards rushing and 11 TD’s.
Both teams have struggled at times this year on defense so I’m expecting this game to be a shootout. I’ve been told to never bet against Aaron Rodgers especially when he is on fire but I see Atlanta being the more complete team in this match up (Also the most healthy.) I also know from experience how your body starts to wear down in the playoffs so the week off that the Falcons for the first round is definitely to their advantage and separates them even more from Green Bay. Taking these factors into account: the fact that the game is in Atlanta, and it’s the final game in the Georgia Dome, I’m saying the Falcons win a shootout 38-31.
Steelers @ Patriots
Every once in a while New England will have an “off” week and not play up to the standards that we are accustomed to. Last week’s game against the Texans ended up being one of those “off” weeks with the Pats only scoring 34 points against the #1 defense in the NFL. They also allowed Houston, an NFL playoff team mind you, to amass a mind blowing 285 total yards and 16 points. Simply unacceptable. (In case you didn’t grasp it, that paragraph was dripping with more sarcasm than freezing rain that fell at Arrowhead last Sunday.)
Well Tom Brady is mad, Bill Belichick is mad, the entire team is mad and I can’t remember the last time New England has played back-to-back “bad” games. That’s bad news for the Pittsburgh Steelers who shouldn’t have come out Kansas City with a win last week, with KC holding them to 6 field goals and no TD’s. Big Ben has struggled on the road and is playing against a good New England defense. I’m not really worried about New England’s offense against Pittsburgh’s defense because the Pats are better at every level. But the Steelers wouldn’t have gotten this far if they weren’t a good team so here is what the Pats need to do to get to Super Bowl LI.
Stop the Run.
Le’Veon Bell is the best running back in the NFL whose style of running has caused fits for opposing defenses. His ability to be patient and wait for the holes to open up coupled with his explosiveness make him very difficult to stop. The Steelers offensive line is also the best at run blocking in the league and play really well together. They’re an athletic group who specialize in sustaining blocks at the second and third levels. Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Dont’a Hightower, and the rest of the Pats front seven have done well all year at stopping the run, will have their hands full today. With Pitt having had success all year running the football and the fact that the more they run the ball the less time Tom Brady has to make plays, expect this to be a big part of the game plan and stopping it being the Pats #1 priority.
Cover Antonio Brown
No secret here. AB has been one of the top receivers in the game this year and is the Steelers top target. The good news for New England is that outside of AB there really isn’t any other major receiving threat. If the Pats can stop the run and keep Brown covered the Steelers offense done for.
Make sure the Steelers know early and often that they are playing against the best team in the NFL. Momentum is so important, especially in the playoffs, so the faster the Pats get started, the faster they can get the Steelers back on their heels. A fast start for the Patriots forces the Steelers to abandon the run and make Roethlisberger beat them throwing the ball on the road, which is something he has struggled with this season. The hurry up offense that Tom Brady runs so well might be a good strategy for New England to implement early. No matter what the plan though I don’t see the Pats losing this game. My prediction: Pats win 34 – 21.
Mike DeVito (@MikeDeVito70) is a 9-year NFL veteran, playing with the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs. He is an alum of the University of Maine, color analyst for Black Bears football on TV and is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm-6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowmaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.