NFL Conference Championship Preview

Photo courtesy of NESN

By Andrew Pratt
Sports Columnist

AFC Conference Championship: Pittsburgh Steelers vs New England Patriots

Living In New England, the Patriots are a common ground for most Massachusetts residents.

Following a 34-16 victory over the Houston Texans, most New England fans feel confident going into the conference championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers this weekend.

Although the Patriots beat the Steelers earlier this season, that was a Steelers team without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, leaving the steelers offense in the hands of running back Le’veon Bell.

As of Friday, young Patriots receivers, Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Hogan, are listed as questionable for the game. These are two notable losses for the Patriots if neither play on Sunday. With Gronkowski out for the remainder of the season, Tom Brady will be looking to star receiver Julian Edelman and Martellus Bennett (also questionable) to get open in a historically strong Steelers secondary.

The Steelers arguably have the best running back and receiver combination in the league with Bell and receiver Antonio Brown. These two have a remarkable 21 touchdowns between the two.

Although the Patriots have faired well against the Steelers in the recent playoff history, the Patriots have yet to face a Steelers offense with Bell, Brown and Roethlisberger. In order for the New England to combat such a dynamic offense, Brady commented that “We need to play our best game of the year” to the press suggesting that it will take more than their previous effort against Houston to match the Steelers.

Roethlisberger has waited over 12 years for a playoff rematch against Brady and the Patriots and the offense should be as explosive as ever with two of the best weapons in the league in Bell and Brown.

If the Patriots defensive history means anything, then New England will look to take away the big plays to Brown downfield, forcing the Steelers to run the ball and use their second and even third passing targets more.

The Patriots are the favorite coming into Sunday on a 5.6 point spread according to ESPN. Football is a team sport and the Patriots system will need to be as strong and run in unison as ever. Although New England has had one of the easiest roads to the Super Bowl in history, the Steelers are no team to sleep on. Based on the Belichick style of offense and with a hot Patriots defense, look for a tight game throughout the first half, but the Patriots offense and help from the defense should begin to pull away by late in the 3rd quarter to a 14 point lead. Coming off a weak offensive effort against the Chiefs, the Steelers offense should be fired up and ready to tackle a softer rezone defense. As we have see though, no lead is safe to sit on with an experienced quarterback and offense that the Steelers poss.

Score Prediction: Patriots over Steelers 24-17

NFC Conference Championship: Green Bay Packers vs Atlanta Falcons

Although the Falcons are favored by 5.1 points and with a 67.1% chance of winning according to ESPN.

Since week eight Green Bay has been the most dynamic team in the NFL. They have dealt with injuries to defensive backs and wide receivers. Wide Receiver, Jordy Nelson left the previous game with a rib injury, but is currently listed as questionable to play on Sunday.

Despite Nelson possibly not playing, the Packers wide receiving core has been extremely deep this season. Recent addition at tight end, Jared Cook, has been one of the most successful tight ends in the playoffs. Cook caught Rodgers’ 30 yard pass that lead to the Packers winning field goal against the Cowboys.

In the past 8 game win streak, Rodgers has been elite throwing just one interception and 21 touchdown passes. In order to beat the highly talented Falcons offense, Rodgers will need to continue his dominance and control the ball. Establishing a strong run game early will be essential for the Packers offense.

Commenting on Rodgers’s ability to find plays once the pocket collapses, Falcons cornerback Jalen Collins commented, “Just his ability to get out the pocket once a play breaks down and make plays with his feet, whether it be finding an open guy down the field or scrambling for a few yards or a first down,” in a recent interview with the media.

However, Atlanta is not to be taken lightly. One of the best performing quarterbacks of the 2016-2017 season, Matt Ryan has lead the Falcons to score an average of 33.8 points per game. With a trio of threats in Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel, Ryan has had many options down the field all season. In order to balance out on the the highest scoring offenses of the year, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have rushed the ball for over 1,600 yards combined. Over the past 8 weeks, Ryan has thrown 5 passes for 60+ yards, making him a deep threat quarterback. Ultimately, the postseason experience of Rodgers and his ability to make long drives in little to no time will account for the Packers win on sunday.

Score Prediction: Packers over Falcons 34-31

Super Bowl Pick: New England vs. Green Bay

The last time the Patriots and the Packers faced each other was in super bowl XXXI in 1997. Hosted in New Orleans, the Packers beat the Patriots 35 to 21. Hopefully this weekend’s results will neither end the Patriots run, nor lead to another unfortunate super bowl loss for the New England Patriots.