NFL Conference Championship Picks: Can Defenses Step Up?

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We are down to the last three games of the season.  The NFL season always goes too fast, but we are staring down the barrel of three excellent games with excellent quarterbacks running their team’s show.  If this season has taught us anything, it’s that a franchise quarterback is one of the traits a successful team has.  Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, and Ben Roethlisberger have played the position as well as any this season, and three of them are in the MVP conversation.  Roethlisberger might have been if he had played in more games this season.  So, with things nearly even at that position, other things need to fall into place, like coaching and personnel, to get these teams to the ultimate prize.  Let’s dive in to find each team’s formula.

One Strength of Each Team Besides the Quarterback Position

Patriots: The Coaching Staff

There’s nothing more important to this team than the coaching staff.  Bill Belichick is easily one of the best coaches in the history of the NFL.  The ability he has to find players to fit his scheme and get the most out of them is astounding.  This season alone he turned Chris Hogan into a serious receiving threat, Trey Flowers into a productive pass rusher, and Elandon Roberts into a very successful linebacker (taking over a spot that Jamie Collins once held is hard to do and Roberts has done it).  Belichick’s constant motivation to outsmart opponents has graced the league for over a decade, and he shows no signs of stopping.  Flanked by defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, this staff is the best in football.

Steelers: The Running Game

Le’Veon Bell is the best back in football.  Yes, I said it.  I’m well aware of Ezekiel Elliott’s ridiculous rookie season, and of David Johnson’s 15 straight games of 100+ yards from scrimmage.  It doesn’t matter in this case.  Le’Veon Bell has been on a tear in the second half of the season.  Here are his last eight rushing totals: 146, 120, 118, 236, 93, 122, 167*, 170* (* denotes postseason games).  He is on a tear, and that doesn’t count his 259 receiving yards in that span.  Bell is the key for the Steelers to get to the Super Bowl and win it.  His patience is second to none, and his acceleration and moves are excellent too.  The craziest part?  Teams know he’s going to be patient behind his line, and they still can’t stop him.

Packers: The Offensive Line

We hear about the offensive line in Dallas daily, but some fail to notice how good the Packers offensive line is in pass protection.  When Aaron Rodgers scrambles and buys time in the pocket, his offensive line consistently finds ways to keep defenders at bay to allow Rodgers time to find an open guy.  The two plays that come to memory recently?  Aaron’s TD pass to Geronimo Allison against Detroit in week 17 and his first TD pass in the Wild Card game against the Giants.  Both plays required his line to block for over eight seconds. If they can do that for eight seconds the rest of the way, no one is going to outscore this offense.

Falcons: The Weapons and Shanahan’s Creativity

These go hand in hand, so it’s okay to put both down.  Matt Ryan has enjoyed his most productive season in part because of the weapons he has around him.  No one doubts the importance of Julio Jones, one of the best receivers in football.  But, there are plenty of others there too.  Taylor Gabriel is a speedster outside with big play potential.  The two headed monster at running back, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, are extremely hard to deal with.  Mohamed Sanu is another big bodied target.  These are all great, but when you put them with a guy who knows how to use them, they become truly great as a unit.  Enter Kyle Shanahan.  Shanahan has been very creative with these weapons and has gotten the best out of them.  It’s very hard to stop this group when they are on.

The Fatal Flaw of Each Team Left

Patriots: The Pass Rush/Defensive Line

Why the pass rush?  Chill, chill, let me explain.  New England doesn’t have a lot of holes, thanks in part to master schemers.  But, with the Patriots not facing many great quarterbacks this season (truly competent QBs: 2, Wilson and Flacco, lost to one and was tested by the other), this week they will find out how truly good they are.  Their secondary isn’t a big weakness because of Malcolm Butler and Devin McCourty.  But, each opponent left has a solid offensive line. If they do not get pressure on the opposing quarterback, I don’t think their secondary can cover that long.  The defensive line has a big assignment this week in Le’Veon Bell.  They need to be able to stop the incredible run he has been on to hold the Pittsburgh offense down.

Steelers: What’s Behind Bell and Brown?

It’s easy to say the secondary, but if you look back to last week, the secondary did a pretty darn good job against speed freak Tyreek Hill and star tight end Travis Kelce.  So, it’s clear they are getting better.  So, let’s move to something very realistic.  What if Belichick and the defense stop Bell and Antonio Brown gets blanketed by Malcolm Butler.  Who is stepping up to the plate for an offense that was held out of the end zone last week?  Sammie Coates has failed to reach the expectations the Steelers had for him.  Eli Rogers is solid in the slot, but he’s hardly a number two target.  Ladarius Green’s emergence was exactly what the Steelers needed, but then he went down with a concussion.  So where does Ben’s help come from here?  The Steelers need to find this out to hoist another Lombardi.

Packers: The Secondary

This is the obvious achilles heel for Green Bay.  The secondary is still beaten up and continually gives up big plays.  It didn’t help last week when Morgan Burnett went down with an injury.  Injuries have plagued Randall and Rollins this season.  Micah Hyde’s smarts make up for a lack of speed.  Ladarius Gunter has his bright spots (his work on Julio was solid), but he has moments that make you wonder.  How do the Packers mask this?  By getting to the quarterback off the edge and being physical at the point of attack and on the intermediate level.

Falcons: Lack of Defensive Playmakers

They have Vic Beasley, an excellent edge rusher.  They have a top notch rookie linebacker in Deion Jones that provides speed to a position that is evolving with this passing league.  Keanu Neal is a hard hitting and instinctive safety.  Everywhere else?  Questionable at best.  Their corners have been okay without Desmond Trufant (a top 6 or 7 corner when healthy), but not good enough to be able to trust them against good weapons on the perimeter.  If Beasley gets bottled up, it’s hard for Atlanta to generate a solid amount of pressure, a thing they must do against Aaron Rodgers this week.  Atlanta has to be able to overcome these issues to win the Super Bowl.

Each Team’s Key (Players) to Win This Sunday

Patriots: Running Backs

The Patriots have to find a way to keep the Pittsburgh offense off the field as much as possible.  They key to that?  Establishing a consistent ground game.  LeGarrette Blount has been very productive this season, especially in short yardage situations.  Sustaining drives and converting key third downs will be important.  Also, if the receivers are failing to find openings against the Steeler defense, Dion Lewis and James White will need to thrive on matchups against the Steeler linebackers.  Ryan Shazier is a real problem with his speed, so two back sets might be a solution.

Steelers: Bud Dupree and James Harrison

You saw what happened when the Texans pressured Brady with Mercilus and Clowney last week: he was off his game.  Brady went 18 of 38 with two picks, and there were a couple balls he just threw up in hopes a receiver would make a play.  Luckily they did, or we could be sitting here talking about a four interception performance from Tom.  So, Pittsburgh’s key is obvious.  Continued pressure from Bud Dupree and ageless wonder James Harrison will help the Steelers slow down the Patriot offense and give their own offense a chance to keep up.

Packers: Mike Daniels, Nick Perry, Ty Montgomery

The Packers defense is in for a true battle with all the weapons the Falcons currently possess.  The biggest thing for Green Bay?  Take something away, whether it’s the pass or the run.  Most likely, it will be the run.  There are enough solid players up front (Daniels, Letroy Guion, Kenny Clark) to make it tough for Freeman and Coleman.  The other key rests on the edge.  Nick Perry and company will need to generate pressure on Matt Ryan to force him into some bad throws.  The bad throws will come, and the Packers have to take advantage.  Offensively, Atlanta gave up the most receptions to running backs this season.  That’s good news, because versatile back Ty Montgomery may be able to help that number grow.

Falcons: Keanu Neal and Taylor Gabriel

Vic Beasley is an obvious key player here, but it is Neal that needs to have a big game in both aspects.  His instincts must show against the running game, and he needs to be disciplined against a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers.  One little mistake and BOOM, 55 yard touchdown pass.  We will see how much this rookie has matured by game’s end.  Julio Jones wasn’t a major factor the last time these two squared off, and that is okay.  Taylor Gabriel is just as capable of making plays down the field, and his speed and elusiveness provide a nice threat for Shanahan to continue to exploit.

The Picks

If you read my Wild Card pick article, you saw my Super Bowl pick.  If not, here you go.  At this point, I have three of the four teams left correct (the Chiefs always let everyone down in the playoffs and betting against the hot Steelers was a mistake).

Pittsburgh at New England

Well, the stage is set for another great battle between AFC quarterbacks, and the representative will be Brady or Roethlisberger at quarterback.  This continues a streak that started in 2003.  Since that year, the Super Bowl representative in the AFC has been Brady, Manning, or Roethlisberger all but ONCE (thanks for ruining it Flacco).  It continues this season.  Who comes out on top?  The Steelers will be able to stay with New England’s offense all game long, but it’s hard to trust Pittsburgh’s discipline on the road in a hostile environment against an exceptional coach.

Patriots 28, Steelers 25

Green Bay at Atlanta

I got this one right.  Rodgers and Ryan are dueling for a spot in the big one.  The over/under for this game started at an unprecedented 60.5 points.  Insanity, but not really considering how good the offenses are and how questionable the defense are.  I expect the Falcons and Packers to trade punches all the way through this game.  This is one of those games where you could say, “Well, no one lost.  They just had the ball last and that’s how it goes sometimes”.  This game will find that statement true.  Whoever has the ball last could win.  Green Bay has had an unbelievable run, but it ends at the hands of an explosive offense that their depleted defense won’t be able to stop.

Falcons 35, Packers 31

Enjoy conference title weekend everyone!

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