NFL Conference Championship Previews: Which Teams Will Be Super?
Four NFL teams’ Super Bowl hopes are still alive. By Sunday night, we’ll know which teams will play in Super Bowl 51. Here’s a preview of the NFC & AFC conference championship games:
Sunday, January 22
NFC Championship: (4) Green Bay Packers at (2) Atlanta Falcons
Georgia Dome, Atlanta | 3:05 p.m. (ET) on Fox
How They Got Here: The Green Bay Packers (12-6) are on an eight-game winning streak that has seen them win the NFC North, as well as playoff games against the Giants and the Cowboys. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is playing some of the best football of his career, but the team’s defense has also stepped up with big games during the win streak.
Powered by the league’s highest-scoring offense (33.8 points per game), the NFC South-champion Atlanta Falcons (12-5) were among the league’s best teams this season. Quarterback Matt Ryan, receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman continued their onslaught in last week’s divisional round rout of the Seahawks, 36-20.
History: Ryan’s late touchdown pass to Mohamed Sanu pushed Atlanta past Green Bay, 33-32, at the Georgia Dome on Oct. 30. The teams have met three times in the playoffs, with the Packers holding a 2-1 edge including a win in their last meeting after the 2010 season. Green Bay is 5-3 in NFC title games. Atlanta is 1-2.
Outlook: This should be an incredible exhibition of offense. Neither team’s defense is good enough to consistently stop the other team. Rodgers has shown that he can find Davante Adams, Jordy Nelson, Jared Cook, Geronimo Allison and Ty Montgomery at will. His interception last Sunday was the first he’s thrown in 319 pass attempts. If the Packers don’t make mistakes, they’ll easily put 25 or more points on the board. If they are to have a chance, the Falcons must get through the experienced Green Bay offensive line and pressure Rodgers into at least checking down and dumping the ball off.
Atlanta’s best hope? Eat clock and outscore Rodgers & Co. That’s something Ryan, Jones and Freeman are more than capable of at home. The Packers’ defense isn’t particularly deep, and they did get winded at the end of Sunday’s win over Dallas. If that game had gone to overtime, we might be previewing the Cowboys-Falcons title game. Green Bay’s Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers can make plays on defense, but they can’t slow down Atlanta all day. Expect a final score in the high 30s.
AFC Championship Game: (3) Pittsburgh Steelers at (1) New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass. | 6:40 p.m. (ET) on CBS
How They Got Here: Perennial AFC East champs, the New England Patriots (15-2) are appearing in their record sixth consecutive AFC title game. They got here like they always do: with head coach Bill Belichick employing a scrappy defense and with quarterback Tom Brady playing nearly flawless football. They did look very mortal in last week’s 34-16 win over the Texans, but if they played a terrible game and still won by 18 points…
AFC North champs for the second time in three years, the Pittsburgh Steelers (13-5) are riding a nine-game win streak, including playoff wins over the Dolphins and Chiefs. Pittsburgh squeaked past Kansas City, 18-16, last Sunday, even though its high-powered offense could not get the ball into the end zone. This is a dangerous team.
History: Tom Brady and LeGarrette Blount fueled the New England offense to a 27-16 win over Pittsburgh Oct. 23. The Steelers played without franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, someone who is sure to make an impact in this game. The teams have met four times in the playoffs, with the Patriots holding a 3-1 edge. New England is 8-4 in conference championships. They lost to the Broncos last year. Pittsburgh is 8-7 in AFC title games, with their last coming after the 2010 season when they advanced to the Super Bowl.
Outlook: This game is as much about Belichick vs. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin as it is about Brady vs. Big Ben. Both teams’ defenses will likely dial up pressure to keep the star quarterbacks in check. That could mean a ground war between Blount and all-world Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell. The Patriots were mistake-prone against Houston. If they have more than two turnovers in this game, the Steelers should win.
Roethlisberger will certainly find Antonio Brown and his receiving corps, but he has to be worried about the way his team failed to get into the end zone against the Chiefs in icy Kansas City on Sunday night. Bell can help Pittsburgh control tempo, which keeps Brady off the field. That’s the key to the game, if the Steelers can’t contain the Pats offense, they won’t win.