Will the table be run?
Editor’s Note: We’re bringing back the prediction feature for the NFL Playoffs. A quick reminder of how this works: We’ll take a look at each game on the NFL Playoff schedule, focusing on a player to watch, a key stat, relevant history, and finally some predictions. I’ll probably be wrong more often than I’m right, but you can guarantee I’ll talk much more about the correct calls than the bad ones. Them’s the breaks. Standings so far: 1. Tim “Hot Takes” Culverhouse (7-1) 2. Matt “Stat” Tardiff (6-2) 3. Brendan “Editor in Chief” Murray (5-3) 4. Thomas “Culture” Dragani (5-3)
And then there were four.
We’ve reached the penultimate week of the NFL Playoffs, Conference Championship weekend. And with so few teams left standing, perhaps it should be surprising that there’s more that unites them than separates them.
None of the teams left have a standout defense, but all have big names at the quarterback position. Both home teams enjoyed a bye during the opening week of the postseason, and while the other two teams may have played during Wildcard weekend, no one should be surprised to see the Packers or the Steelers in the mix, no matter what decade you happen to be watching during.
But come Monday morning, there will be plenty that separates them. It’s our job here to try to figure out what those things will be. Let’s get to work.
Green Bay Packers vs Atlanta Falcons (ATL -4.5)
Sunday, January 22, 3:05, Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia
Key Player: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Is Rodgers the best quote in football? He’s got R-E-L-A-X, and now he’s got “run-the-table.” The fight is probably between him and perhaps the guy most likely to pick him off, Richard Sherman.
Regardless of whether he’s the best quote in the league, Rodgers is the best passer in the game right now. Brady is a close second, and Brady still has Rodgers on the all-time list, but Brady just simply isn’t capable of making some of the plays that Rodgers makes. Rodgers’ combination of arm strength and scramble ability (scrambility?) has literally never been seen before in the NFL.
Whatever you call it, that ability is what truly set Rodgers apart. The Giants, and other teams, seem to have success in the pass rush, at least in most conventional senses. They beat the phalanx of offensive linemen, but that’s not always a good thing. Rodgers is so good, he makes sack-hungry pass rushers stay in their lanes or face punishment.
Rodgers has been really the only engine behind this Packers run. And with receiver Jordy Nelson just returning to practice on Wednesday, he’ll likely have to carry the load all by his lonesome again in Atlanta, as he did in Dallas.
He certainly has the physical tools to get the job done. Will he be up to the challenge on Sunday?
Key Stat: 7.1 percent Passing TD Rate, Matt Ryan, Falcons
In most regards, Matt Ryan has been the most efficient QB in the NFL this season. He leads the league in yards per pass attempt and most other similar efficiency stats. He’s also had the highest percentage of his throws find the end zone this season.
What’s been perhaps most impressive about Ryan’s efficiency this season is how well-distributed and consistent it has been. He obviously has a big-bodied and big-name target in Julio Jones, but Jones hasn’t been the only receiver to reel in some big catches from Matty Ice. Jones had an injury in the middle part of the season, and Taylor Gabriel performed well in his absence, reeling in touchdowns during each of the games Jones missed.
Gabriel and Ryan connected even when Jones was in the game, as the young wideout found the end zone six times this year. Veteran Mohammad Sanu was also an important factor in the passing game, with four touchdowns. All told, 14 players on the Falcons were on the receiving end of TD throws from Ryan this year, and that’s a big part of the reason the Falcons are playing this game in the Georgia Dome.
Ryan will have a chance to repeat that efficiency on Sunday, as the Packers were near the bottom of the league in both yards and touchdowns allowed through the air. This one seems to have all the trappings of a shootout.
Relevant History: Falcons 33, Packers 32, October 30 in Atlanta
In a strange coincidence, we’ve had plenty of fodder for analysis from matchups during the 2016 season during this year’s playoffs, as time and time again teams that faced off in the regular season are meeting in the playoffs.
This round is no different, as both these matchups are rematches. The Packers’ loss to the Falcons in October was an inauspicious one, as it kicked off the losing streak that forced Rodgers into that “run-the-table” guarantee. As has been well documented, the Packers have come a long way since that losing streak, and are still in the process of running the table.
This game, too, was played at the Georgia Dome, and Ryan was superb at home, as he was for most of the season, finding the end zone three times without turning the ball over on the way to a narrow win. Ryan’s distribution was in full effect, as those three scoring passes went to three different receivers.
I promise, there is some good news in this game for Packer fans, and that’s this: as good as Ryan was in that game, even in getting the W, Rodgers may have been better. Rodgers also avoided turnovers while finding paydirt four times despite falling short in the fourth quarter.
There’s a high likelihood that January’s game mirrors October’s, with a close and high-scoring battle looming. There may, however, be on change to note…
Chin Music Pod Picks: Matt Tardiff (GB), Tim Culverhouse (ATL), Tom Dragani (GB)
Brendan’s Pick: Packers 38, Falcons 31
This one will be within a score, but while I can no longer in good faith rail against Ryan after he showed me up last week, Rodgers is the better R-named pass thrower in this one.
It isn’t by a particularly wide margin. Ryan has established himself this year among the best QB’s in football, even if I am a little wary about a looming playoff lemon (sorry, I forgot, no more means jokes about Matty Ice.) Ryan also has the deeper arsenal at his disposal, with Jones, Snu, Gabriel and running backs Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman ready, willing and able.
But Rodgers seems to have that magic touch this year, and it should be enough to get Green Bay to Houston. Table, you will be run.
Pittsburgh Steelers vs New England Patriots (NE -6)
Sunday, January 22, 6:40, Gilette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts
Key Player: Ben Roethlisberger
We took a look at running back Le’Veon Bell in our Wild Card preview, examined wide receiver /twerker Antonio Brown in the Divisional Round edition, so it only seems right to cap off the AFC Playoffs with a look at their field general, Ben Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger is an interesting test case for a wide variety of topics, but your standards for QB’s is probably the most relevant. Ben has been one of the biggest names in the game since his rookie season, when he upstaged Draft Day drama queens Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers by winning the whole damn thing, before following it up just a couple of years later.
But despite his big size and reputation, he’s oft-injured and rarely consistent, missing time in each of the past two seasons. The team has also performed fairly well in his absence thanks to their depth at skill positions, with a 13-11 record during his injuries.
His playoff performance has also taken a downfall as of late, throwing 5 INTs in his last three playoff games compared to just 4 TD’s as his Steelers have failed to find championship form again, going 1-3 in their last three playoff appearances before this year.
But New England’s defense should present some opportunities for Ben and the Steelers, and its doubtful the Patriots will be able to run away and hide in this one. If Big Ben can put together a few Big Throws late in the game, his team should have a chance to move on.
Key Stat: 16-3 in home playoff games, Bill Belichick, New England Patriots
They wouldn’t let you know it, but every Patriot fan knew how important it was when the Patriots lost the #1 seed and home field advantage on the last day of the 2015 season. It ended up being their downfall, as the Pats fell on the road at the notoriously difficult to play in Mile High Stadium to the eventual champion Broncos.
This year, however, was different. The Patriots came out of Brady’s four-game suspension somehow atop the AFC East and the AFC as a whole, and never looked back, grabbing the season by the throat and winning the top spot. Now, they’re rewarded with another home game.
And in Bill Belichick’s time in New England, home playoff games have become almost automatic. Despite playing in nearly 20 such games, Belichick has lost only three, and not a one since 2013. With Brady healthy and still looking elite as he pushes 40, a replacement big target for Gronk, and an upright Edelman, there’s a good chance he’ll be adding to that win total this weekend.
Relevant History: New England Patriots 27, Pittsburgh Steelers 16, October 23 in Foxboro
Here’s some bad news for Steelers fans: the team is 3-9 against the Patriots in the Belichick era.
This season’s matchup was one of the many, as the Patriots rolled through the Steelers in Pittsburgh, 27-16. The Patriots led throughout this one, as they are one to do, scoring the game’s first 14 points and building on a slim halftime lead to get back on the team plane with a double-digit win.
It’s something they’ve done often in this era against the Steelers, and here’s where we have even more bad news for Steelers fans: that loss was at home. The Patriots, as we discussed above, are terrifying when playing at Gillette Stadium. But Pittsburgh doesn’t need me to tell them that—the team hasn’t won in New England since 2008.
We’ll be blunt here—there’s very little recent history that should give Steelers fans hope in this one. The Patriots are even 2-0 in the Belichick era against the Steelers in the postseason, and 3-1 all time.
And I wouldn’t expect much to change…
Chin Music Pod Picks: Matt Tardiff (NE), Tim Culverhouse (NE), Tom Dragani (NE)
Editor’s Note (from Tim): I really don’t like picking this game as a Patriots fan for a whole host of dumb, unexplained juju/jinx reasons. But, our Grand Poobah/overlord of the blog has required it, so here I am, cringingly with this prediction in print.
Brendan’s Pick: Patriots 24, Steelers 20
It physically pains me to type these words, but Patriot fans are right to say they have seemingly the best team in the NFL this year, and I expect them to win this one. All that said, they shouldn’t be too confident, as last week showed.
While I said on Monday, and still feel that the hand-wringing over New England’s loss was a tad overblown, that doesn’t mean there weren’t things to take from that game. For better or worse, New England’s defense is not as strong as the offense this year, and even if it will make them a better team in the future, trading away Jamie Collins hurt that squad this year.
The Patriots won’t be able to blow the Steelers out, and the Steelers may even take a lead in this one. They sure do have the offensive weaponry to match pace with Tom Brady and Co. But when it’s all said and done, I’ll be shocked if Brady and Belichick aren’t making plans for their hotel in Houston, even if it is closer than many Patriot fans may think it will be.
Follow Brendan on Twitter @MurraySpotTalk for more on the NFL Playoffs, and check back to ChinMusicPod.com each Thursday through the postseason for more predictions. Thanks to Tim Culverhouse for helping to edit this monstrosity and to GraphIQ for their open-access graphics.
ChinMusicPod NFL Playoff Standings so far:
1. Tim “Hot Takes” Culverhouse (7-1)
2. Matt “Stat” Tardiff (6-2)
3. Brendan “Editor in Chief” Murray (5-3)
4. Thomas “Culture” Dragani (5-3)