2016 NFL Picks: Conference Championships
Last Week: 3-1
- Green Bay Packers +4 at Atlanta Falcons
- Pittsburgh Steelers +6 at New England Patriots
So close, yet so far from a perfect 4-0 last week. My faith in the Bye Week Wizard's magic led me astray, as his latest failure to grasp the concept of time ruined Kansas City's chance at a comeback. We still came out ahead and even hit our upset pick when the Packers pulled out a close victory in Dallas, but it would have been nice to enter this week 64-64-4. On the bright side, our final score predictions were remarkably accurate:
I don't expect our results to be quite as impressive this week. A great deal of my prep time for this entry has been spent waffling on the picks, comparing injuries and hot streaks, researching past Conference Championship games, and listening to even more podcasts than usual. Regardless of the outcome, I want you all to know how thankful I am that finally, this week, no one has to watch Brock Osweiler throw a football. We have over seven months before we have to risk seeing that again!
All four remaining teams are in the top five of Football Outsiders' Weighted DVOA. They each have a top-10 offense and potentially crippling injuries: Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams for the Packers; Desmond Trufant and Julio Jones for the Falcons; James Harrison for the Steelers; Rob Gronkowski for the Patriots. At least we can hope to kick back Sunday evening, pour an adult beverage, open up the QQ Sunday Night Football Drinking Game, and enjoy two close games. To the picks!
Green Bay Packers +4 at Atlanta Falcons
The Packers lost to the Falcons 33-32 in Week 8, which was before Aaron Rodgers went Super Saiyan but also before Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams went down with injuries in consecutive weeks. For Green Bay's offense, the question now is whether it even matters who's on the receiving end of Rodgers's passes; he might just neatly spiral the ball into the uniforms of his unsuspecting teammates. Atlanta is coming off an impressive 16-point victory over the Seahawks, and seems capable of scoring 30 points on anyone. Matt Ryan is my personal pick for MVP, and even I have to acknowledge all the drooling over Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan seems deserved. The over/under (Vegas's line for combined points scored) is 61.5, the highest ever for an NFL playoff game. Here are three reasons I think the Packers will keep it close:
- Atlanta's defense is almost as good at giving up points as their offense is at scoring them. The Falcons finished the season 27th in defensive DVOA, struggling against the run (29th) and the pass (19th). They also allowed opponents to score touchdowns on 70% of red zone drives, the second-highest rate in the league. The Packers shouldn't struggle to keep pace if they don't turn the ball over.
- Green Bay has a much better offensive line and run game. In games between two high-powered offenses, sustaining drives and keeping the other team's quarterback off the field can determine the winner. While Atlanta ranked first in offensive and passing DVOA, they finished 7th in rushing DVOA and 23rd in adjusted sack rate allowed. Green Bay, meanwhile, finished 5th in rushing DVOA and 11th in adjusted sack rate allowed. If either team is going control the clock on offense and force a mistake on defense, it will be the Packers.
- Aaron Rodgers relishes opportunities to utterly destroy fan bases. Usually it's my Bears or my fellow QQers' Lions, but it extends outside of the NFC North. Last week, he stole the thunder from the Dallas Cowboys, the toast of the 2016 season. This week he faces the Falcons in their final home game in the Georgia Dome, with an opportunity to send them off in his own special way.
Final Score: Green Bay 41, Atlanta 38
Pittsburgh Steelers +6 at New England Patriots
I don't think there's much information to be gleaned from the Week 7 match-up between these teams, because Landry Jones was filling in for an injured Ben Roethlisberger at the time; the Steelers lost at home, 27-16. There isn't much to be gained from breaking down New England's 18-point victory over the Texans last week either, unless you were somehow surprised at how abysmal Brock Osweiler looked. Aside from the Landry Jones-led Steelers, the Patriots come into this game having played one team in the top-10 of DVOA all season. The Steelers enter without having registered a signature victory in almost two months. Here's three reasons I'm taking Pittsburgh and the points:
- The Patriots have only played one team as good as Pittsburgh all season, and they lost that game at home. The Seattle Seahawks were relatively healthy going into Foxboro in Week 10, but the Patriots were in good shape themselves, coming off a bye. Russell Wilson threw for 348 yards and three touchdowns with C.J. Prosise and Tyler Lockett as his top targets; Roethlisberger has Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown in those roles. I'd like to include another example of a good quarterback beating up the New England defense, but the other quarterbacks they've faced are: Carson Palmer, Ryan Tannehill, Brock Osweiler, Tyrod Taylor, Charlie Whitehurst, Andy Dalton, Landry Jones, Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jared Goff, Joe Flacco, and Trevor Siemian. Kat, a casual football fan, will recognize Palmer for being competent and a Cardinal, and Osweiler for being my favorite punchline. That's about it.
- The Steelers have more weapons on offense. I've already mentioned Bell and Brown, and I'm sure we'll be subjected to the stupid "Killer Bs" graphic at least six more times on Sunday, but their potential impact on the game shouldn't be overlooked. Bill Belichick and the Patriots have a history of taking away an offense's best option and living with the results, but the Steelers might have enough talent and offensive creativity to get mismatches with what's left. The stat jumping out at me the most? The Patriots were 20th in the NFL defending passes to both #1 wide receivers and running backs.
- Pittsburgh is a lot better on defense. The Steelers finished the season ranked 11th in defensive DVOA, while the Patriots finished 16th. New England's ranking was largely dependent on the NFL's 4th-best run defense, because their 26th-ranked pass rush gave offenses plenty of time to attack their 23rd-ranked pass defense. It might have been more obvious if they'd played better quarterbacks. I think Roethlisberger will succeed where they failed despite his recent road struggles, and keep his more balanced team in the game.
Final Score: Pittsburgh 27, New England 24