NFL Conference Title Game Picks, Predictions: Which team’s defense blinks first?

Photo: NFL News Desk Admin via Flickr.com

Photo: NFL News Desk Admin via Flickr.com

Sunday, Jan. 22

Green Bay Packers (12-6) at Atlanta Falcons (12-5)

The Packers were never supposed to be here, the Falcons were expected to be.

And so begins the storyline of a Cinderella team visiting a heavy favorite — except that this Cinderella team is hardly a big underdog.

The Packers have rolled into this matchup on an eight-game win streak including a dramatic win over the NFC’s No. 1 seed Dallas Cowboys.

Aaron Rodgers continues to mystify defenses, even without Jordy Nelson, and Green Bay’s own depleted and injury-ridden defense has found ways to come up with stops that play into the “next man up” mentality.

Standing in their way is a Falcons team that has MVP candidate Matt Ryan at the helm of an offense that has scored at least 32 points in each of their last five games, including last week’s postseason win over a solid Seattle Seahawks defense.

And it’s Atlanta’s offense that poses the biggest threat to the Packers in their quest to reach their first Super Bowl since 2011.

Green Bay shut down a rusty Cowboys offense in the first half of last weekend’s game but showed their true colors as the game progressed.

When all was said and done, the Packers had allowed 429 yards of total offense, including 6.7 yards per play, and gave up 18 points in the fourth quarter, indicating that had Rodgers not spotted them so many points in the first half, they may have been on their couches this weekend.

The Packers defense looked tired in the second half of last week’s game, worn down by Ezekiel Elliott‘s power run game, and now they have to deal with Atlanta’s dynamic duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.

The Cowboys didn’t use a secondary running back so when Elliott was off the field, the run defense was able to focus elsewhere. They can’t do that against Freeman and Coleman, who rotate consistently and are both explosive, quick runners who have hands as well and often pick up big yards on screen plays.

Freeman actually had more receiving yards than Julio Jones in last week’s game against Seattle, picking up 80 yards on just four receptions.

The Packers defense also gave up 302 passing yards to Dak Prescott and now have a much more accurate, more experienced Ryan to face.

Ryan has been on fire as of late, throwing 14 touchdowns and no interceptions in his last five games.

Not to be outdone, Rodgers has thrown 24 touchdowns and only one interception since Nov. 20, compiling six 300-plus yard games in that span.

The end result should be a shootout between these teams and whichever defense blinks first will be on the wrong end of the final score.

The oddsmakers have set the over-under for this contest at 61 points, which, if it stands, is a new postseason record.

Q’s Pick: Falcons, 34-30


Pittsburgh Steelers (13-5) at New England Patriots (15-2)

This is the Patriots’ sixth-straight appearance in the AFC Championship Game, though they have only reached the Super Bowl twice in that span.

If their defense shows up against Pittsburgh’s high-flying offense, it will be time to celebrate in Boston.

One of the biggest difference makers of this game could very well be where it’s played.

The Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell have led their team to a variety of exciting wins this season — but most of those have come at home as opposed to on the road.

If you look at Roethlisberger’s splits, you’ll find that he’s thrown 20 touchdowns and only five interceptions at Heinz Field, but has a nine touchdown to nine interception ratio on the road. His QB Rating is a whopping 116.7 at home and only 78.4 on the road.

That’s good news for a Patriots defense that struggled a bit with Brock Osweiler last week.

Speaking of quarterbacks, Tom Brady is looking to continue what has been a solid season even after he missed the first four games of the year.

The Patriots like to win when Brady plays — they have only lost once since he took over in early October, he has an 8-1 record in the postseason at home since 2011, and he has a 4-0 career record against the Steelers at Gillette Stadium.

New England also has an underrated run defense that might be able to contain Bell — though I use “might” loosely.

On one end, the Patriots allow only 88.6 yards per game on the ground, a number that was the third-fewest in the league this year.

On the other end, Bell, unlike Roethlisberger, plays better on the road than he does at home, rushing for more than 113 yards per game as opposed to only 98 at home.

These teams met earlier this season and when they did, the Patriots held Bell to only 81 yards on 21 carries, and they will need a similar gameplan if they want to keep him quiet again.

This game could go either way, but the Patriots are hard to beat at home and that makes them hard to pick against.

Q’s Pick: Patriots, 30-28


Last Week’s Record: 3-1

Postseason Record: 7-1

Regular Season Record: 165-89-2

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