Now has come the time to predict which two teams will face off in Super Bowl LI after 17 weeks of regular season football and 2 weeks of the postseason.
Our model agrees with Vegas. The top sportsbooks have the Atlanta Falcons favored by 5 points and the New England Patriots by 6 points. The GE model is pretty much in line with those numbers (6.47 points for Atlanta & 8.31 points for New England).
We have done our best to stay loyal to our model but with the enormity of the two games this Sunday and the way the two road teams have played since snapping their losing streaks around Thanksgiving, we feel compelled to throw our model out the window for this weekend. This time we will go with trends.
Since 1990, when the NFL adopted the current playoff format, there have been 22 teams that made it to the conference championship that did not have a 1st round bye but played a team in the conference championship that did have a week off in the postseason. 10 of those 22 teams advanced to the Super Bowl. We admit that it is hard for non-1st round bye teams to get to the promised land. After all, they have played over 4 months of football and their opponent got a week off 2 weeks ago and got to stay at home.
Still, if you examine those 10 teams that defied the odds to win the conference championship, they had something special. The 2000 Baltimore Ravens had perhaps one of the best defenses since the 1985 Chicago Bears (Raiders fans will point to Siragusa's cheap shot though!). The 2007 New York Giants had an incredible pass rush. The Steelers and Packers with their current QBs are also part of this group. The teams that couldn't crack through were rather inexperienced at QB or had some other deficiency that their opponent was able to expose (like Mark Sanchez with the 2009 and 2010 New York Jets or a young Joe Flacco in 2008 with the Ravens).
Click here for a Google spreadsheet showing the results of those 22 teams.
This year, we get two teams that fit in the category of non-1st round bye teams trying to get to the Super Bowl by beating a 1st round bye team. We feel the Packers and Steelers are special in their own right to make it to Super Bowl LI even though the Super Bowl has never had two non-1st round bye teams compete in the same game.
Here is our analysis and predictions for each conference championship game.
GREEN BAY @ ATLANTA (Sunday, January 22 12:05 PM PST on FOX)
Vegas Line: ATL -5, O/U 61
GE Line: ATL -6.47, O/U 56.58
Prediction: GB 31 - ATL 27
We were not believers in the Packers last week against the Dallas Cowboys but with the way Aaron Rodgers marched his team into field goal range in the final 35 seconds, we are now believers. The final four teams for this postseason all have great QBs. Tom Brady and Matt Ryan were top two in QB rating. Ben Roethlisberger has been to 3 Super Bowls and won two of them. Rodgers is a Super Bowl winning QB himself but what really separates him from those other three is the sheer way he is playing the game right now. He literally is a backyard QB with the way he scrambles and throws his passes with pinpoint accuracy. Other times it's like he is chucking the ball up there but his WRs seem to come down with it often.
Rodgers ability to make jaw dropping throws while moving out of the pocket is unparalleled to most QBs in the modern football era. Brady and Ryan are stand around QBs. Once you bring the pressure, they are toast unless one of their WRs has enough time to get separation and of course Brady or Ryan releases the ball quickly enough before they get hit. Rodgers actually becomes more dangerous once he is flushed out of the pocket. He may not have a full slate of healthy RBs & WRs but he has plenty of strong options to go to like Randall Cobb, Jared Cook, and Ty Montgomery. It also helps that Atlanta's defense is not very good (ranked #26 based on the GE model). Vic Beasley may have led the NFL in sacks but more than half of those were against rookie QBs who are not very mobile. Rodgers is the antithesis of those QBs and the Packers' offensive line has been rather underrated this season in terms of pass protection.
On the other side of the ball, Atlanta's offense is very, very good and the Packers secondary can be dominated. Still, one has to think that Dom Capers will be calling more blitzes than usual. The Packers are usually the league leaders in blitz percentage and Capers is the architect of zone blitz scheme that he developed while with the Steelers in the 90s. Matt Ryan is a damn good QB but his numbers drop off significantly when he is blitzed. Of course good QBs can offset the defense's blitz by getting rid of the ball quickly. Julio Jones is one of the best WRs in the league but he may have trouble getting separation with his injured toe. The Falcons have an outstanding run game so we expect Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman to put up big numbers.
The bottom line is that as long as Rodgers keeps doing what he is doing (this time against a weaker defense than the previous two he faced) and the Packers apply constant pressure on Ryan (Ryan's numbers against the Packers are not great), we will see one of the NFL's golden boys make a return trip to the Super Bowl. The game should be high scoring and most likely whoever has the ball last (like the Green Bay - Dallas game last week) will win. We expect some sort of dramatic ending. Maybe a TD pass to Rodgers's commerical buddy Randall Cobb!
PITTSBURGH @ NEW ENGLAND (Sunday, January 22 3:40 PM PST on CBS)
Vegas Line: NE -6, O/U 50.5
GE Line: NE -8.31, O/U 46.83
Prediction: PIT 26 - NE 20 (OT)
Picking against New England is very, very hard to do. The Patriots, after all, have been the gold standard for the NFL since Brady and Bill Belichick won their first Super Bowl together 15 years ago (with a couple of cheating scandals along the way!). Brady rarely loses at home, especially in the postseason, and seems very poised to make his 7th trip to the Super Bowl.
Belichick is the master at taking away the other team's best offensive weapon. He has been doing this since he was the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in the 80s. The problem is that the Steelers have two very, very good weapons in Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. We cannot think of a better RB/WR combo in NFL history. Both are dominant and if you shut down one guy, the other one is going to make you pay. It has been rare that Bell and Brown are on the field together given the injuries and suspensions but when they are, they are unstoppable, especially with Big Ben at QB.
Furthermore, the Steelers are 13-0 when Bell rushes for over 100 yards and Big Ben is behind center. Bell has rushed for over 100 yards in 7 of his last 8 games which has perfectly coincided with the Steelers winning streak which started on Nov. 20. What makes this matchup intriguing is that the Patriots have not allowed a 100 yard rusher in their last 24 games and have allowed a league low of 250 points during the regular season. We wouldn't say the Patriots defense is an intimidating unit like the previous Ravens or Broncos teams but it is a very disciplined defense. The problem is that the Patriots haven't really seen any good offenses in a while. If so, the Texans surely would have beaten them last week. Plus their 14-2 regular season record and recent win streak include victories against some rather weak offenses like the 49ers, Rams, Jets (twice), Broncos, Ravens, Dolphins, and Bills. The Patriots did beat the Steelers earlier this year but Bell had recently returned to the lineup and Big Ben did not play.
One reason why teams don't rack up many rushing yards against the Patriots is due to the fact that the Patriots are typically up early given how prolific their offense has been since Rob Gronkowski came to town. Of course the Patriots offense hasn't really skipped a beat with Gronk's injury earlier this season. Teams often find themselves having to throw more often than run when facing the Patriots since they have to ditch the run game when they are down by at least a couple of TDs at some point in the game.
Bell, however, is a different type of back. He has an offensive line that has done a superb job of run blocking (ranked #2 according to Football Outsiders) and Bell is very patient at letting a hole happen and then hitting it hard. It is our guess that the Patriots will commit to stopping the run but that of course gives Antonio Brown more 1-on-1 coverage and no one is as good as him when it comes to separation (OBJ comes close). With Big Ben behind center, he will throw darts to Brown when in duress.
On the other side of the ball, we will use the same reasoning as we did for the NFC Championship game. The Steelers have had a strong pass rush lately and the best way to beat Brady is knock him on his ass. It doesn't happen often but when it does, Brady is not the same QB. Previous Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, along with Don Capers, both designed and perfected the zone blitz scheme and new defensive coordinator has learned well from LeBeau. Expect the Steelers to dial up the pressure on Brady. Without Gronk to save him and a Pittsburgh offense than can move the ball against the Patriots, we see an upset happening here.
This will be a close game and could be low scoring if the Steelers defense brings the heat and Bell chews up a lot of yards and clock time. We haven't had an overtime game yet in the postseason this year so maybe this will be the one that provides some extra football. Maybe Brown will score a TD to seal the victory and vindicate himself from his social media snafu earlier this week!