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NFL Conference Championship Preview: Packers-Falcons, Steelers-Patriots playing for spots in Super Bowl LI

We’re down to the final four teams of the NFL season, who need to win just one more game to advance to Super Bowl LI in Houston. Sunday’s action begins in the NFC with QB Aaron Rodgers and the Packers heading to Atlanta to take on the Falcons, led by QB Matt Ryan, in what will be the final game at the Georgia Dome before the Falcons’ new stadium opens next season. In the AFC, QB Ben Roethlisberger leads the Steelers to Gillette Stadium to take on QB Tom Brady and the Patriots, who are playing in their sixth straight AFC Championship game. This foursome features three quarterbacks — Rodgers, Ryan and Brady — who are in the conversation for league MVP and three — with Ryan being the exception — who already have Super Bowl titles in their careers, with Brady going for his fifth. With these four teams still alive, my preseason pick of the Packers meeting the Patriots in Super Bowl LI is still alive. I went 3-1 against the spread, straight up and on the over/unders last weekend to bring my totals for the postseason to 5-3 against the spread, 7-1 straight up and 4-4 on over/unders.

No. 4 seed Green Bay Packers at No. 2 seed Atlanta Falcons (-5.5, over/under 60.5)

On Sunday, the Packers played in one of the best playoff games in recent memory, beating the top-seeded Cowboys in a game that saw three 50-plus yard field goals made in the final 93 seconds, two of which — including the game-winner — came off the foot of Packers K Mason Crosby. The Packers struck early in the game, taking a 21-3 lead in the second quarter before the Cowboys came back with a touchdown by WR Dez Bryant and a Dan Bailey field goal to make it 21-13 at halftime. The Cowboys’ big comeback came in the fourth quarter, scoring 18 points to tie it and force Crosby to make the final kick from 51 yards out at the end of regulation to win the game without having to go to overtime. Rodgers was 28-for-43 for 356 yards with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception. Both of his touchdowns were thrown to tight ends, Jared Cook, and Richard Rodgers. Cook was the team’s leading receiver with 6 receptions for 104 yards and the score; he also caught the pass that set up Crosby’s game-winning kick. R. Rodgers only catch was the 34-yard touchdown that put the Packers on the board in the opening quarter. While the Packers didn’t get many rushing yards, RB Ty Montgomery did score a couple of rushing touchdowns among his 11 carries, which went for 47 yards; he also added 34 yards on 6 receptions. S Micah Hyde led the way defensively, with an interception and a sack; LB NIck Perry accounted for the Packers’ other sack of Cowboys QB Dak Prescott en route to the 34-31 win in the nailbiter.

Following the Falcons’ first-round bye, Ryan didn’t miss a step from the numbers he put up during the course of the season. throwing 3 touchdowns without an interception on a 26-for-37, 338-yard performance against a decent Seahawks defense that was suffering through some injuries. WR Julio Jones had 6 receptions for 67 yards with a touchdown before sitting out part of the fourth quarter after aggravating a toe injury that was affecting him late in the regular season. Ryan’s two other touchdowns went to WR Mohamed Sanu and RB Tevin Coleman. RB Devonta Freeman was the team’s top receiver for the game, with 4 receptions for 80 yards, including a 53-yarder. Although he didn’t get a touchdown reception, Freeman did score on the ground, with a one-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that highlighted his 14-carry, 45-yard rushing performance. He had the most carries for the Falcons but Coleman totaled the most rushing yards, with 57 yards on 11 attempts. The defense intercepted two of his Seahawks QB Russell Wilson’s 30 passes, with LB Deion Jones and S Ricardo Allen recording them. The team also sacked Wilson three times in the 36-20 victory.

Offense is what both of these teams do best so it should be a high-scoring game, as evidenced by the 60.5 over/under total. Rodgers and Ryan were the top two in the league in passing touchdowns during the regular season, with 40 and 38, respectively. With both quarterbacks able to rack up the passing yards, the running game could be key to victory in this one. That is an area in which the Falcons have the advantage. Even though Freeman didn’t have great numbers against the Seahawks, he ranked in the top 10 in both rushing yards and touchdowns in the regular season, and Coleman is among the best No. 2 running backs in the league who can put up numbers when Freeman needs a breather. The Packers, on the other hand, have struggled in the running game all season, including totaling just 87 yards on the ground on Sunday. The Packers did fine without WR Jordy Nelson last week and it’s not looking good for him to play this week. WR Davante Adams has an ankle injury and has not been practicing this week,but he is expected to play. For the Falcons, Jones should be able to take the field despite his toe injury. I think the Packers be able to win without Nelson, though it would be tougher if Adams is limited. Give me the Packers with the points in a 31-27 game, so under the 60.5.

No. 3 seed Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 1 seed New England Patriots (-6, over/under 50.5)

The Steelers beat the Chiefs, 18-16, despite not scoring a touchdown. K Chris Boswell was a perfect 6-for-6 on field goal attempts, the longest from 45 yards, to account for all of Pittsburgh’s scoring. RB Le’Veon Bell was the team’s best offensive player as he improved upon his Steeler-record 167-yard game in the wild-card round with a 170-yard performance on 30 rushes last week. Roethlisberger was 20-for-31 for 224 and 1 interception in the game. Not surprisingly, WR Antonio Brown was the top receiver, totaling 6 receptions for 108 yards. TE Jesse James had a good game, with 5 catches for 83 yards. The defense did a good job of containing Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill, who I called the X-factor in my preview of the game. In terms of defensive stats, LB Ryan Shazier had an interception of Chiefs QB Alex Smith and LB James Harrison recorded a sack.

The Patriots didn’t look great in the first three quarters but pulled away in the fourth to beat the Texans 34-16 in the divisional round. Brady threw two interceptions, which was as many as he threw in his 12 regular-season games, on the way to finishing 18-for-38 for 287 yards and 2 touchdowns. WR Julian Edelman had 8 receptions for 137 yards, and Brady’s touchdown passes went to RBs Dion Lewis and James White. Lewis also scored on a rushing touchdown and a kick return touchdown, but he did fumble the ball twice, losing it once. The Patriots didn’t get much production on the ground, with fewer than 100 rushing yards. The defense grabbed 3 interceptions against Texans QB Brock Osweiler and sacked him three times, with CB Logan Ryan recording both a sack and interception.

The Patriots seem to be the most-balanced team in this foursome, with a strong offense and defense. Even at 39 years old, Brady is playing at the top of his game and while Roethlisberger is a good quarterback, he hasn’t been playing well lately and can’t match the numbers Brady is putting up. Bell will have to have a third straight game of more than 100 yards if the Steelers want to pull out the upset because I think he is the team’s best offensive weapon. That might be tough,though, facing the Patriots’ stout defense. Field goals won’t cut it this week. If they can’t score when they get into the end zone, it’s not going to go well for the Steelers. It’s a six-point spread and I think the Patriots can cover it. I’ll take them to win 30-21, which will be just over the over/under.

These results would keep my preseason Super Bowl LI pick — Packers versus Patriots — alive. The Packer injuries worry me a little, but it’s hard to go against Rodgers with the way he’s been playing of late, particularly since Ryan doesn’t have a great track record in his postseason career. I’m more confident in my Patriots pick because Roethlisberger hasn’t been playing well of late and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick usually does a good job of stopping the opponent’s best offensive weapon, which in this case is Bell.

(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)

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