Tag Archives: Super Bowl LI

4th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Atlanta Falcons

As our previews of all 32 NFL teams continue, we turn our attention to the NFC South, beginning the division with the Atlanta Falcons, who won the division last season and made the second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.

The Falcons’ season ended on a bitter note in February, giving up a 28-3 lead to lose to the Patriots in Super Bowl LI by a score of 34-28. Leading up to that, though, the Falcons had a strong year in which they finished the regular season 11-5 to secure their first division title since 2012. The team didn’t have any notable additions in the offseason, so the front office must think the team the Falcons had last season is good enough to have similar success in 2017. The team made UCLA DE Takkarist McKinley its first-round draft pick.

QB Matt Ryan had the best season of his career in 2016, completing 69.9% of his passes for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns, with 7 interceptions — all career bests. The bulk of his production went to WR Julio Jones, who recorded 83 receptions for 1,409 yards but just 6 touchdowns in 14 games. WR Mohamed Sanu played 15 games, with 59 receptions for 653 yards and 4 touchdowns. RB Devonta Freeman ran the ball 227 times for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns;l he added 54 receptions for 462 yards and 2 touchdowns in the passing game. RB Tevin Coleman had 118 rushing yards in 13 games, totaling 520 yards and 8 touchdowns, in addition to 3 receiving touchdowns on 31 receptions. Not surprisingly with the numbers Ryan put up, the Falcons’ offense scored the most points in the NFL last season, and their 540 points was 71 points better than the No. 2 team. They needed to score a lot because the defense allowed opponents to score the sixth-most points in the league.

When a player has a career year, you expect him to slip back a bit the next season so don’t expect Ryan to get close to 5,000 yards this season, but 4,500 yards or better is likely given that he’s surpassed that number every season since 2012. He still has all of his offensive weapons entering the year, and I expect TE Austin Hooper to take a step forward in 2017 after a rookie season that saw his reps increase as the year went on. One thing to note is the team has a new offensive coordinator in Steve Sarkisian, who replaces Kyle Shanahan, who got the head coaching job in San Francisco this offseason. With the way the offense played last year, I wouldn’t expect Sarkisian to stay from the offensive game plan that obviously worked well in 2016.

The Falcons open their post-Super Bowl season on the road against the Bears in Week 1. They get a home game in Week 2 as they play their first regular-season game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, hosting the Packers on Sunday night. Up next on the schedule is a road game at the Lions, followed by a home game against the Bills in Week 4. That leads into an early bye in Week 5, followed by a home contest with the Dolphins. Week 7 has a Super Bowl rematch on tap as the Falcons head to Gillette Stadium to try to avenge their overtime loss to the Patriots. They host the Cowboys in Week 10 and then take a cross-country flight to Seattle to take on the Seahawks in Week 11’s Monday night contest. A divisional battle with the Buccaneers in Atlanta follows in Week 12. Another primetime game is slated for Week 14, with the Falcons hosting the Saints on Thursday night. The same teams meet two weeks later, this time at the Superdome in New Orleans in Week 16. The Falcons finish out their regular season schedule at home against the Panthers in Week 17. I think the Falcons are looking at a 10-12 win season this year, and I’m leaning more toward the higher end of the range.

Source: http://www.atlantafalcons.com, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

4th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Houston Texans

We move on to the AFC South in our continuing previews of all 32 NFL teams over the course of 32 days (or so), with the Houston Texans, who won the division last season.

The Texans’ offseason centered around QB Brock Osweiler for the second straight season — last year for signing him to a big-money contract, this year for being able to trade him after a mediocre season. With Osweiler now on the Browns, the Texans decided to trade up in the draft to make Clemson QB Deshaun Watson their first-round pick, and he will compete with QB Tom Savage for the starting job. Whoever gets the nod will be without a key piece of the offense for the first half of the season after WR Will Fuller broke his collarbone early in training camp, which is expected to cause him to miss up to three months. The defense was among the league’s best last season — and that was with DE J.J. Watt not playing after Week 3. With him back and expected to be healthy, the defense should be even better than it was in 2016. The defense will, however, be without veteran NT Vince Wilfork, who retired, and CB A.J. Bouye, who went to the division-rival Jaguars in free agency. Veteran T Duane Brown has yet to report to camp as he holds out in an attempt to get more money, but he will likely to join the team before the regular season begins.

Osweiler started most of the Texans’ games at quarterback last season, with Savage starting two games and playing in three overall. He went 46-for-73 on pass attempts for 461 yards but did not throw a touchdown pass — or an interception — in his limited playing time. WR DeAndre Hopkins was the team’s best receiver, but his production was limited given the team’s quarterback play. He had 78 receptions for 954 yards and 4 touchdowns. TE C.J. Fiedorowicz became a favorite target of Osweiler, who liked to throw short passes his way, and he caught 54 balls for 559 yards and 4 touchdowns. TE Ryan Griffin went 50 for 442 with 2 touchdowns. Fuller played in 14 games and caught just 47 passes — partially due to his tendency to drop passes — for 635 yards and 2 touchdowns. RB Lamar Miller carried the majority of the workload on the ground, with 268 yards for 1,073 yards and 5 touchdowns in 14 games; he also caught 31 passes for 188 yards. Backup RB Alfred Blue totaled 420 rushing yards on 100 attempts, scoring 1 touchdown in the process. In his final season at Clemson, Watson completed 67 percent of his passes for 4,593 yards and 41 touchdowns, with 17 interceptions, though college stats don’t always translate well to the NFL because collegiate competition often isn’t to the level that it is in the NFL. The offense was tied for the fourth-fewest points scored last season, but the defense was the top-ranked team in terms of yards allowed and 11th in points allowed.

No matter who gets the bulk of the starts under center — and it’s looking like Savage will get first crack at it in Week 1 — will almost certainly perform better than Osweiler did last year. With Fuller likely out for about half the season, other wide receivers will have to step up their game, so expect WRs Braxton Miller and Jaelen Strong to see increased reps and targets, with Fiedorowicz probably continuing to be an important part of the passing game. Lamar Miller is still the starting running back, but Blue may lose some of his work as the backup with the Texans having drafted Texas RB D’Onta Foreman in the third round. As the season goes on, he should see an increased workload as he gets more entrenched in the system as he goes through his rookie season. If Watt and DE Jadeveon Clowney can both stay healthy and on the field together — which hasn’t been the case much in Clowney’s first three seasons in the league — the defense should again be a formidable unit and among the best in the league.

The schedule opens with a divisional battle at home against the Jaguars, then the Texans head to Cincinnati for Week 2 to take on the Bengals on Thursday night. Then, for the second straight year, the Texans play at the Patriots in Week 3 as they look to avenge their playoff loss against the eventual Super Bowl LI champs. They go back home to play the Titans in Week 4. They could face off against Osweiler when they host the Browns in Week 6. Their bye follows that game, then it’s off to Seattle to take on the Seahawks in Week 8. The Texans host the Colts in Week 9 and the Cardinals in Week 11. They’re on Monday Night Football in Week 12 when they play at the Ravens, then stay on the road for their second game against the Titans in Week 13. They host the Steelers in Week 16 for a nationally televised game on Christmas Day, and the Texans finish the season on the road in Week 17 to take on the Colts. Obviously the quarterback play will affect how many games the Texans win, but with their stout defense I can see them getting double-digit wins with just decent quarterback play.

Sources: http://www.houstontexans.com/, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

4th Annual 32 in 32ish NFL Previews: Green Bay Packers

The next NFC North team in our continuing preview of all 32 NFL teams over the course of 32 days (or so) leading up to the start of the 2017 season is the Green Bay Packers, who are coming off a first-place finish in the division.

The Packers came within a game of making Super Bowl LI last season, falling to the Falcons in the NFC Championship. In the Aaron Rodgers era, the Packers have consistently had one of the top offenses in the NFL, and they added to it in the offseason by signing free-agent TEs Lance Kendricks and Martellus Bennett in an attempt to beef up a weak point of their offense. They’ll join a receiving core led by WRs Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams. There could be some questions with their running game, with WR-turned-RB Ty Montgomery expected to be the No. 1 back heading into the season.

Rodgers had one of the best seasons of his career last year — a high bar to cross — throwing for 4,428 yards and a league-leading 40 touchdowns, with 7 interceptions. He threw 14 of those touchdown passes to Nelson, who had 97 receptions for 1,257 yards. Adams had 75 receptions for 997 yards and 12 scores. WR Randall Cobb had decent production in the 10 games he played, grabbing 60 balls for 610 yards and 4 touchdowns. Montgomery had 44 catches for 348 yards. After being converted to a running back in the latter part of the season due to injuries, he became the team’s lead running back. Overall for the season, he had a team-high 77 attempts for 457 yards and 3 rushing touchdowns. Rodgers had the second-most rushing yards on the team, with RBs Eddie Lacy — who is now with the Seahawks — and James Starks limited in playing time by injuries. With the Patriots last season, Bennett had 55 receptions for 701 yards and 7 touchdowns, and Kendricks totaled 499 yards and 2 touchdowns on 50 catches for the Rams. The offense scored the fourth-most points in the league last season, and the defense was ranked in the bottom third of the league in points allowed.

If the Packers can get good production out of the running game, they should have one of the league’s best offenses again in 2017. The Rodgers-Nelson combo has been one of the best over the last several years when both are healthy. Adams is a strong No. 2 receiver, and the tight ends the team signed should be a vast improvement over what they got out of TEs Jared Cook and Richard Rodgers a season ago. With the defense not doing well last season and no major players signed on that side of the ball, the Packers are likely going to have to put a lot of points on the board to win games. They went with defensive players with their first four picks of the draft, including Washington CB Kevin King in the second round, but you never know how much success a player will have in his rookie year in the league.

The Packers’ schedule kicks off with a home game in Week 1 against the Seahawks, who should be among the better teams in the NFC this season. It doesn’t get easier in Week 2 when the Packers do battle with the Falcons as they open up their new stadium in the Sunday night game. They have a primetime rivalry game, taking on the Bears at Lambeau Field in Week 4’s Thursday nighter. The Packers then face the Cowboys on the road in Week 5, then travel to Minneapolis to take on the Vikings — likely their biggest competition in the division — in Week 6. They host the Saints in Week 7, then get their bye and come back to host the Lions in Week 9. The Packers face the Steelers in Pittsburgh in a primetime contest in Week 12. They end the season with back-to-back divisional contests, hosting the Vikings in a Saturday night special in Week 16 and visiting the Lions in Week 17. I think the Packers should at least match last year’s 10-win total, and they could improve upon that by a game or two, depending on how well the defense plays.

Sources: http://www.packers.com, http://www.pro-football-reference.com

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Patriots, Falcons make history with first Super Bowl to go to overtime

It was expected to be a high-scoring affair heading into Super Bowl LI with the high-powered offenses of the Patriots and Falcons in the game at Houston’s NRG Stadium. That wasn’t the case, though, early — at least on the Patriots side as they were shut out in the first quarter and scored just three points in the opening half, going down 21-3 at halftime. Things got better for the Patriots in the second half as they came back to force overtime and eventually win the game.

Both offenses got out of the gate slowly, with a scoreless game through the first quarter. The Falcons got on the scoreboard first with a five-yard touchdown run by RB Devonta Freeman, who made a nice cut to the outside, where there were no defenders, to get in the end zone early in the second quarter. That touchdown came on the ensuing drive after Falcons LB forced a fumble by Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount when the Patriots were in field goal range. he next score came on a 19-yard touchdown catch by TE Austin Hooper from QB Matt Ryan to put the Falcons up 14-0 nearing the midway point of the second quarter. As the Patriots were driving later in the quarter — helped by three defensive holding penalties that resulted in Patriot first downs — QB Tom Brady threw a pass that was intended for WR Danny Amendola but landed in the hands of Falcons CB Robert Alford, who had nothing but open field in front of him and took it into the endzone for a pick-six that made it 21-0 with under three minutes to go in the half.

The Patriots looked like they’d follow that score with a touchdown of their own on the ensuing drive, but it wasn’t meant to be. As they were driving down the field, a holding call against TE Martellus Bennett negated a run by RB James White that would have gotten the Patriots inside the five-yard line. Instead, they had a 2nd-and-15 at the 20-yard line with 12 seconds to go. A screen pass to Bennett didn’t go anywhere and because he got taken down in-bounds instead of getting out of bounds, the Patriots had to use their final timeout to stop the clock with five seconds to go in the half. They then settled for a 41-yard field goal off the foot of K Stephen Gostkowski to get on the board and cut the deficit down to 18 points heading into halftime. Although Falcons WR Julio Jones only had three catches in the first half, he did make this seemingly impossible grab.

The second half began with the Patriots defense forcing a much-needed three-and-out followed by a good punt return by WR Julian Edelman to get the Patriots in good field position close to midfield to try to cut into the lead further. They can’t capitalize on it, though, and are forced to punt after a couple of dropped balls by Edelman and Amendola not helping Brady out. The Falcons struck first again in the second half with a six-yard touchdown pass to RB Tevin Coleman to end a drive that featured a 35-yard reception by WR Taylor Gabriel.

Brady then drove the Patriots down the field on a 75-yard drive that culminated with a five-yard pass to White. Gostkowski’s PAT attempt bounced off the upright and was no good, making it 28-9. An unsuccessful onside kick attempt gave the Falcons good field position, which they couldn’t take advantage of and didn’t score, punting to begin the fourth quarter. The Patriots’ subsequent drive ended in a 33-yard Gostkowski field goal to get the Patriots within two scores, 28-12. That drive could have been better for New England had it not been for two sacks on the drive by Falcons DT Grady Jarrett, the second on a third-and-10 that forced the field goal attempt. A sack-fumble on the ensuing Atlanta drive — the Falcons’ first turnover of the postseason — gave the Patriots hope. Despite DE Dwight Freeney sacking Brady for a five-yard loss on the first play of the Patriots’ drive coming off the fumble, the Patriots were able to finish off a quick drive with a six-yard touchdown pass to Amendola. A two-point conversion by White brought the Patriots back within one touchdown, 28-20, with 5:56 left in the fourth. Gostkowski’s kick pinned the Falcons back at their own 10-yard line, but a 39-yard catch-and-run by Freeman got them near midfield on the first play of the drive. That was followed up later in the drive by another outstanding sideline catch to get the Falcons in field goal range on a 27-yard completion.

But a sack by Patriots DE Trey Flowers, followed by an offensive holding call knock them out of field goal range, giving Brady and the Patriots a chance to tie the game with 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Patriots’ drive started at their own 9-yard line, but Brady was hitting his receivers — including an amazing catch by Edelman that rivals the greatest catches in Super Bowl history — leading up to the two-minute warning.

White finished off the drive with a three-yard touchdown drive after making a couple of nice catches to set the Patriots up in that position. The ensuing two-point attempt is good with a pass to Amendola to tie the game at 28-28 with 57 seconds to go in regulation and no timeouts for the Falcons. They didn’t do anything on the drive, making this the first Super Bowl ever to go to overtime.

The Patriots won the coin toss and chose to receive the ball, giving them the first shot on offense in the extra period. A touchback caused the Patriots to start at their own 25-yard line but Brady was able to take the offense down the field. A defensive pass interference call in the end zone gave the Patriots a first-and-goal from the two-yard line. After an incomplete pass to Bennett, Brady gave the ball to White for the game-winning touchdown.

Patriots win the game in overtime, 34-28, earning Brady and head coach Bill Belichick their record-setting fifth Super Bowl titles. The Patriots also obliterated the Super Bowl record for a come-from-behind victory. Prior to this game, no team had come back from being down more than 10 points to win a Super Bowl. With the victory, Brady wins his fourth Super Bowl MVP trophy, the first player in NFL history to achieve the feat. Brady threw for 466 yards with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Super Bowl LI Prop Bets: Coin toss, Trump mentions, Lady Gaga hair color?

The Super Bowl is the most-watched TV event in the U.S. every year, with well over 100 million people watching the game. That audience is split up between football fans and casual viewers who watch the game for the commercials and/or the halftime show, which features Lady Gaga this year. There are also the bettors who watch the game hoping to make money off of their wagers. But because the Super Bowl is such a big deal, you can bet on much more than just the line or the over/under. And Super Bowl LI is no different. There are a number of interesting bets you can make, often involving people not actually playing in the game. I’ll list some of the more unique bets here, including my picks, but without the odds that you would find if you were actually betting on them.

Coin flip
Heads
Tails
This is the classic Super Bowl prop bet. It’s obviously purely random. I’ll go heads.

How long will it take for Luke Bryan to sing the U.S. national anthem?
Over/under 2 minutes, 15 seconds
This is another classic Super Bowl prop. Luke Bryan doesn’t strike me as the type of singer who will stretch the anthem out as long as possible, as some others have in previous Super Bowls, so I’ll take the under on this one.

How many times will “Trump” be said on TV during live broadcast (halftime/commercials excluded)?
Over/under 1.5
I’ll take the over because Brady and Belichick famously supported Trump during the election so I think he could be mentioned. Play-by-play announcer Joe Buck and analyst Troy Aikman just need to say his name once each in order to make the over.

Will “Houston, we have a problem” be said on TV during live broadcast (halftime/commercials excluded?
Yes
No
I’ll go no here because I think the overused cliche would only by used during the broadcast if it’s a blowout and one team falls far behind. I think it’ll be a close game so I don’t think the phrase is said.

What color will Lady Gaga’s hair be when she comes on stage for the halftime show?
Blonde
Any other color
I’m going to take the field here and pick any other color. This is the biggest stage Lady Gaga has ever performed on and with her personality, I don’t think she’ll go as conservative as having blonde hair.

Which song will Lady Gaga play first during the halftime show?\n”Born this Way”
“Bad Romance”
“Edge of Glory”
“Poker Face”
“Just Dance”
Any other song
I’m going to go with “Edge of Glory” here. I’m unfamiliar with the song, but with the title it seems appropriate for a Super Bowl halftime show since both teams are on the edge of glory by being one-half away from a Super Bowl title.

How many times will “deflate” or “Deflategate” be said on TV during live broadcast?
Over/under 1.5
I think it’ll be over. Buck and Aikman will have to mention the four-game suspension Tom Brady served at the start of the season. Since Deflategate was the reason for the suspension, I think it’ll be said a couple times.

How many times will Gisele Bundchen be shown on TV during the broadcast?
Over/under 1.5
She’s Brady’s wife. I expect her to be shown at least once near the beginning of the game, so there would need to be just one more appearance for the over. I’m going over.

Will the opening kickoff result in a touchback?
Yes
No
I’ll take yes on this one, which seems like the more likely outcome.

Will either team score three straight times?
Yes
No
I’m expecting a close game and think it’ll be close throughout so this is an easy no for me.

Will LeGarrette Blount score a touchdown in the first half?
Yes
No
I’m expecting multiple touchdowns from Blount, which is why I picked him as my MVP, so I think he’ll get at least one in the first half. Yes.

Total yardage of all touchdowns
Over/under 100.5
I’m expecting a relatively high-scoring game so there will be a few touchdowns. Just one long one puts it on the path to the over. A long touchdown reception by Julian Edelman is a distinct possibility. With that out there, I’ll go over here.

Will the Patriots convert a fourth-down attempt?
Yes
No
The Patriots go for it on fourth down more than most teams so I’ll go with the odds and take yes on this one.

Distance of the first Matt Ryan touchdown pass?
Over/under 13.5
The Falcons have some receivers who can make big plays. Over.

Total number of penalties in the game by both teams
Over/under 12.5
The Patriots don’t get a lot of penalties so I think the under is the way to go here.

Total receptions by Mohamed Sanu
Over/under 4
I think Bill Belichick’s game plan will be to limit Julio Jones’ production. If he’s successful with that, Sanu will have to step up so I’ll go over.

Who will throw the first touchdown pass?
Patriots
Falcons
Although they didn’t in the AFC Championship game, the Patriots usually defer if they win the coin toss. With that in mind, I expect the Falcons to get the ball first. If Ryan has the first chance on offense, I think he has a good shot at throwing a touchdown pass. Going Falcons.

Total rushing yards for LeGarrette Blount
Over/under 57.5
Again, Blount is my MVP pick so I’m going way over on that number.

Longest successful field goal in the game
Over/under 47.5
The Patriots have one of the best kickers in the league in Stephen Gostkowski. If he has a shot at a 48-plus yarder, I think he nails it. And Matt Bryant on the other side is also a pretty good kicker who also has a shot at converting a long one. Over.

What will be higher on Super Bowl Sunday?
Patriots total points scored
Russell Westbrook points scored
I’m predicting 31 points for the Patriots. Westbrook is averaging 30.8 points per game this season, which puts him right there with that total. He’s playing the Blazers, who are near the bottom of the league in points allowed. Given that, I think Westbrook will surpass his season average so I’ll go with Westbrook points scored.

Higher number?
Phil Mickelson fourth round score
Patriots rushing yards
Mickelson will likely score in the low 70s in the fourth round. I keep going back to the fact that I expect a big game from Blount, so I’ll go with Patriots rushing yards.

Who will the Super Bowl MVP mention first?
God
Team/teammates
Coach
Family
Owner
Donald Trump
Does not mention anyone above
I’m expecting a Patriots win, which means a Patriots MVP. I think Belichick has drilled the idea of team into his players’ heads so I think the MVP mentions team/teammates first.

Will Matt Ryan win regular season MVP and Super Bowl MVP?
Yes
No
I think he’ll be named the regular season MVP, but because I’m projecting a Patriots win I don’t think he’ll be Super Bowl MVP. No.

What color will the liquid be that is poured on the winning coach? (Bovada)
Clear
Lime/green
Orange
Yellow
Red
Blue
Purple
It was blue Gatorade when the Patriots won Super Bowl XLIX so I’ll go with blue for them again.

If the Patriots win, will Brady, Belichick or Kraft be seen shaking Roger Goodell’s hand on TV?
Yes
No
Goodell having to give the Patriots the Lombardi Trophy if they win has been a discussion all season because of the Deflategate punishment levied on the team. I’m going yes here because it’ll be best for all parties involved if the Patriots show there’s no ill-will with the commissioner.

(Prop bets from CBS Sports and Football Outsiders)

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Super Bowl LI Preview: Brady, Belichick go for record 5th rings as Patriots battle Falcons

For the first time in four years, the Super Bowl does not consist of the two No. 1 seeds going against each other. It’s the AFC’s top-seeded Patriots — going for the franchise’s fifth title, which would tie the team for second-most all-time behind the Steelers — taking on the Falcons, the No. 2 seed from the NFC, who are playing in just their second Super Bowl and looking for their first title. The Patriots, on the other hand, are playing in their NFL-record ninth championship game. Patriots QB Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick have each been part of the Patriots’ four prior championships and are making their seventh overall Super Bowl appearances, the most in league history for a player or coach.

Neither team struggled to win its conference championship game, both more than doubling their opponent’s score. The Falcons defense stifled QB Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense and Green Bay’s defense couldn’t stop QB Matt Ryan and the rest of the Atlanta offense as the Falcons won 44-21. Brady and the Patriots put up 36 points on the Steelers defense and limited Pittsburgh’s offense, which played without RB Le’Veon Bell for most of the game when he exited early with a groin injury. New England won the game by a final score of 36-17.

With two of the league’s best offenses playing in Super Bowl LI, it looks to be a high-scoring game, which is reflected in the 59 over/under in Vegas, which is up from the already-high 56.5 where it opened. The Patriots are three-point favorites in the game, which opened as a pick ’em. Heading into the final game of the postseason, I am 9-2 picking games straight up, 6-4 against the spread and 5-5 on over/unders.

The Falcons had the league’s top scoring offense during the regular season and have kept up the offensive attack through their first two playoff games, scoring 36 and 44, respectively. The Patriots can put points on the board, as well, scoring 34 and 36, respectively, in their first two games of this postseason. Both quarterbacks are MVP candidates after putting up big numbers during the season but I’ll give the advantage of the Brady and the Patriots. It’s hard to go against the clutch performances he has put up throughout his career and the four Super Bowls he has one. I say the Falcons have the advantage at the receiver position with WR Julio Jones, who is one of the best in the game, gaining more than 1,400 receiving yards with 6 touchdowns during the season and adding another 4 touchdowns in his two playoff games so far this season. The question is how healthy he is, as he has been limited in practice this week. WR Julian Edelman should have a good game for the Patriots, but a key for them could be WR Chris Hogan repeating the performance he had in the AFC Championship, when he had 9 receptions for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Steelers. Falcons RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 19 rushing touchdowns in the regular season, but Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount ran the ball into the end zone 18 times himself while rushing for more than 1,100 yards. The Patriots rushing attack hasn’t been able to get much going yet in the postseason, which could hurt them against the Falcons if they can’t keep up with the Freeman-Coleman combo. I think the running games are pretty even between the two teams.

The Patriots had the top scoring defense during the regular season and the Falcons defense has improved in recent weeks, having allowed 21 points or fewer in five of their last six games. Other than the Packers last week, though, they didn’t face a team with as strong of an offense as the Patriots have so New England will present a big challenge for the Atlanta defense. For the Patriots defense, CB Malcolm Butler — who made the game-winning interception in Super Bowl XLIX — led the team with 4 interceptions during the regular season. Patriots have the advantage at defense.

There’s no doubt that the Patriots have the advantage at head coach, with Belichick coaching in his record-setting seventh Super Bowl. Although Falcons head coach Dan Quinn is in his first Super Bowl as a head coach, he was the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator when they made it to Super Bowls XLVIII and XLIX so he knows what it’s like to be on the sidelines for a Super Bowl. But it’s Belichick who is considered by many to be the best coach in NFL history. He knows how to come up with a game plan that helps to limit the opponent’s best weapon. If he can do that on Sunday, it’ll likely mean Jones has a subpar performance.

This should be a close game, but I think Brady and Belichick will lead the Patriots to the franchise’s fifth Super Bowl title. I’m predicting a final score of 31-27 Patriots so I’ll take them to cover and that’ll be under the 59. Blount is named MVP.

(Spread and over/under from Vegas Insider)

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

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)

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine