You Want To Know Who The Best Is? Championship Week Preview

-What's on your mind? -  My options, sir. -  Simple.   First, you've acquired enough   points to show up tomorrow...

-What's on your mind? -My options, sir. -Simple. First, you've acquired enough
points to show up tomorrow...

You want to find out who the best is? Rodgers, Brady, Ryan and Roethlisberger. They’ve carried their teams this far.  The Packers, Falcons and Steelers have middling defenses, the Patriots appear to be in a class by themselves.  Yet better teams than the Patriots have met their unexpected demise in the Conference Championship. 

AFC Championship         

This is the third time that Tom Brady and the Patriots have faced the Steelers in the AFC Title game.  Both of the previous matchups were in Pittsburg and the Steelers were heavy favorites.  Both times the Patriots won with relative ease.  Tom Brady is 9-3 all-time versus the Steelers.  This is also the Patriots sixth consecutive trip to the AFC Championship.  If you are thinking that the Patriots are the likely winner of this game, you are probably right.

Brady has never had a lot of trouble with Pittsburg’s famed 3-4 zone blitz defense.  The Patriots strategy has consistently been to spread the Steelers out, making their big and physical linebackers play in space.  Pittsburg preferred to sit in their base defense, as it was their bread and butter.  The Patriots would isolate their quick backs and receivers against the Pittsburg linebackers and exploit them, repeatedly, for years. 

Over the past couple years, with the retirement of Dick Lebeau, the Steelers have undertaken the process of adapting their defense to combat the modern spread offenses.  The Steelers defenses, although not the dominant forces of yesteryear, are fast and versatile.  In the earlier matchup this season, Pittsburg would combat the Patriots spread formations with a nickel alignment with three linebackers and three down linemen.  They walked a roving corner into the box to provide help to the Patriots frequent shotgun runs. 

The Patriots can attack a defense in multiple ways.  They have the versatile talent to line up in any formation, and the physicality to line up in multiple tight end sets and run power and stretch plays with Legarrette Blount. 

The magic number for the Patriots offense in the playoffs is 20 points.  If they score above 20 points in the playoffs under Brady and Belichick, they are 21-3 and are 2-7 when scoring under 20 points.  Despite Pittsburg’s improved ability to stop the New England passing game, I don’t think they will be able to stop the run well enough to hold New England to less than 20 points.

Defensively, Bill Belichick aims to always take away the strongest facet of any offense.   For Pittsburgh, that is their running game.  La’veon Bell is one of the best running backs in the NFL due to his patience and incredible acceleration.  The Steelers call frequent draws and delays to allow Bell to wait for blocks to set up, and patiently pick his hole. The majority of the Steelers passing game is predicated off of a successful running game.  They frequently use run/pass options that are designed to see if the linebackers come up in run support, and slipping a receiver into the empty space. 

I expect Belichick to load the box to stop Bell and to challenge Antonio Brown and the small but athletic Steelers receivers to get open against physical press man coverage.  The Steelers and Big Ben are skilled at throwing the ball downfield, but it isn’t something they like to rely on.  The Steelers want to grind away with the run game and use that to set up big plays through the air.  They have a bad tendency to get away from Bell down at the goalline, and lack the big red zone target that can go up and get the ball in the tight spaces of the red zone.  I think the Patriots will force them into field goals and the Steelers won’t be able to keep up with the Patriots offense.

NFC Championship

The breakdown of this game is simpler.  Two outstanding quarterbacks will be ruthlessly attacking two mediocre defenses.  The Falcons have by far the more talented team, but so did Dallas last week.  The Packers have Aaron Rodgers, who is playing out of his mind. 

Atlanta’s defense is perfectly ok.  They play hard and tackle well.  They have talent in some spots, but the disjointed and disintegrating Seahawks were inches away from scoring 35+ on them last week.  I expect that the Falcons will be able to effectively cover the Packers receivers for a time, until Rodgers breaks the pocket and turns the game into sandlot football, which is where he is the most lethal. 

The Falcons offense has great players all over the fields and an excellent play caller directing them.  The Packers, despite all of their weaknesses, do like to bring pressure and confuse quarterbacks with a myriad of blitzes.  The Falcons offensive line, although not overpowering, are skilled and intelligent, I don’t anticipate that they struggle picking up the blitzes.  If the Packers are able to pressure Matt Ryan, the wheels will come off for the Falcons.  When pressured, Ryan tries to force the ball to Julio Jones, which occasionally bails him out and occasionally ends with horror. 

Logic dictates that the team that is better at 21 of 22 positions will probably win the game.  However, I have a hard time believing that Rodgers, who is on one of the greatest hot streaks in the history of football, will be turned away.