NFL picks: In offensively focused conference championships, which defenses will step up?

1:20 | NFL
NFL Gameplan: Conference Championships
Friday January 20th, 2017

The silliest thing to come out of the Antonio Brown Facebook Live controversy this past week—and there were several options—was the notion that Mike Tomlin calling the Patriots “a******s” somehow would serve as motivation for New England. It’s safe to say the Patriots, and everyone else playing this weekend, is sufficiently motivated already.

This is the last stop before Super Bowl LI in Houston. The winners Sunday will meet on Feb. 5, as the NFL crowns its next champion. Who takes home the conference titles and packs their bags for Texas?

Four-Man Front

A quartet of players who could be key to Sunday’s matchups:

1. Jake Ryan, LB, Packers: The Packers now shift from the Cowboys’ powerhouse run game to the Falcons’ explosive style. The Atlanta scheme forces defenses to move sideline-to-sideline, putting an emphasis on clearing linemen to the second level so they can clear linebackers. In short: the Green Bay front has to be good, but their linebackers have to be even better, filling those gaps. Ryan, Joe Thomas and Blake Martinez all will get their chances (in addition to Clay Matthews), but Ryan was the most effective tackler and run defender of that group during the regular season.

2. Grady Jarrett, DT, Falcons: The trick to beating Aaron Rodgers isn’t necessarily just hemming him inside the pocket or creating a little push from the edges. It’s in creating havoc from the interior of the line, so he can’t sit on his spot or easily escape. Jarrett had just three sacks in the regular season, but he’s emerging as the Falcons’ best pocket-pushing presence inside. Can he deliver a dominant performance Sunday, against guards Lane Taylor and T.J. Lang and center Corey Linsley?

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3. Jesse James, TE, Steelers: A season-high 83 yards receiving for James last week, who repeatedly found sizable gaps in the Chiefs’ coverage—in front of a secondary worried about Antonio Brown deep, behind a front seven with its eyes on Le’Veon Bell. The Patriots were stingy against tight ends this season, allowing just 708 yards receiving, fifth-lowest in the NFL. James tends to fly under the radar for the Pittsburgh offense, but he has good hands and knows when to sit down a route in space. Roethlisberger will find him if he has the chance.

4. David Andrews, C, Patriots: The Texans caused trouble for New England’s offense last week, in part, by attacking the A-gap (between the guard and center). Andrews was overmatched at times, as Houston sacked Tom Brady twice and forced him into multiple rushed throws. The Steelers could steal a page from the Texans’ playbook, even shifting a Bud Dupree or James Harrison inside, as the Texans did with the likes of Whitney Mercilus. Andrews has to hold up better this Sunday than he did in the divisional round.

Last trip to Atlanta, on Oct. 30, Aaron Rodgers threw for 246 yards and four touchdowns. The Packers did not have either TE Jared Cook or WR Randall Cobb that day due to injury, nor did Ty Montgomery suit up, as Green Bay rolled with a backfield tandem of Don Jackson and Knile Davis.

So, while the Packers’ injury report headed into Sunday’s NFC title game looks awfully rough—Jordy Nelson, Geronimo Allison and Davante Adams all are in doubt—no one in Atlanta will be expecting QB Aaron Rodgers to stumble, even with a potentially depleted receiving corps.

Those same Atlanta folks might also offer up a reminder of their team’s 33–32 victory in Week 8, thanks to a late Matt Ryan-to-Mohamed Sanu touchdown. Ryan fired three TD passes of his own, all while the Packers limited Julio Jones to three catches and 29 yards. Games like that one have been perhaps the best indication of how dominant this Falcons’ offense is, because Ryan has thrived no matter Jones’s numbers. Philadelphia is the only defense to hold the Falcons to fewer than 20 points. Ryan’s offense has scored 30 or more 12 times, including each of their final four regular-season games plus a playoff win over Seattle. And the Packers have topped 30 points in six consecutive outings, dating back to Week 14.

If there is an infallible way to stop either of those offenses, the opposition has not figured it out of late.

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“They’ve been on an incredible roll,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of Atlanta’s attack, via ajc.com. “You look at the course of the season—not only the production they have had, they are No. 1 in the league for points so the production speaks for itself—the thing that jumps out on film is the consistency. They’ve been doing it at this high level the whole year.”

The Falcons were a bit shorthanded in that first meeting, too, as RB Tevin Coleman was out of the lineup. His presence shifts what the Falcons are capable of, because of how dynamic he is as a pass-catching threat. This year, Coleman rushed for 520 yards and averaged 13.6 yards on 31 receptions. Be it out of the backfield or the slot, the Falcons push Coleman into favorable matchups vs. linebackers—the opposing secondary usually busy defending Jones and Atlanta’s other receivers.

It’s a similar formula that has made Taylor Gabriel such a weapon. He sees cornerbacks in coverage, but his speed is lethal. With Atlanta spreading the field, Gabriel tends to find room for big catch-and-run plays.

And then there’s the Falcons’ run game—a wide-zone scheme that banks on Coleman and Devonta Freeman’s ability to cut and accelerate. The Packers will have Clay Matthews Jr. this time around (he also missed Week 7), and they’ll need him as Atlanta tests the sideline-to-sideline range of their linebacking corps.

Speed isn’t the question for Atlanta’s linebackers, so much as it is experience. Athletic rookies Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell played 97 of a possible 100 combined snaps last week. While Rodgers obviously is the biggest focus, RB Ty Montgomery is a problematic piece, too. The Packers will use similar zone looks to Atlanta in springing Montgomery outside; FB Aaron Ripkowski tends to be their inside hammer.

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Corralling Rodgers is the same problem as always. Namely, is it enough to keep him contained in the pocket or do you have to come after him aggressively? Rodgers smoked the Giants and Cowboys’ passive approaches, although both drummed up a little success with blitzes.

“He makes the impossible plays,” said Falcons safety Keanu Neal of Rodgers. “He’s scrambling, throwing across his body and throws it on a dime. Being disciplined, relying on your discipline and then playing two plays—the first play is the actual once, then once he scrambles ... that’s the second play.

We may not know what Rodgers’s receiving corps will look like until game time. At least the latter two of Nelson (ribs), Allison (hamstring) and Adams (hamstring) figure to play, but how effective will they be? Atlanta’s secondary, led by Robert Alford, ranked a slightly misleading 28th in yards allowed—opposing QBs threw 655 times vs. the Falcons, most of any team.

The Packers won in Dallas by this same score last week. Anything less than a similar level of offense across the board would be surprising Sunday. Rodgers’s greatest trick is that he can excel no matter the WRs at his disposal, so Atlanta’s shot against him comes via Vic Beasley and the pass rush. It’s more likely that Ryan will have to win a shootout. The Atlanta offense is built to do just that.

Between them, Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady have a combined 418 regular-season starts and another 51 in the postseason. They have met just once in the playoffs, during Roethlisberger’s rookie season of 2004, when the Patriots won in Pittsburgh en route to the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The Steelers trailed by 21 before halftime of that game, after New England’s Rodney Harrison pick-sixed Roethlisberger. Sunday’s long-coming rematch stands to be more competitive.

Exactly how competitive will depend a lot on Roethlisberger—more specifically on whether or not his offense can cash in long drives with touchdowns. The Steelers failed to do so in Kansas City last week, instead settling for six field goals (plus a Roethlisberger end-zone interception) and then hanging on for an 18–16 win.

“The reason we failed to score was multiple things,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said after his team escaped the divisional round. “Lack of execution and failing to take advantage of opportunity at times by us, and really quality play by them. ... I don’t prepare for failure. I don’t anticipate us being 0 for 7 [in the red zone] in New England.

Per TeamRankings.com, Pittsburgh was one of the least-effective teams in the red zone in road games this year, converting those possessions into touchdowns just 37% of the time. Roethlisberger, a 64% passer overall, dipped to a 46% completion rate inside the opponents’ 20.

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It should come as no surprise that the Steelers’ leading scorers this season were Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. Each arguably the top player in the league at his respective position, Brown and Bell touched the ball on a combined 445 plays this season; counting rushing attempts and completed passes, the Steelers totaled 790 as a team. So, Brown and Bell had their hands on the football 59% of the time for Pittsburgh.

Both were highly active earlier this season, during a New England win in Pittsburgh. Bell churned out 149 yards on 31 touches (21 rushes, 10 receptions), while Brown caught seven passes for 106 yards. Of course, Roethlisberger did not play that afternoon, as he dealt with a knee injury.

The Steelers are a different animal with their elusive, hard-to-tackle quarterback in the lineup.

“Ben is an incredible player,” Tom Brady said, via Patriots.com, “and he’s been that way since 2004 when he came into the league. I’ve always loved the way he plays, very tough, hard-nosed. He’s great for the city of Pittsburgh – a very tough, hard-nosed city. I have a lot of friends from there. He’s just been a great player. I think the respect is very mutual. To play at his level for as long as he has and with his style of play has been remarkable.”

Roethlisberger, in a sign of the aforementioned mutual respect, lauded the Patriots this week as the league’s “gold standard” and said that he’s “not at [Brady’s] level ... with all the Super Bowls he has.”

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Standing in the way of Brady’s seventh trip to the big dance is a Steelers’ defense that has upped its game as the season has progressed. In two playoff wins that D has allowed a total of 28 points and forced five turnovers.

The success starts up front, where 38-year-old veteran James Harrison and 23-year-old rising star Bud Dupree form a dangerous pass rush off the edge. Rookies like DT Javon Hargrave, CB Artie Burns and S Sean Davis have played irreplaceable roles for the Steelers.

Sunday, they’ll face a Patriots offense that has averaged 36.7 points in its last three games (including a 34-16 divisional-round win over Houston), all despite TE Rob Gronkowski’s continued absence. Familiar face Julian Edelman remains Brady’s favorite target—he caught a team-high 98 passes during the regular season—but the backfield combo of LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis and James White is really the straw that stirs the New England drink.

In Blount, the Patriots have an old-school, downhill runner. In Lewis and White, they can come at a defense with slashing, multi-purpose options out of the backfield. But if Brady doesn’t like any of the matchups those backs provide, he still can air it downfield against Pittsburgh’s young secondary. Chris Hogan is the deep threat there (17.9 yards per catch), but tight end Martellus Bennett, Edelman and even newcomer Michael Floyd are capable of stretching a defense.

“We know he’s not really a mobile guy, but he’s just so smart, man,” said Davis of Brady, via ESPN.com. “He’s careful with the ball. He’s got two picks over the season. So we’ve just got to be aware of what we’re doing.”

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The Patriots rushed for 140 yards in their October victory over the Steelers, and they scored 19 TDs on the ground during the regular season. For as much as Brady is the centerpiece of their offense, the rushing attack is an effective chip. Blount and Lewis provide a needed balance.

The Steelers ask for much more out of Bell than just lightening Roethlisberger’s workload. Bell averaged a whopping 157 yards from scrimmage per game in the regular season, and he carved up Miami and Kansas City’s defenses in the playoffs to the tune of 5.7 yards per carry.

There’s going to be a lot of offensive star power on the field Sunday, including the rare Roethlisberger-Brady playoff showdown.

OK, that was a lot of chatter about the offenses. The defenses in this game are good, New England’s in particular—the Patriots ranked first in points allowed this season at just 15.6 per game. They also held opposing backs to 3.9 yards per carry on the year, so they at least have a shot at handling the ever-patient Bell.

A huge matchup to watch is Malcolm Butler vs. Antonio Brown. The Patriots may not opt to have Butler follow Brown all day, but that’s the premier showdown when it occurs.

And, eventually, New England’s defense will get the play it needs to pull this one off.

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