Will the Green Bay Packers overcome the Atlanta Falcons to earn their first Super Bowl berth in six years?
One more game stands between the Packers and a second Super Bowl trip in the Aaron Rodgers era. Green Bay has won eight on the bounce, a ninth would send them to the promised land once again.
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It won’t be easy for Mike McCarthy’s men, who must overcome a team that beat them in the regular season for the second time in as many weeks.
In the AFC, New England hosts Pittsburgh in what is set to be a classic. The Patriots were unconvincing for much of last week’s win over Houston. Now they must deal with Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.
Just like the Packers, I’ve put up eight on the bounce. I’ve predicted each playoff game successfully so far, going 4-0 again in last week’s divisional round picks. Maybe I’ll run the table, too. More than likely, though, my luck will run out in the conference championship.
Who will advance to the Super Bowl? Let’s dive in.
Green Bay at Atlanta
Can anyone stop Aaron Rodgers? Atlanta doesn’t necessarily need to, so long as Matt Ryan can go toe-to-toe with the two-time MVP and win in a shootout, just as they did in Week 8.
It’s fair to say both teams have come a long way since the midseason meeting in the Georgia Dome. The Falcons have made strides defensively, despite losing star corner Desmond Trufant for the year. NFL sack champion Vic Beasley has injected much-needed life into Dan Quinn’s unit.
Yet for all of Atlanta’s improvements, none is more evident than the rise of Aaron Rodgers. He lit up the Falcons defense last time out, but was in the midst of a midseason slump that led to four consecutive defeats. While Rodgers moved the ball through the air, his level of play over the past eight weeks is on an entirely new level, possibly the most impressive stretch of his Hall-of-Fame career.
Rodgers shredded a Giants defense that held the high-powered Cowboys to just seven points. He did so without Jordy Nelson. Roll forward a week and he’s leading his team past said Cowboys, the NFC’s top seed. Rodgers is playing like a runaway train that’s been gathering momentum since Week 12.
If this becomes a shootout as many expect, it’s hard to pick against the team with Rodgers. Nelson is unlikely to play again, which is a blow, but the Pack has still put up 72 points in seven quarters without him. Davante Adams exited Sunday’s win briefly, his ankle to be carefully monitored through the week.
Even without Nelson and a less-than-healthy Adams, the Packers still have enough talent to succeed. Ty Montgomery is a matchup nightmare, as is Jared Cook.
There’s none bigger than Rodgers, however.
Pick: Green Bay
Pittsburgh at New England
Don’t get carried away by New England’s below-par performance last week. That was then, this is now. They advanced and will be ready to go in this one.
How the Patriots defend Pittsburgh’s multiple-threat offense might prove to be key. Bill Belichick doesn’t want Le’Veon Bell running all over his defense, that’s for sure, and I expect Bell to be the focal point of his gameplan. Stopping the Steelers isn’t as simple as drawing it up on paper, though.
The LeGarrette Blount–Dion Lewis tandem will play a key role in this game. Blount, the bruiser, will be used to soften up his former team’s defensive front, Lewis turning on the afterburners. He finally looks healthy and proved last week he’s still one of New England’s top playmakers.
Pittsburgh isn’t a team to mess with in the postseason. They have championship pedigree and the best quarterback, running back and wide receiver trio in the entire league. Defensively they are no slouch, either.
But it takes a brave man to bet against Tom Brady at home in the AFC title game. I ain’t feelin’ brave.