NFL Playoffs 2017: 20 Bold Predictions For Conference Championships
With only four teams remaining, here’s a look at 20 bold predictions for the Conference Championships of the 2017 NFL Playoffs.
After four exciting games in the Divisional Round of the 2017 NFL Playoffs, it’s time to take a look at 20 bold predictions for the Conference Championships. It’s crazy to think by this time next week, football fans will know which two teams will be participating in Super Bowl LI for the rights to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
From a miraculous performance by Aaron Rodgers to help the Green Bay Packers upset the Dallas Cowboys on the road to the Pittsburgh Steelers defeating the Kansas City Chiefs without scoring a single touchdown, thrilling doesn’t even begin to describe what took place in the Divisional Round.
With the Packers now taking on the Atlanta Falcons along with the Steelers traveling to Foxborough for a battle against the New England Patriots, one can only imagine what’s in store for the NFC and AFC Championship games.
Will Rodgers and Green Bay continue to run the table with a victory over Atlanta? Better yet, can Tom Brady lead New England to their ninth Super Bowl appearance after missing the first four games of the season due to a suspension?
Here are 20 bold predictions for the Conference Championship games this upcoming weekend.
20. Chris Hogan Outplays Julian Edelman
Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean Julian Edelman isn’t going to be effective for the New England Patriots on offense. After all, he’s become one of Tom Brady‘s favorite targets over the last couple of years. With that being said, don’t be surprised if Edelman and Chris Hogan both come up big for the Patriots in the passing game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, just like they did against the Houston Texans.
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Hogan joined New England in the offseason after spending the first four years of his career as a member of the Buffalo Bills, and the wideout has certainly benefited from having Brady as his quarterback. His numbers may not standout as much as other wide receivers in the league, but Hogan did set career highs in receiving yards (680) and touchdowns (4) during the regular season.
What’s even more impressive on Hogan’s end is he caught all four passes thrown his way against Houston to finish with 95 receiving yards, including a big-time 45-yard reception. With the Steelers most likely focusing most of their attention on the whereabouts of Edelman on the field, don’t be surprised if Hogan sees more passes thrown his way from Brady on offense. Especially if this game becomes a shootout, Hogan could continue to be a deep threat for the Pats.
19. Packers and Falcons Combine For Over 60 Points
After seeing how deadly the offenses of the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons looked in the Divisional Round, one can only imagine how high scoring the NFC Championship could end up being between these two teams. While the Packers put up 34 points on the road against the Dallas Cowboys, the Falcons made a statement against the defense of the Seattle Seahawks by putting up 36 points of their own.
Both squads have seen their defenses play well at times throughout the season, but each unit is going to have quite the work cut out for them in the NFC Championship game. While Atlanta finished at the top of the league by averaging 33.8 points per game, Green Bay wasn’t far behind them at No. 4, scoring 27 points per contest.
What makes this matchup even more intriguing is there’s a good chance the MVP race is going to come down to the two star quarterbacks in Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers. Each week, these candidates seem to find new ways to impress. And based off their performances in the Divisional Round, there’s a good chance Sunday’s meeting between the Falcons and Packers could break the 60-point total.
18. Antonio Brown Makes 10+ Catches
To no one’s surprise, it was Antonio Brown that came up with the big catch on third down against the Kansas City Chiefs to seal the victory for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Divisional Round to earn a trip to Foxborough for what should be an intense game against the New England Patriots. For the second playoff game in a row, it was Brown that led the way for the Steelers in the passing game against the Chiefs after hauling in six catches for 108 yards, although he didn’t manage to find the end zone this time around.
In fact, Pittsburgh failed to record a single touchdown at all against Kansas City, but the important factor is they found a way to still win and advance to the AFC Championship game against New England. The Steelers have been in this position before with facing the Patriots in the playoffs, but never with Brown as a member of the team.
Even though New England’s faced plenty of tough opponents in the postseason over the years, Bill Belichick knows Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh is going to be one of his toughest yet, especially when it comes to keeping Brown in line. The wideout’s speed almost makes him impossible to defend at times, and there’s a good chance Brown will end up with double-digit receptions, as Ben Roethisliberger should heavily rely on his teammate like he has all season.
17. LeGarrette Blount Receives More Carries
One of the toughest things about facing the New England Patriots is opponents never seem to know which running back is going to lead the way on offense since Bill Belichick tends to switch it up each game. Just look at the team’s Divisional Round game against the Houston Texans in which LeGarrette Blount only received eight carries after Dion Lewis emerged as the unsung hero by finding the end zone three times.
This time around, there’s a good chance Belichick will use Blount more against his former team as players facing their former employers tend to play with a little extra motivation. Don’t forget if it wasn’t for the Steelers releasing Blount after 11 games during the 2014 season, he never would have joined the Patriots and eventually win a Super Bowl.
Flash forward to the 2016 season in which Blount led the league with 18 rushing touchdowns while helping New England earn the best record in the AFC. The good thing is Blount has matured a ton since his brief stint with Pittsburgh, and after receiving little action against Houston last weekend, the running back will be extra rested for the AFC Championship against his former team.
16. Jared Cook Shines Again
For a tight end that has received plenty of criticism throughout the season for dropping passes, all has been forgiven with Jared Cook after making a miraculous catch late in the fourth quarter against the Dallas Cowboys to help setup the game-winning field goal. To see Cook keep his feet inbounds the way he did was simply phenomenal as this play will be talked about for weeks to come as chances are the Packers wouldn’t have defeated the Cowboys if it wasn’t for that catch.
Overall, it was Cook that led the way in the passing game for Green Bay against Dallas after catching six passes for 104 yards to go along with a touchdown. With Jordy Nelson out of the lineup due to fractured ribs suffered against the New York Giants, the Packers needed all of the extra help they could get for Aaron Rodgers in the passing game.
Not to mention, Green Bay was already at a disadvantage for playing without their two top running backs in Eddie Lacy and James Starks. If the Packers do end up running the table and winning the Super Bowl, Cook will go down as one of the most underrated signings of free agency as the tight end has become quite the popular target for Rodgers since the middle of the season.
15. Coleman and Freeman Struggle in Ground Game
The Atlanta Falcons are one of the luckiest teams in the league when it comes to having two having a dynamic duo at running back with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, as the two combined for 24 total touchdowns during the regular season. Even against the Seattle Seahawks, the Falcons running backs managed to do just as much damage in the passing game, but now comes the challenge of taking down a defense of the Green Bay Packers that seems more motivated than ever heading into the NFC Championship.
The defense may have struggled to contain Dak Prescott, but the Packers defense did their best to keep Ezekiel Elliott in line after limiting the former Ohio State star to 125 rushing yards on 22 carries with no touchdowns. While these numbers may not seem that impressive for a defense at first, keep in mind these numbers are arguably solid when it comes to stopping a running back with the talent level of Elliott.
Green Bay knew shutting down Elliott was going to be one of the key factors into defeating Dallas, and after finding some success against the rookie, Mike McCarthy realizes the duo of Freeman and Coleman are just as much of a threat. After seeing the success through the air by Prescott, don’t be surprised if the Falcons take the same approach with Matt Ryan, with the production in the ground game take a little bit of a hit.
14. Jesse James Finds End Zone Twice
For weeks, Jesse James always seems to be considered a potential sleeper to keep an eye on in the passing game for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the team never seemed to need him as much until this past weekend’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs. In that game, James caught five passes for 83 yards as the tight end was second on the team in receiving behind Antonio Brown.
The receiving yards turned out to be a season high for James as the Steelers would love to see similar production from the tight end against the New England Patriots, if not better. There’s a reason why James has been considered a sleeper in the passing game over the last couple of weeks, and the tight end proved against the Chiefs just how dangerous he can be when he starts to get rolling.
When seeing the rivalry between these two AFC squads over the years, one can only imagine the intensity level between the Steelers and Patriots when they square off on Sunday. There’s no question Ben Roethlisberger will mostly rely on players like Brown and Le’Veon Bell on offense, but keep an eye on James as it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the tight end come through with a similar performance against New England like he did during the Divisional Round.
13. Geronimo Allison Has Career Day
Geronimo Allison learned the hard way against the Dallas Cowboys what happens when a mistake is made on offense as Aaron Rodgers didn’t hold back by screaming at the rookie at one point in the second half. Still, Allison did his part in the passing game with the absence of Jordy Nelson by caching three passes for 46 yards. That said, the Packers are going to need more from their rookie against the Atlanta Falcons.
As previously mentioned, Sunday’s matchup between the Packers and Falcons has the potential to be one of the highest-scoring games of the playoffs when seeing how dominant the two offenses have been over the last few weeks. Rodgers has always been the type of quarterback that is capable of making any player around him better, and with Nelson’s status still up in the air, the Packers quarterback may need even more help from players like Allison on offense.
Don’t forget how effective Allison was during the final two games of the regular season when Randall Cobb was out due to an ankle injury, catching eight passes for 157 yards to go along with a touchdown. Atlanta will certainly have their hands full focusing most of their attention on the whereabouts of guys like Cobb and Davante Adams, which should open the path up for Allison to receive more passes thrown his way.
12. Mohamed Sanu Finds End Zone Again
Any wide receiver on the Atlanta Falcons always seems to have an upper hand for seeing more passes thrown their way thanks to most opponent providing extra coverage on Julio Jones, and rightfully so when seeing how dangerous the former Alabama star can be. In fact, that was one of the main reasons why Mohamed Sanu decided to join the Falcons in the offseason, as the wideout knew he would benefit from playing alongside Jones while providing the team with another dangerous threat in the passing game.
The former Rutgers star came to Atlanta after spending the first four seasons of his career as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals, and even though he never crossed the 100-yard mark during the regular season, that doesn’t mean Sanu was never a dangerous threat. Sanu made a splash during his first season with Matt Ryan as his quarterback after catching 59 passes for 653 yards to go along with four touchdowns during the regular season.
To top it off, Sanu came up big with a 3-yard touchdown catch towards the end of the game against the Seahawks to help seal the deal for the Falcons advancing to the NFC Championship. After finding the end zone in each of the last two games, don’t be surprised if Sanu continues that streak against the Green Bay Packers, as the wideout should continue to receive plenty of targets from Ryan on offense.
11. James Harrison Records Two Sacks On Tom Brady
Isn’t it amazing a 38-year-old linebacker like James Harrison is still able to run around the football field and attack quarterbacks like he’s still in his 20s? The Steelers linebacker has always displayed one of the best work ethics in the league, and when seeing the pressure applied to Matt Moore and Alex Smith over the last two weeks, Tom Brady should be concerned over Harrison’s presence on Sunday.
One of the main reasons why the Steelers were able to emerge as one of the hottest teams in the AFC and are currently riding an eight game winning streak has been due to improved play on the defensive side of the football. In the first half of the season, Pittsburgh’s defense was anything but effective as their struggles were one of the reasons why the team was sitting with a 4-5 record at one point.
Luckily, the Steelers and their defense managed to turn their season around since then, with Harrison being one of the main contributors. With 2.5 sacks during Pittsburgh’s first two playoff games, Harrison will be anxious to have a better performance against Brady and company this time around after New England barely had any issues in Week 7.
10. Dion Lewis Comes Up Big Again
LeGarrette Blount may have received most of the credit for the New England Patriots during the regular season after leading the league with 18 rushing touchdowns, but Bill Belichick has shown plenty of times over the years that any running back can emerge as the hot hand. Just look at last weekend’s game against the Houston Texans in which Dion Lewis became the unsung hero after finding the end zone three times through the air, on the ground, and special teams.
Lewis was considered a steal for the Patriots at the beginning of the 2015 season before suffering a torn ACL that would end up cutting his season short, and preventing the running back from playing until Week 10 this past year. It may have taken Lewis some time to get back into the swing of things on offense, but the former Pittsburgh star showed why he was worth keeping around following his stellar performance against Houston.
As bad as it sounds, with the way the Patriots offense was struggling for most of the game against the Texans, there’s a good chance they would have ended up on the losing end if it wasn’t for Lewis coming up big. Belichick has been around long enough that he would be foolish not to continue riding the hot hand against the Pittsburgh Steelers as the combination of Lewis along with Blount could end up being quite dangerous for New England’s backfield.
9. Aaron Rodgers Throws 60+ Passes
Aaron Rodgers made a bold statement when the Packers lost four games in the road during the middle of the season about how the team was capable of still running the table to win the Super Bowl, which seemed ridiculous to think about at the time. Now, it’s Rodgers that earned the last laugh after the Packers earned their eighth win in a row following a thrilling Divisional Round victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
To see what Rodgers has accomplished since that Week 12 game against the Philadelphia Eagles, despite the Packers not having two of their top running backs in Eddie Lacy and James Starks, has been astonishing. Green Bay has certainly benefitted from having players like Ty Montgomery step up in the backfield, but it’s still amazing to see how much Rodgers has helped pull off the impossible during this latest run at the Super Bowl.
With two of the league’s top offenses squaring off in the NFC Championship, Rodgers realizes whether the Packers advance to Houston will simply fall on his shoulders. Montgomery and other running backs will certainly do the best they can to take some of the pressure off the passing game, but there’s a good chance Rodgers will hit 60 passing attempts if this contest consists of back-and-fourth scoring between Green Bay and Atlanta.
8. Julio Jones Records 150+ Receiving Yards
When it comes to the offense of the Atlanta Falcons, Julio Jones is always going to be considered the most dangerous weapon the team has, and rightfully so when looking at the type of numbers he’s put up throughout his career. Even though he was bothered by a toe injury towards the end of the game, Jones still did his job of helping the Falcons build a comfortable enough lead after catching six passes for 67 yards to go along with a key touchdown at the beginning of the second quarter.
Obviously, this was the right move for Atlanta since the last thing they wanted to see happen is Jones remain in the game to put the injury more at risk. Not to mention, the team couldn’t afford the risk of losing their beloved wide receiver for what is expected to be a high-scoring NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers.
Jones may have been limited to just three catches for 29 yards during the first meeting between these two teams at the end of October, but don’t expect that to be the case with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. If anything, Jones remembers the disappointment he felt a few years ago when the Falcons fell short of the Super Bowl after losing to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship, and he’ll use that as motivation to make sure that doesn’t happen again on Sunday.
7. Le’Veon Bell Receives 30+ Carries
To say Le’Veon Bell was a workhorse for the Steelers would be one of the biggest understatements after seeing the amount of carries he’s already received in the playoffs. Most running backs tend to be cutoff around 20 carries, but the fact that Bell already has 59 between games against the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs shows why he’s considered a top-five running back in the NFL.
What’s even more impressive on Bell’s end is those 59 carries have gone for 337 yards and two touchdowns as there’s a good chance the running back will receive another high dose of action against the New England Patriots. Bell’s patience in the backfield have proven to be most effective with moving the football, and just because he’s received this many carries already doesn’t mean he’s ready to slow down anytime soon.
That’s what makes Bell such a fascinating running back as he’s proven throughout his career that no heavy workload is too much for him to handle. Bell did find some success against the Patriots during the regular season after recording 149 yards from the line of scrimmage, but even that may not be enough for the Steelers.
If the first two playoff games are any indication of what to expect from Mike Tomlin‘s squad in the AFC Championship, all signs point to Bell receiving at least 30 carries when he faces New England.
6. Tom Brady Bounces Back Strong
After only throwing two interceptions in 12 games during the regular season, one of the biggest surprises from the Divisional Round was seeing Tom Brady throw two interceptions against the Houston Texans. Throughout his career, Brady has always been the type of player that tends to bounce back after a disappointing game, and even though his performance against the Texans wasn’t terrible, it still didn’t live up to the quarterback’s standards.
Overall, Brady completed 18 of 38 passes for 287 yards with two touchdowns to go along with his two turnovers against Houston, but the most important factor is the New England Patriots still went on to win the game. And with the win, the Patriots made history by reaching the AFC Championship for the sixth year in a row, which is crazy to think about.
Deep down, Brady realizes this AFC Championship matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers isn’t going to be a walk in the park as the Patriots know the stakes are much higher than they were during the regular season. After only throwing two touchdowns in the first meeting, expect Brady to top those numbers against the Steelers since he’ll be playing with an extra chip on his shoulder after what occurred against the Texans.
5. Packers Rush For Less Than 50 Yards
Nothing against the current running backs of the Packers, but the only chance this team is going to have of winning the NFC Championship will be a monster performance from Aaron Rodgers. Despite their impressive run that has them on the verge of a Super Bowl appearance, the Packers have been the unfortunate victims of the injury bug in the ground game as the team has been forced to adjust to playing without Eddie Lacy and James Starks.
Green Bay has seen numerous players like Ty Montgomery and Christine Michael step up at times, but they still haven’t been able to make the type of impact of Lacy and Starks on a consistent basis. Even if Montgomery did find the end zone twice against the Dallas Cowboys, the wideout turned running back has failed to break 50 rushing yards in each of the last four games.
As for the defense of the Atlanta Falcons, the unit may have finished near the bottom of the league during the regular season, but they did come through when it mattered the most against the Seattle Seahawks. After holding Thomas Rawls to 34 rushing yards, the Falcons defense should be able to prevent Montgomery and the Packers from being effective on the ground.
4. Matt Ryan Throws Four Touchdowns
Whether the Atlanta Falcons advance to the Super Bowl or not, there’s no denying the memorable season Matt Ryan is having as there’s a reason why the quarterback is in the running to possibly take home MVP honors at the end of the year. Ryan’s ninth season as quarterback for the Falcons was easily his best one after throwing for nearly 5,000 yards (4,944 to be exact) with 38 touchdowns and only seven interceptions.
In the team’s first playoff matchup against the Seattle Seahawks, Ryan picked up right where he left off in the regular season by throwing for 338 yards to go along with three touchdowns as Atlanta went on to win the game, 36-20. And if that wasn’t impressive enough, it should also be noted that Ryan has gone five games, including the playoffs, without throwing a single interception.
After seeing the type of numbers Dak Prescott was able to put up in the Divisional Round, there’s a good chance Ryan will see similar success against the defense of the Packers. The only chance the Falcons are going to have of advancing to Houston to play in the Super Bowl is if Ryan displays an MVP performance for the ages against the Packers defense, which he’s certainly capable of thanks to his elite weapons on offense.
3. Ben Roethlisberger Records Three Turnovers
At the beginning of the season, expectations were high for the Steelers when it comes to their offense as they seemed to have the potential to set numerous records thanks to all of the weapons Ben Roethlisberger had to work with. Even though they hit some bumps in the road at times during the regular season and failed to set those records, the Steelers offense is dangerous as ever thanks to Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.
Roethlisberger should consider himself lucky when considering most quarterbacks would do anything just to have even one of those weapons, but that doesn’t mean the veteran will have it easy when he faces the New England Patriots. If anything, Bill Belichick has always proven to be the type of head coach that comes up with the perfect game plan to prevent Roethlisberger from having a big game.
During the Divisional Round against the Kansas City Chiefs, it was amazing to see Pittsburgh find a way to win the game after failing to find the end zone even once and settle for six field goals instead. Obviously, there’s no chance settling for only field goals will work against a team like the Patriots.
Big Ben will most likely find a way to help the Steelers find the end zone a few times against New England unlike Sunday’s game against Kansas City, but that may not even be enough. For a quarterback with at least one interception in five of his last six games, don’t be surprised if the Patriots defense gets to Roethlisberger a few times when they meet on Sunday.
2. Patriots Make Ninth Super Bowl Appearance
Tom Brady has proven to be one of those players throughout his career that can’t stand to lose the big games. And with a chance to knockoff one of their biggest AFC rivals in the Steelers, there’s nothing the future Hall of Famer would love more than to win on Sunday.
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Everybody had a feeling at the beginning of the season Brady’s motivation would be taken to a whole new level after he was forced to sit the first four games of the year due to a suspension, and after only throwing two interceptions during the regular season, that’s exactly been the case. Plus, the fact that Brady matched his regular-season total for interceptions against the Houston Texans last weekend should give the quarterback a little extra motivation to make sure he comes through with a stronger performance in the AFC Championship.
After falling just shy of reaching the Super Bowl last year thanks to the high-powered defense of the Denver Broncos, expect the Patriots to come through this time around. As mentioned before, not only would another Super Bowl ring add to Brady’s legacy, but it would be the perfect way to end a miraculous season in which the Patriots quarterback was forced to sit the first four games, whether it was fair or not.
1. Packers Barely Hold On Against Falcons
If the Packers can pull off an epic win on the road to defeat the Cowboys, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to do the same against the Falcons. While the matchup may be more difficult since the Falcons finished at the top of the league for offense, the Packers are playing with a ton of confidence at the moment, and have every reason in the world to believe they can defeat any team standing in their way of a Super Bowl.
From an entertainment standpoint, football fans couldn’t have asked for a better NFC Championship matchup since arguably the two favorites to win MVP in Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan will be squaring off against one another. What these two MVP candidates have accomplished this year for their teams has been simply amazing, but with the way he’s been carrying the Packers on his shoulders since the middle of the season, it’s hard to pick against Rodgers at this point.
For a quarterback that was criticized at the beginning of the year for being washed up, Rodgers has proven over the last few months why he deserves consideration for being one of the all-time greats. Playing on the road in Atlanta is never an easy task for any team, but Rodgers and the rest of his Green Bay teammates seem up for the challenge to earn a trip to Houston to finish off running the table.