Atlanta and Pittsburgh get the vote from sportinglife.com NFL expert David John for Sunday’s Conference Championship games.
Recommended bet: Atlanta (-5) and Pittsburgh (+6)
Green Bay at Atlanta (8.05pm)
Not for the first time, quarterback Aaron Rodgers set Green Bay up for a thrilling victory last week as the Packers knocked off top seeds Dallas in Texas after a nerve-shredding conclusion to their Divisional battle.
Rodgers hit tight end Jared Cook down the left sideline with time running out to set up a lengthy game-winning field goal for Mason Crosby (which he nailed twice) to keep their hopes of Super Bowl glory alive.
The reward is another road trip and the remarkable Rodgers may have to be better still if his team are going to have any shot of making it to Houston on February 5.
The task would be tough enough as they attempt to keep pace with the most potent offense in the NFL but options for Rodgers at wide receiver are dwindling quicker than you can say “pass interference”.
Top target Jordy Nelson suffered two broken ribs early on in the Wild Card win over the New York Giants and his participation on Sunday remains a huge doubt.
He caught some soft passes in practice on Wednesday but will not get the green light to play unless he can make a full contribution at the position. He is improving by the day but it is a long way back in such a short space of time from an injury he labelled as “the most pain I have ever been in”.
Davante Adams (ankle) and impressive rookie Geronimo Allison (hamstring) are battling lesser issues but have both been on the easy list – the former has 13 catches for 201 yards and a touchdown so far in the play-offs and could be a very late decision – he won’t practise until Saturday at the earliest such is the troublesome nature of his injury.
So the Packers have had to delve further down the depth chart and Rodgers has been working with Jeff Janis and rookie Trevor Davis during the week – even members of the practice squad have been running routes – so there is a realistic chance Randall Cobb could be the only healthy veteran starter.
Tight end Cook and hybrid receiver/running back Ty Montgomery will also have to pick up some of the slack if Rodgers’ opposite number and MVP candidate Matt Ryan continues to set such a relentless pace towards the Super Bowl.
His regular-season passer rating of 117.1 is the fifth highest in NFL history, while he posted one of 125.7 as his team readily brushed aside Seattle 36-20. An opposing defensive coach recently observed: “He (Ryan) is delivering incredibly-accurate throws and a great deep ball. He can drop it down the chimney.”
He is surrounded by big-play talent in both the passing and running game while the thought of going up against a Green Bay secondary that gave up 300 yards and three touchdowns to Cowboys rookie Dak Prescott will no doubt be filling him with utter glee.
Packers defensive co-ordinator Dom Capers does not mind giving up a big play or two but needs his players to come up with turnovers – they tied fourth in the regular season for interceptions (17) but that ability could be seriously compromised if safety Morgan Burnett is ruled out with a quad injury picked up in Dallas.
The bookmakers are clearly reluctant to take too much of a chance on how effective or not Rodgers will be with the total points line for the game already over 60 but as good as he is, he can’t do this all on his own – it is not feasible.
Whether it is the defense that gets a crucial stop or two to slow Ryan down or a relatively-unheralded group of Green Bay receivers steps up and makes some plays, I still can’t see if being quite enough – which is such a shame for the magical Rodgers.
While the Packers try to piece together a decent defensive gameplan, their Atlanta counterparts have done nothing but improve all year and have at last found the talismanic pass-rusher they have been looking for during recent drafts in the shape of sack leader Vic Beasley.
After allowing 28.3 points per game in the 10 outings before their bye week, they have given up 20.4 points an outing since. Their total takeaways are up from 11 to 13 and the passer rating allowed has gone from nearly 101 to under 78.
The unit remains raw and relatively unproven but there are enough playmakers alongside Beasley – Deion Jones, Jalen Collins, Keanu Neal and even 36-year-old veteran Dwight Freeney is enjoying one final hurrah – to make their presence felt if Green Bay are in all likelihood crucially undermanned in the passing game.
The two teams met on October 30 in a wild shootout which Atlanta got the better of 33-32 – this really does look to be their time and they can progress with rather more comfort from a showdown that looks one too many for Green Bay’s gun-slinging, redoubtable number 12.
Verdict: Green Bay 24-38 Atlanta
Pittsburgh at New England (11.40pm)
While we probably all expect a bit of a track meet for the NFC Championship game in the dome in Georgia, two real AFC heavyweights will trade blows outside in the cold down the road from Boston.
Neither produced anything like their best last week in the Divisional round of fixtures as the heavily-favoured Patriots eventually pulled clear of Houston, while six field goals but no touchdowns was just enough for the Steelers to hold off a surging Kansas City.
It is probably safe to say we can expect their best efforts here if they want to reach the Super Bowl – here are two teams with the highest win percentages in the NFL since Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was drafted in 2004 and it will be the 10th occasion one or the other has represented the AFC in the season finale since the turn of the century.
Neither has lost a game after week 10 and both rank inside the top five when it comes to the major statistical categories on both offense and defense so it is hard to argue the wrong teams have reached this stage – one will go home though with nothing to show for their endeavour.
New England are 5.5-point favourites on the spread for their second success in the last few months after they came out on top 27-16 at Heinz Field in week seven.
Landry Jones was the man under centre on that occasion for Pittsburgh with Roethlisberger watching from the sidelines following knee surgery, while New England quarterback Tom Brady was in the midst of an early-season tear-up after he missed the opening four games down to a league suspension.
Jones did OK on the day but is the back-up to Roethlisberger for a reason, the Steelers did not help themselves with 10 penalties as New England managed to keep running back Le’Veon Bell to 81 yards on the ground.
That might not seem like a bad effort but if you compare it to the 337 he has already recorded over the last fortnight in the play-offs then Bell suddenly becomes the most influential player on the field – the layers certainly think there will be no slowing down from him at this stage and have set the line for his total rushing yards somewhere in the mid-120s!
He is an excellent receiver as well so Patriots head coach and chief schemer Bill Belichick’s number one mission will be to eliminate Bell from the game as much as possible – easier said than done as his patient style of waiting behind blockers before unleashing a burst through the hole as many observers believe he could actually change the whole way running backs now approach the game.
If the hosts can keep some sort of lid on Bell then Big Ben and offensive co-ordinator Todd Haley will have to open things up a bit and take the aerial route.
Livewire wide receiver Antonio Brown is the most obvious option here but coaching staff have been extremely keen not to leave it all down to him and want other players involved so the gradual emergence of Eli Rogers, DeMarcus Ayers and tight end Jesse James over the last few weeks has been helpful.
The Pittsburgh defense has really found its form at the right time too as a handful of key starters all returned from injury at the same time and I have no doubt they will have been watching closely the film from that New England win over Houston.
The Texan edge rushers led by Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus were able to get eight quarterback hits on Brady and his two interceptions doubled his tally from the rest of the season.
The remarkable Brady shows no signs of slowing down despite reaching his late 30s and continues to find ways to get the job done with a less-than-stellar cast around him.
He has missed favourite target and All Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski for a large chunk of the campaign but manages to elevate team-mates to his level and finds himself on the brink of another Super Bowl appearance.
He has few peers when it comes to football smarts, reading a defense and getting the ball out of his hands quickly but remains susceptible to pressure and his offensive line will have to a better job than last week – for stats boffins, Brady is 21-5 in the post-season when sacked twice or less but 2-4 when taken down three times.
A month ago, I would have taken Brady all day with his 9-2 record against the Steelers but they have suddenly got their act together as mentioned on the defensive side of the ball and how uncomfortable they make the night for Brady will go a very long way to determining the outcome.
With such play-off pedigree on show, I simply don’t see one or the other running away with it – until someone shows me they can effectively stop the wrecking ball that is Bell, the Steelers resurgent defense and Roethlisberger’s ability to potentially rally his troops under the gun in the latter stages are enough reasons to take the visitors and the points with potential for an upset win.
Verdict: Pittsburgh 23-21 New England