NFL Blitz with Jason Romisher: Conference Finals Preview

Matt Ryan passed for 4,944 yards, and had 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season — giving him a strong chance for the NFL’s MVP.

The Chiefs came oh-so-close last week to defeating the Steelers, whom they kept out of the endzone and limited to six field goals. If you didn’t catch it, the Chiefs scored a last-minute touchdown and converted for two points to tie the game 18–18, but left tackle Eric Fisher was flagged for holding James Harrison. With that, my Chiefs pick last week did not come through. Nevertheless, 3–1 on the weekend and 5–3 overall for the playoffs.

In other action, the Patriots didn’t play well, but still managed to thump the Texans 34–16 despite Tom Brady’s uncharacteristically poor play (two interceptions). The Falcons looked dominant at home against the Seahawks and the Packers won a thrilling game against the Cowboys on Mason Crosby’s last-second field goal after a miraculous Aaron Rodgers to Jared Cook completion.

The four teams remaining are all on long winning streaks; New England (8), Pittsburgh (8), Green Bay (8), and Atlanta (5). I cannot remember four teams converging in the Conference Finals that are this red hot. This weekend any team has the pedigree to win their Conference and advance to the Super Bowl. Both games are incredible matchups and there are no significant underdogs so upset specials and game of the week distinctions are out the window.

Green Bay (12–6) at Atlanta (12–5), Sunday 12:05 p.m.

I am old enough to remember, and to have watched, the Falcons play in their lone Super Bowl in the 1998 season.  It was incredibly disappointing seeing them advance to the big game after an improbable road victory against the 16–1 Vikings featuring Randall Cunningham, Cris Carter, and some guy named Randy Moss on offence. They promptly served as a foil for John Elway’s second Super Bowl win in the final game of his illustrious career.

This Falcons team is far more dynamic than that edition on the strength of having the league’s number one offence. Much is being made of the low overall ratings of the Falcons’ defence this season, but the unit has played very well in the latter part of the season. Holding the Seahawks, led by Russell Wilson, to just 20 points is a testament to this unit’s growth and development under their defensive-minded head coach, Dan Quinn. The top weapon is of course, Julio Jones, who is difficult to cover and capable of shredding any defence. Last week, he put up 67 yards and a touchdown despite being shadowed all day by elite corner Richard Sherman. The Falcons have also remained healthy on the offensive line being the only team in the whole league that has started the same five men at the position all season. Line play is so important to any offensive system and elite skill players are essentially negated if the line cannot play with effectiveness.

Leading the Falcons’ attack is quarterback Matt Ryan who has a strong case to be this season’s MVP.  Ryan had an incredible season, passing for 4,944 yards with 38 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. During the five-game win streak, Ryan posted 14 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He also is not reliant on Jones or anyone else in the passing game as he consistently spreads the ball around to all of his receivers, backs, and tight ends.  It was very impressive last week with how unfazed the Falcons were, despite being backed up to their two-yard line after a punt.  Most teams play it conservatively in that situation, but Ryan just lined up and started slinging darts and moving the sticks.  Stopping Atlanta will be a tall task for Green Bay, whose pass defence was ranked 31st in the league this year.  For instance, last week, rookie Dak Prescott lit up the Packers for three touchdown passes and 302 yards. These two teams met in week eight with the Falcons prevailing 33–32 on the strength of Ryan’s three touchdown passes and 288 yards. Green Bay does have the ability to pressure the passer with hall of fame candidate Julius Peppers still able to cause havoc as well as the presence of disruptive linebacker Clay Matthews III.

During Green Bay’s eight-game winning streak, Rodgers has played as well as at any point in his stellar career. He also has a strong MVP case, passing for 4,428 yards with 40 touchdowns and just seven interceptions, and with 21 touchdowns, one interception and a 68.9% completion rate during the winning streak. It would seem like a disappointment if such an incredible player retired with just the one Super Bowl. In the last three years, the Packers have been ousted from the playoffs twice in overtime and once by a last-second field goal. If they go out, you better believe it will be with full offensive guns blazing. One cause for concern is that top receiver Jordy Nelson may miss another game with a rib injury and number two target Davante Adams is also questionable.  Nevertheless, Rodgers demonstrated last week that he can work with second unit players and still get the job done.  An interesting development has been the dynamic play of receiver Ty Montgomery, as his receiving ability makes him a matchup nightmare for opposing linebackers.  

A key side note, for those of you who are patriotic and do not have a rooting interest in this game, is that Falcons general manager Tom Dimitroff Jr. is Canadian and a graduate of the University of Guelph. His father, Tom Dimitroff Sr., was the head coach at the University of Guelph and led the team to a 1984 Vanier Cup victory. Dimitroff Jr. also takes care of his old Guelph football buddies. My good friend Jeff Hale — an outstanding coach who I had the privilege of coaching with for several years — has been down to Atlanta on a few occasions with full facility access and field passes.

Rodgers is tough to pick against but I just cannot see the Packers stopping Atlanta enough times to win this football game. Expect a high scoring shootout similar to the Cardinals epic 51–45 overtime win over the Packers in the 2009 season.

Prediction: Falcons 48 Packers 45       

Pittsburgh (13–5) at New England (15–2), Sunday 3:40 p.m.

Can you believe that Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady have only met once in the postseason? This really surprised me as these two teams are perennially in the playoffs and have six Super Bowl titles since New England with Brady won their first.  The Patriots are also playing for their seventh American Football Conference title in the Brady and Belichick era. Brady is currently tied with Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana for most Super Bowl wins with four, and would love a fifth this season — especially because of the actions during the “deflategate” scandal. It may be the most ludicrous suspension in the history of professional sports.  To put the suspension into perspective, the League suspended Josh Brown this season for just one game for domestic abuse. How satisfying would it be for Brady to hoist the Lombardi trophy in the face of commissioner Goodell after robbing his career of four precious games?

The Patriots have a huge advantage being at home where they are 15–3 since they began their playoff run in the 2001 season.  Offensively, the Patriots are without star tight end Rob Gronkowski.  However, they have the ability to run a spread offence with Brady or run a punishing ground game with bruising running back Legarrette Blount who had 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns this season.  Last week Dion Lewis, a shiftier running back, was the first player in playoff NFL history to return a kick for a touchdown, rush for a touchdown, and catch a pass for a touchdown.  Lewis has battled injuries, but is finally healthy and ready to contribute.  

What is so fun about the Patriots is how well coached they are. You always have to be ready for brand new schemes and trick plays whenever the Patriots are in a big game. Defensively, their unit is extremely well-coached, so much so that their players are able to call out the offense’s plays based on formation and situation.

Facing the Patriots are the Steelers, one of the premiere franchises in football over the past five decades (they stunk prior), who are looking for their seventh Super Bowl title and ninth appearance in the big game. The Steelers were hit by a big time distraction this week when star receiver Antonio Brown inexplicably decided to broadcast on Facebook live during the post-game team meeting in the locker room after the Chiefs victory. In the video, head coach Mike Tomlin was heard making disparaging remarks about the Patriots. Tomlin met with the media and admonished Brown’s actions in no uncertain terms. Nevertheless, the Steelers will need their star receiver to play well if the Steelers want to win in New England. Brown, Roethlisberger, and running back Le’Veon Bell are top skill position players on the Steelers. Bell may be the best offensive player in the league right now. He carved up both the Dolphins and Chiefs with his unique running style and elite pass catching skills. Bell has set and then raised the Steelers playoff single game rushing record in his first two career playoff games with 29 carries for 167 yards and two touchdowns against the Dolphins, and 30 carries for 170 yards against the Chiefs.

The Patriots will seek to neutralize Bell and force Roethlisberger to beat them through the air. Big Ben has not played overly well this season on the road and will look to correct this trend in a pressure-packed situation. The Steelers also have a young and improving defence that will be up to the challenge of stopping the Patriots. I have been extremely impressed by the play of 38 year-old James Harrison who continues to be a force as an edge rusher and full time linebacker for the Steelers. Harrison, you might remember, made one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history during the Steelers’ last championship season and is doing everything he can to lead a young unit back to the show.

As much as I like this Steelers team, I am leery that they were unable to score a touchdown last week against the Chiefs. The Patriots will have a great game plan in place and have a great shot to keep the Steelers under 20 points.  If they do they will be Super Bowl bound.

Prediction: Patriots 20 Steelers 17