If you’re looking to get someone hooked on football, this is the time. Sunday’s AFC and NFC championship games promise to be so good that their highlights might be the first YouTube results when someone searches “football” in five years. You may turn into a football out of sheer excitement this Sunday. Football football football.
There are no Brock Osweilers left. The final four quarterbacks are Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, and Aaron Rodgers, and when the passers are that good, there’s no easy way to say who has the edge. Everyone’s either Batman or Superman. (Osweiler was the minor villain de jour.) Normally the quality of the quarterback ranks right alongside home-field advantage as the most important facts when picking a game, but this Sunday, everyone is great — an occurrence as rare in the NFL as a seamless Andy Reid two-minute drill. When the QB can’t be the tiebreaker, here are some other places to look:
1. Find the Defensive Disrupters
These games are bound to be the kind of shootouts in which the sides trade scores for long periods without a punt in sight. The key to figuring out which team will break the cycle is identifying the individual defensive players who, even when three-and-outs are sparse, are best suited to register a strip sack, a crucial third-down sack, or an interception.
Look to guys like Atlanta’s Vic Beasley (six forced fumbles and 15.5 sacks), Green Bay’s Micah Hyde (a sack, an interception, and four tackles against the Cowboys last week), and Pittsburgh’s Bud Dupree (who entered last week’s showdown against Kansas City with five sacks in his last five games). Green Bay–Atlanta in particular is all but guaranteed to be a barn burner, so choose the team you think boasts at least one game-ruiner.
2. Watch the Coaches
The person best positioned to stop a good quarterback is the coach who’s afraid to use him properly. The Cowboys were only able to get back into the game against the Packers last week because of Green Bay’s lack of aggression and poor clock management. The Packers, despite having a literal football god at quarterback, bizarrely ran the ball on four of five plays before settling for a field goal that put them up 31–28, when a successful pass from the master of successful passes would have almost certainly led to a first down, drained the clock, and sealed the game.
But, this being the NFL, the Packers were saved by even worse coaching on the other side: The Cowboys got the ball back with 1:33 remaining and spiked once (and threw twice) before kicking the tying field goal, giving the Packers the ball back with 35 seconds to go. A great clock manager and confident quarterback whisperer finds a way to win that game, or at least avoid losing in regulation. Dallas let this happen:
Even in the playoffs, coaches make mistakes.
3. Ride Destiny
Sometimes players are just too awesome to bet against. During the Packers’ win streak, picking the team facing Rodgers has been like picking one of the other annoying assassins in John Wick. Every now and again, if a game seems too close to call, it’s best to ride the player who seems unstoppable. It’s unscientific — but John Wick’s 100 percent success rate defies analytics, too.
And now, on to the picks. (Home team in CAPS.)
Green Bay (+4) over ATLANTA
Vegas is excited about this game. The over/under, 61.5, is the highest ever for a playoff game. This is also the poster game for needing to go beyond the quarterbacks to make a pick. During the regular season, the Falcons led the NFL in yards per pass attempt and points, but they tied for second in passing touchdowns — because Green Bay was first. Since the season’s midway point, Rodgers and Ryan have taken turns being the best quarterback in the league. They have supporting casts that fit their talent: Julio Jones is rightfully approaching legendary status, while Randall Cobb has stepped up with Jordy Nelson injured, and even Jared Cook has become valuable:
Both pass defenses, meanwhile, can border on tire fire standing, which is why this game is going to be so fun. With a Super Bowl berth on the line, we could see an even more entertaining version of the 33–32 epic these two teams delivered in October.
The Falcons won that one, but with this epic likely also coming down to one or two plays, I’m putting my trust in Rodgers. His passer rating improved every month from October onward, totaling 120 in December and reaching 126 in his final game of the regular season. Ryan is great, too, especially when Jones is soaring, but even in this MVP-caliber season, he’s not operating on the same plane as Rodgers, who at this point looks as if he invented football and is trying to show the rest of us how it’s supposed to work.
Both defenses will struggle, although players like Hyde and Beasley will make a difference in spurts. This one will come down to Rodgers, though.
NEW ENGLAND (-6) over Pittsburgh
There will be fewer fireworks here, so we’ll all have to settle for the two most successful AFC teams of the last decade squaring off. The walk-up to this game has been dominated by news that Antonio Brown actually uses Facebook Live. The ensuing saga doesn’t actually have anything to do with what happens on the field of play, but, much like the Giants’ Bieber party boat, it will become a much bigger story anyway if the Steelers flop on Sunday.
There are reasons to be pessimistic about both teams after Brady delivered his first multi-interception game of the year last weekend against Houston. Still, I’m willing to bet that was an aberration, and that the Brady who shows up here looks closer to the guy who threw just two picks during the regular season.
Roethlisberger’s downward trend is more worrying, as he’s now entered bizarre territory with his home/road splits. His quarterback rating during the season was 117 at home and 78 on the road, and that doesn’t include last week’s zero-touchdown, one-pick stinker at Kansas City. That the Steelers had to settle for field goals despite having the most talented running back left in the playoffs is concerning, and a similar performance against the Patriots would invite a blowout.
As Houston showed last week, the way to fluster Brady is by using inside pressure to put pass rushers in his face. Will Pittsburgh, which uses Dupree as an outside pass rusher, bring him inside to try to match the tactic?
If the Steelers can find a way to generate consistent inside pressure, this game will be up for grabs; if they can’t, the Patriots can win by a couple of scores. I think we’ll see the latter.
Last week: 3–1
Season (including playoffs): 127–124–10