Football games aren’t played on paper. Obviously, we don’t know what’s going to happen until kickoff. The matchups sometimes seem like they are easy to predict, but then the opposite happens and everyone is thrown for a loop.
Sunday, however, it seems pretty likely that we are going to see offensive fireworks. If we watch two games in which scores are in the teens, everyone will be at a complete loss.
The matinee of conference championship weekend has an over/under of 60 points, which is absurdly high. Even the main event has a big number of 50, which is rare to see.
It’s clear why the over/unders are so high, as we will be watching four great quarterbacks, as well as some fantastic running backs, wide receivers and offensive lines, do battle on Sunday.
If the games play out in real life like they seem they will on paper, we’re in for a fun day.
Here’s a look at the latest NFL playoff bracket, information for this Sunday’s games and a few predictions, with a focus on each offense.
NFL Playoff Bracket
And then there were 4… #NFLPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/4XunoAD3n6
— NFL (@NFL) January 16, 2017
|Green Bay Packers||Atlanta Falcons||3:05 p.m., Fox||ATL -5, 60 O/U||ATL 38-30|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||New England Patriots||6:40 p.m., CBS||NE -6, 50 O/U||NE 31-24|
Odds according to OddsShark.
Green Bay at Atlanta
John Bazemore/Associated Press
The Green Bay Packers listed three wide receivers on their Thursday injury report: Jordy Nelson (ribs), Davante Adams (ankle) and Geronimo Allison (hamstring). Nelson practiced on a limited basis, but Adams and Allison sat out.
Per Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy had this to say about the pass-catching trio: “In the regular-season…mindset, none of them would play. But obviously this is a different time. This is a different point where we are in the season. Everybody understands where we are here.”
There is a chance that entire group misses Sunday’s game, leaving the Pack with only three wideouts: Randall Cobb, Jeff Janis and Trevor Davis.
If all three wide receivers on the injury report can’t go, it’s hard to see the Packers pulling this win out, in part because this game profiles as a shootout any way you look at it. The NFC Championship Game might be one in which the first team that scores 35 points (or the one that has the ball last) wins.
Still, it’s not wise to ever count out Rodgers, who has thrown 24 touchdown passes to just one interception in his last nine contests.
On the Atlanta Falcons side, the implied Vegas total for the them has gone up in the days ahead of the game, to the point it is 32.5, or close to five total touchdowns.
That’s no surprise considering that the Falcons’ point totals in nine home games this season have been as follows: 24, 48, 30, 33, 38, 28, 41, 38 and 36. That’s an average of 35.1 points per game in the Georgia Dome.
What makes Atlanta so dangerous (aside from quarterback Matt Ryan playing on an MVP level, an All-Pro wide receiver and a brilliant offensive coordinator) is the running back duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who have combined for 26 touchdowns this year (including the playoffs).
We saw how effective they can be in the divisional round against a stout run-stopping defense in the Seattle Seahawks. Although Freeman and Coleman couldn’t get anything going on the ground, they were effective through the air, with Freeman catching four passes for 80 yards—he was the Falcons’ leading receiver—and Coleman hauling in a touchdown catch.
Coleman could prove to be the X-factor in this matchup. He missed the Falcons’ 33-32 win over Green Bay in Week 8, a game in which Atlanta obviously did not have any trouble scoring. With him back in the fold, Atlanta could push for over 40 points.
Evan Silva of Rotoworld talked more about Coleman in his matchups column on Wednesday: “When the matchup dictates, Falcons OC Kyle Shanahan has deftly used Coleman to attack bigger, slower inside linebackers, a position at which every player the Packers gave a snap this season earned a negative pass-coverage grade from Pro Football Focus.”
Pick: Atlanta 38, Green Bay 30. Admittedly, I’ve been on the Packers bandwagon, but the team’s injuries are too concerning for anyone to confidently project a Green Bay win. Rodgers can only do so much, and the Falcons offense is going to have no problem scoring.
Pittsburgh at New England
As good as Rodgers has been this season, New England Patriots counterpart Tom Brady was perhaps even better in the 12 games he played this year.
Per Pro Football Focus, Brady ranked as the highest-graded quarterback in the NFL:
Top-graded quarterbacks in the NFL
1. Tom Brady, Patriots, 98.6
2. Aaron Rodgers, Packers, 93.2
3. Matt Ryan, Falcons, 92.6 pic.twitter.com/s3lAtqmie7
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 17, 2017
In the regular season, Brady threw 28 touchdown passes and only two interceptions, leading the Pats to an 11-1 record while he was on the field.
Brady has his offensive line (specifically two fantastic offensive tackles) to thank for some of his success this season. Per PFF, tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon graded out as two of the top 13 starters at the position in the league.
According to Football Outsiders, the Pats offensive line finished sixth in pass protection, allowing only a 4.7 percent adjusted sack rate all year and finished ninth in run blocking.
New England is simply too potent on offense to slow down, even against a Pittsburgh Steelers pass rush that has played exceptionally well since the halfway point of the season.
On the Pittsburgh side, it’s Le’Veon Bell or bust. The only way the Steelers can reasonably expect to win this game is through the 24-year-old running back, but that’s certainly not a bad thing considering he hasn’t gained under 100 yards since a November 6 meeting with the Baltimore Ravens. In fact, he’s gained over 200 total yards twice since the last time he failed to hit the century mark.
Pittsburgh has a few issues in the pass game, which means it needs to hand the ball off to Bell as often as possible.
First, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s struggles on the road continued this season. His 9:9 touchdown-to-interception ratio away from Heinz Field paled in comparison to his 22:7 mark at home (both figures include the postseason).
Second, the Patriots’ cornerbacks are playing at an elite level, as Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus highlighted:
Since Week 15, Malcolm Butler has allowed a passer rating of 17.9; lowest for CBs. Logan Ryan 30.9; 6th lowest.
— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) January 15, 2017
Finally, Steelers wideout Antonio Brown, undoubtedly an elite wide receiver, should expect to win at least a few one-on-one battles with the cornerback defending him (likely Butler), but the issue is the rest of Pittsburgh’s pass-catching corps, which has been inconsistent this season. Bell is the Steelers’ second-leading wide receiver behind Brown this year, and he missed four games.
Pick: New England 31, Pittsburgh 24. Pittsburgh’s Killer Bs can only do so much to keep up with New England’s Killer B. The Patriots’ running back and wide receiver corps have so much depth that it’d be hard for any team to stop them. Each week, a new hero emerges. Expect that trend to continue on Sunday.