We’re back with another week of MTS’ picks against the spread for the 2016 NFL season. In the Divisional Round, Perry went 3-1 and again hit on his “Pledge of the Week.” Perhaps more importantly, fans were awarded with some good football games. With just two games to pick this week, here’s who Mr. Port is backing.
An asterisk denotes Perry’s “Pledge of the Week.” (Don’t call it a “lock”; there’s no such thing!)
Conference Championship Picks ATS
Sunday, January 22
Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons (-4)
As has been the case throughout the majority of the playoffs, this game is a rematch of one we saw in the regular season. The Falcons bettered the Packers in a thrilling 33-32 finish back in Week 8; Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers combined for 534 passing yards. seven touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Both had passer ratings over 125.
After watching both quarterbacks light it up in the Divisional Round, you might think that we’re basically going to see the same game come Sunday. But, in reality, a lot has changed for both teams since then.
Ty Montgomery had yet to take over lead-back duties for the Packers in the first meeting. Their leading rusher was Rodgers with 60 yards on the ground. The rest of the team combined for 48 yards on 13 carries.
What the Packers gain in the backfield they lose in the secondary and they’ll enter Sunday even more banged up than they were the first time around. Morgan Burnett is the most recent casualty. He left early during last week’s game with a quad injury and is listed as questionable for Sunday.
As for the Falcons, they’ll have to battle the Packers’ potent aerial attack without Desmond Trufant this time. But they will have the services of Tevin Coleman, who wasn’t able to suit-up back in Week 8. Coleman has teamed with Devonta Freeman to form arguably the most dangerous backfield duo in the league, combining for 2,482 yards from scrimmage during the regular season.
The quarterbacks are the constant from the first meeting. Ryan is still playing MVP-caliber football. His strong regular season (117.1 passer rating) extended into the playoffs, where he overcame his 1-4 record in the postseason to pound an experienced Seahawks team. Rodgers is playing even better. He continued his assault on football, in its entirety, last weekend, coming up with more awe-inspiring plays to knock off the top-seeded Cowboys.
It’s hard to imagine either quarterback having much difficulty moving the ball this weekend. Both teams rank in the bottom-five against the pass and the bottom-third of the league in total yards allowed. The one reason for optimism, for both defenses, is the pass-rush. Green Bay recorded 40 sacks in the regular season (sixth-most), while Atlanta possesses the league’s sack king, Vic Beasley (15.5 sacks during regular season). Ryan and Rodgers have proven that you cannot give them time in the pocket, and they’re both too good at reading the blitz to send extra rushers. Both teams will have to win one-on-one battles up front to stop these juggernaut offenses.
The spread doesn’t reflect how evenly matched this game will be. The playoff-tested Rodgers – who’s playing the position at an all new level – will be entirely comfortable on the turf at the Georgia Dome, just like he was at AT&T Stadium in Dallas. I see the outcome coming down to another game-winning field goal in the dying seconds. That makes four points too many to lay.
Pick: Packers (+4)*
Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots (-6)
In spite of not scoring a single touchdown, the Steelers were able to overcome the Chiefs, 18-16, at Arrowhead Stadium. Chris Boswell nailed all six of his field goal attempts, while Le’Veon Bell did the heavy lifting between the 20s. Surprisingly, the Patriots were given a little scare in the Divisional Round. Tom Brady matched his two regular season interceptions and the Pats only held a four-point lead at halftime. Fortunately for New England, Brock Osweiler was able to summon his true self for the second-half and threw the game away with three picks of his own.
Continuing the rematch trend, Sunday’s game will be a do-over from Week 7. New England cruised to a 27-16 victory on the back of LeGarrette Blount’s 127 rushing yards. But it was Landry Jones at the helm for the Steelers, not Ben Roethlisberger. Three months later, we get to see the two best teams in the AFC go at it again, this time with Roethlisberger taking Pittsburgh’s snaps.
If you exclude a Week 17 game against the Browns where the Steelers rested a lot of their players, Pittsburgh has only allowed 73.5 yards per game on the ground in ten games since they played New England. Stiffening up against the run has helped the Steelers rank 12th in total defense and tenth in scoring. Their defense will have to remain stingy this week to have any shot of winning in Foxborough.
The Patriots defense allowed the fewest points during the regular season and ranked eighth in total yards. But those numbers may be a little misleading. New England has still yet to face a quarterback that ranked in the top-11 for passer rating during the regular season. Big Ben will be the toughest test Bill Belichick’s squad has seen yet.
The keys to this game will be (a) the turnover battle and (b) whether New England’s defensive front can find a way to slow Bell. Pittsburgh has now generated a takeaway in 12 consecutive games, including nine in their last three. No team gave the ball away fewer times than the Patriots in the regular season, but that wasn’t the case last week, as they turned the ball over three times. New England is 10-0 when they don’t turn the ball over this season, and are 11-0 when they generate at least one takeaway.
Looking to Bell, when the dynamic back rushes for at least 82 yards this season, the Steelers are 9-0. The Patriots defense ranks third against the run and was able to hold Bell to 81 yards on the ground when they met last. As mentioned, though, that was without the threat of Roethlisberger.
New England looked beatable last week, but I only see that providing them with motivation and some details to focus on heading into their sixth straight AFC Championship game. I fully expect Brady to better his 16-3 record at home in the playoffs. Six points is a lot to lay against Pittsburgh, though. The Steelers have now won nine straight and have too many dangerous players at the skill positions. On top of that, their lines are playing tremendously. The offensive line is playing Dallas-esque football and 38-year-old defensive end James Harrison has turned back the clock (or just straight-up ate it). He’ll find a way to pressure Brady and the Steelers will keep this game within striking distance.
Pick: Steelers (+6)
Photo Credit: (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.