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Championship Game Predictions

Posted Jan 20, 2017

The BBC's Mike Carlson makes his Championship game predictions!

The beauty of this Sunday's Conference Championships is that they prove all the old football cliches, whoops, I mean 'adages' right. Like the one about 'defense wins championships'. You know it does, except when it doesn't. As it happens the teams with the better defenses might well win this weekend, but none of the four has what you would call a dominant group. New England actually led the league in scoring defense, but that was partly a factor of their excellent special teams, a phenomenal turnover ratio, and great field position generated by their offense and capped off by those special teams.

There's no question an exceptional D can carry you a long way, even when your offense is playing a below average level. See Tampa or Baltimore in the early years of this millennium. Last year's Super Bowl matched the top two defenses in the league, and the better one won. But this season the teams with the defenses you were supposed to fear were short-tracked by offseason losses who proved hard to replace, by injuries, or by an inability to overcome really bad offenses.

Or there's the cliché about getting hot at the right time. Which is truer than most (ask Osi about the Giants' two Super Bowl wins, or remember the Colts when their defense got red hot after Bob Sanders' return in 2006. So one of the big media themes this week is Aaron Rodgers' 'guarantee' Green Bay would run the table. THEY'VE WON EIGHT IN A ROW SINCE THEN bleat the media. Which is great, except the Steelers have won NINE in a row since their week 10 loss to Dallas. The Pats have won eight in a row since losing to Seattle the same week. And Atlanta's 'only' won five in a row since losing to the Chiefs.

Of course if one cliché doesn't work the media herd just grabs another one. How about 'Great Quarterbacks 'win' Super Bowls'. Unless they don't. Ignore Brad Johnson, Trent Dilfer, Doug Williams, Mark Rypien, Joe Thiesman, Jim Plunkett, Rookie Ben, or last year's Peyton. Or Dan Marino. This year, however, the four quarterbacks who play Sunday are inarguably the four best in the league this season, which may well be the defining meme of this year's games: which defenses can keep which of these passers in check and which teams have the weapons to win even if they do....

LIVE ON SKY SPORTS 1 11:40PM - NFC CHAMPIONSHIP: Green Bay (12-6) at Atlanta (12-5): As amazing as Rodgers has been in the past eight weeks, Matt Ryan, statistically, has been every bit as impressive. The Falcons have a more balanced offense, with the best pair of runners in the league this season, and Kyle Shanahan has proven himself a creative offensive coordinator. In fact the biggest difference in this game may be the way the Falcons scheme to get receivers open with matchups or in areas they want, while the Packers still rely on their receivers to beat one on one coverage. Teams avoid zones against Green Bay for fear Rodgers will pick them apart, note the big pass to Cook last week. Note too that Rodgers was, in effect, calling pass routes in the huddle—not just on that play, but earlier in the game; I tweeted out as much in the third quarter.

Atlanta's hidden MVP may well be Alex Mack, whose play at centre has solidified their line, and made the run game better. Green Bay play the run pretty well, but their secondary is bruised and battered and the mismatches with Packer linebackers on Freeman or Coleman could be crucial. Isolating Julio Jones on a clearly hurting Randall, a challenged Gunter or a short Hyde might be successful.

The Falcons don't rush the passer all that well either, but they are very fast in pursuit. It will be crucial to see how, if at all, they spy Rodgers: if Vic Beasley does it, they lose their best pass rusher, if it's rookie Deion Jones they lose some of his aggressive speed to the ball. Their secondary is missing Desmond Trufant, which means they have a decision to make, but with Jordy Nelson out the man matchups seem better. I wouldn't be surprised to see Ty Montgomery motion or even line up out of the backfield more often, in order to force such mismatches; I also wonder if Jeff Janis might be useful, if Geronimo Allison has joined him in the category of big receivers Aaron doesn't quite trust. And as it has been all through the playoffs, your pick this week depends on how much trust you have in Rodgers. Pick: Pack

LIVE ON SKY SPORTS 1 11:40PM - AFC CHAMPIONSHIP: Pittsburgh (13-5) at New England (15-2): Theoretically, the Steelers are the kind of team that gives the Pats fits: physical up front and offering multiple game breakers whom it’s hard to keep under control, which is the essence of the NE defense this season, loads of cover-two and heavy-nickle alignments. But in the Brady era the Steeler defense has actually not been the kind of problem the Ravens, Broncos or even Jets have been at times. Pittsburgh's relatively healthy up front now, they don't have to play James Harrison on the line as much, and Bud Dupree has added another dimension with his speed. Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier are the best pair of inside backers in the league. They are, in fact, the best D of the four teams left, and the Pats, for all their gaudy record, are the kind of team on paper you think doesn't match up at all.

This is actually the biggest contrast of offensive styles. The Pats, without Gronk, have no game-breakers like the Steelers' Killer Bs, nor like the Falcons' with Jones. Brady isn't going to extend plays regularly like Ben or Rodgers; his line is efficient within their schemes, but not like the Packers' or Steelers (watch the Steelers' run blocking this season: they grade the road and LeVeon Bell waits for holes like no back I've seen...I compared him to Ellery Hanley on Radio 5 live earlier in the year). New England uses formations and motion to dictate mismatches which Brady usually exploits quickly: the key is not letting him get the ball off quickly. Watch the play of Tuitt, the rookie Hargrove (underappreciated) the man-mountain McCullers: I wonder if the Pats try to establish the run against them or whether they go spread and then maybe run while picking the secondary apart.

But Pittsburgh can kill you with Bell or Brown, as they've done the last two weeks. Jesse James gets better by the week: against Miami he had a great block to spring Brown on a smoke route, last week he made key catches. The Pats like to take away your best weapon and dare you to beat them another way: if you double Brown, you find it harder to stack the box against Bell. And if you watch the way the Steelers zone block, you almost want to throw your linebackers through the gaps. The hidden key to this game probably also lies in the O line: Mike Munchak and Dante Scarnecchia have done great jobs with both lines: watch Alejandro Villeneuva and Marcus Cannon for two guys who have been coached into good play. This is another dream matchup. Pick: Pats

LAST WEEK: 4-0 PLAYOFFS: 8-0

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