Whereas Vegas has taken a hit this postseason — favorites started 6-0 against the spread (ATS) and then the Packers and Steelers, two popular public teams, won as underdogs — the NFL has hit the jackpot. In a season that started with talk of low ratings, expect these numbers to be through the roof. Packers-Falcons and Steelers-Patriots, with Aaron Rodgers vs. Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger vs. Tom Brady, is a ratings bonanza. The conference championship games always rate well, but this is a dream final four that the NFL is probably pinching itself over.
How hot have these teams been? Starting in Week 12, they’re a combined 29-1 overall, with the lone loss being a one-point defeat for the Falcons.
Think about it: No matter the outcomes this Sunday, the NFL is guaranteed a great Super Bowl matchup. If the NFL had its wish, Packers-Patriots has to be the most-wanted game, but the other three are also top notch. Falcons-Patriots was my pre-playoff pick, and I’m sticking with it for many reasons.
(4) PACKERS (12-6) AT (2) FALCONS (12-5), 3:05 p.m.
Falcons by 5; O/U: 60
TV: Ch. 5; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)
When the Falcons beat the Seahawks last Saturday, many fans thought they were on hand for the final game at the Georgia Dome. Then, the Packers upset the Cowboys, and now Atlanta gets an opportunity at throwing another going-away party. Funny thing is, considering how hot Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are playing, you have to wonder if those Falcons fans thought their team would have a better shot of making the Super Bowl for the first time since 1999 had it played against an inexperienced Dallas team, even if it was on the road.
Well, as hot as Green Bay is, winners of eight in a row, the Falcons have been hot, too, riding a five-game win streak. In fact, they’ve been hot all season. Quick, how many times have the Falcons scored 30 or more points? (game show music) . . . The answer: 12! That includes last week’s 36-20 win over the Seahawks, highlighted by a nine-play, 99-yard touchdown drive led by this season’s MVP frontrunner Matt Ryan.
While the other three quarterbacks still playing have already won a Super Bowl, Ryan is eyeing his first. The Falcons (11-6 ATS) may be favored in the point spread, but the public perception is that the Packers (11-6-1 ATS) are now everyone’s favorite, the kind of team that comes from out of nowhere — remember, they were 4-6 and written off at one point this season — and “runs the table” to a title. A Rodgers vs. Tom Brady Super Bowl, or a Rodgers vs. Ben Roethlisberger Super Bowl rematch would be a great story lilne, but guess what? It’s not happening.
The Falcons are legit, and it’s time the national public realizes that. Their offense has so many weapons, so many different looks, that Green Bay’s defense may be worn out by the third quarter let alone the end of the game. Who’s going to stop the Falcons’ two-headed rushing attack of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman? Then, there’s the passing game. Ryan threw 38 TDs and seven INTs in the regular season, and last week threw three TDs and no picks.
Julio Jones has a toe injury, but even if he’s not 100 percent, the Packers’ banged-up secondary won’t have any answers for him. Considering Green Bay played a lot of 1-on-1 last week against Dallas, and Dez Bryant had a big day, if Jones puts up a stat line of 10 catches for 200 yards and two TDs, it wouldn’t be all that surprising. But the more likely scenario is that Ryan will do what he’s done all season, which is spreading the ball around to all of his receiving options. Coleman is one to especially keep an eye on, because he is a matchup nightmare for a linebacker in the passing game. Also look out for speedy Taylor Gabriel, who could get behind a weak Packers secondary and take a long TD pass to the house.
But what about Rodgers and the Packers offense, you’re probably thinking to yourself. Yes, they’re going to get their points, too. The over/under has a ‘6’ in front of it, and the advice here would be to bet the over even if it had a ‘7’ in front of it. 70 points, really? Yep. That’s the kind of game this is going to be. Atlanta’s defense isn’t its strong point, either so expect Rodgers (40 TDs, seven INTs in the regular season) and Ryan to put on an epic air display as both teams score 30-plus. This may come down to who has the ball last, and be a repeat of the Falcons’ 33-32 thrilling win over the Packers in Atlanta Week 8. Or maybe Ryan and all of his offensive weapons could score so often that Rodgers will be playing catch-up the way he had the Cowboys doing last week. Seattle’s defense isn’t as dominant as it once was, but it’s still solid and look what Atlanta did to it last week. What will the Falcons do to the Pack?
Ryan, Jones and Coleman lead an offensive onslaught as the Falcons punch their ticket to the Super Bowl and give the national public two more weeks to realize just how good a team is really is. Falcons 45, Packers 35.
The pick: Falcons
(3) STEELERS (13-5) AT (1) PATRIOTS (15-2), 6:40 p.m.
Patriots by 6; O/U: 50.5
TV: Ch. 2; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)
This is an A-plus matchup that centers around the letter B: Belichick and Brady vs. Ben, Bell and Brown. You can bet Bill Belichick and Tom Brady weren’t that happy with most of the game tape from last week’s win over the Texans. The fact that the Patriots (14-3 ATS) played one of their worst games all season and still won, 34-16, says everything you need to know about New England. Even on an OK day, it’s usually enough for the KO. That won’t be the case against Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, a trio that can be unstoppaBBBle if it gets into a rhythm.
Pittsburgh edged Kansas City, 18-16, last week on a single-game playoff record six field goals by Chris Boswell. News flash: Six fields goals isn’t going to cut it in Foxborough. The Steelers (11-7 ATS) are going to need 30-plus points to pull off the upset. Interestingly, both teams haven’t lost since Week 10. In the teams’ Week 7 meeting in Pittsburgh, New England won, 27-16, but Roethlisberger didn’t play.
The key to this matchup, as is often the case with a Belichick-coached team, is which player will New England’s coaching staff zone in on and make a non-factor. With Malcolm Butler (another B) likely shadowing Brown — just as he does in that funny new commercial — it’s a safe guess to think Bell will be Belichick’s target. Now, Bell and “non-factor” don’t belong in the same sentence, but you can bet he’s not going to stop, hop and skip so freely as he did the first two rounds of the playoffs. His 170 rushing yards against the Chiefs broke the Steelers’ single-game playoff record . . . that he set the week before against the Dolphins. Bell’s 337 yards in his first two postseason games are an NFL record. Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will have a masterful, aggressive game plan for Bell, making sure he can’t sit back and wait to find holes.
This should be a close game, but give me Brady to lock up a win in the fourth quarter. He’s not going to be denied, not at home, and not with a chance to move one win away from a fifth Super Bowl ring. His QB counterpart, meanwhile, has struggled on the road this season. Roethlisberger has just as many interceptions (nine) as touchdowns. He is 0-3 in Foxborough against Brady, and 3-5 against them overall.
The No. 1 reason why New England is the pick to cover this number is because of last week’s performance. Belichick and Brady won’t put up back-to-back games like that, so expect a fast start and disciplined showing. Keep an eye on Chris Hogan — who could catch a long touchdown pass and become the Pats’ latest role player turned playoff star — and speedy do-it all back Dion Lewis.
An all-around effort will lead New England, playing in a record sixth straight AFC Championship Game, to its record ninth Super Bowl appearance, breaking a tie at 8 with Pittsburgh, Dallas and Denver. Oh, and afterward, don’t expect to see a live feed from the Pats’ postgame celebration on social media. Patriots 34, Steelers 27.
The pick: Patriots
Regular season: 136-109-11, 11-6 best bets
Playoffs: 4-4, 1-1
Championship Sunday picks: Falcons Patriots
Regular season: 129-116-11, 10-7 best bets
Playoffs: 5-3, 1-1
Championship Sunday picks: Falcons Steelers
Regular season: 138-107-11, 7-9-1 best bets
Playoffs: 6-2, 2-0
Championship Sunday picks: Packers Steelers
KIMBERLEY A. MARTIN
Regular season: 116-129-11, 11-5-1 best bets
Playoffs: 7-1, 2-0
Championship Sunday picks: Packers Steelers