Last weekend, we had some very interesting match-ups that were kind of hard to call. In fact, there was only one game that I felt completely confident in terms of the final result.
This weekend, it feels less clear, if anything. Every team here has a significant winning streak, with the Falcons being the one with the shortest, as their most recent loss came in early December. For the Packers, they last tasted defeat on November 20th, and the two AFC teams left both last lost a week earlier than that!
These are some seriously hot teams! Yet, someone will have to lose in both games, and that is what makes these games intriguing!
On the NFC side, you have two red hot teams that have not actually lost since early December. Both teams feature red hot quarterbacks - possibly the two best quarterbacks of this season, as well as explosive offenses. Both teams also come in with impressive playoff wins, as the Falcons knocked off the always tough Seattle Seahawks, while the Packers just knocked out the New York Giants and the NFC's top seed, the Dallas Cowboys, in consecutive weeks.
On the AFC side, it is even tougher to call. Neither team has suffered a loss since November 13th - fully two months ago! On that day, these two teams both lost to the two NFC teams that were knocked out this past weekend, respectively. For the Patriots, it was a loss to the Seattle Seahawks in a rematch of the notorious Super Bowl a couple of years ago, and it was the only loss that New England suffered under Brady this season. For the Steelers, it was a loss to the Dallas Cowboys, and it was their fourth loss in a row at the time. Clearly, they have righted the ship since then, and enter this game red hot. In fact, both teams are red hot, which makes this quite the game!
Let's take a look:
NFC Championship Game
Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons - There are reasons to feel confident with both of these teams. The Packers have pulled off eight straight wins. After being blown out by Washington in mid-November, Aaron Rodgers basically almost guaranteed that the Packers would make the playoffs, which seemed unlikely at the time, as Green Bay stood at 4-6. Sure enough, though, his team got hot, and mostly because of him! He seems to elevate his team, to make them better than they otherwise would be, and I heard one sports expert on ESPN yesterday claim that he is the closest thing to a football version of Michael Jordan that he has ever seen. Those are some impressive accolades! Then, you have the Atlanta Falcons, who showed themselves to be a dangerous and underrated team all season. They have perhaps the most explosive offense of all the teams remaining, and have home field advantage. Also, they actually beat the Packers in their earlier season meeting. All of that makes this a very difficult game to call, because someone obviously will win, but that means that someone ultimately will lose, too. Matt Ryan is favored to win the NFL MVP award this season, which means that he had what many feel was an even more impressive season overall than did Aaron Rodgers, and that's saying something! The Falcons really took care of business against Seattle, taking a decisive lead in the first half, and then simply building on that and wearing down the Seahawks, until they were beaten. The Packers endured a tough first half against the Giants, and still managed to take the lead into the locker room, ultimately winning convincingly. Then, they knocked off the Cowboys in stunning fashion after taking a huge lead early on. If the Packers have one major, glaring advantage over the Falcons, it is clearly in that they have a sizable advantage with playoff experience, as this team has qualified for the playoffs in each of the last eight seasons! They have won the Super Bowl, and this will be their third NFC title game experience in the last seven seasons. The Falcons have been there fairly recently, too, although they probably do not want to remember that horrific game, when they took an early 17-0 lead over San Francisco, only to lose before their home fans, and see the visiting 49ers celebrate on their field. That clearly left a bad taste with Atlanta, and arguably, the team never recovered until this season, when they finally started to resemble a serious team once again. If Matt Ryan is to be validated and taken seriously as one of the true elites in the game, then he needs to at least have made it to the Super Bowl once, which makes this the biggest game of his career. No pressure there, right? So much riding on this game, and again, it is a tough one to call. But since I have to, it is hard to go against superior experience, and the Packers have faced must win situations since mid-November in every game that they played, and won them all. My pick: Green Bay
AFC Championship Game
AFC Championship Game
Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots - These are the two best teams in the AFC, and arguably, the two hottest teams in the entire league. Also, they are familiar suspects, as we have seen both of these franchises make it this deep into the playoffs plenty of times before. In fact, for the Patriots, this is their sixth straight AFC Championship Game appearance - a new NFL record! They have the home field advantage, which is probably significant, as Foxboro is a very difficult place to play, perhaps especially in January! The only team to have knocked the Patriots off in Foxboro in the playoffs with anything approaching consistency would be the Baltimore Ravens, although the Jets once, as well. No other teams have managed to do it during the Belichick/Brady era so far. The Pats won again last weekend, although not with the same level of dominance that they usually display. Still, this tam simply cannot be underestimated. They have one of the most explosive offenses anchored by arguably the best quarterback in the game's history, and they also have an underrated and very tough defense. Then, you have the Steelers. The offense is very dangerous, and they have won every game since a four game losing streak that they managed to end in mid-November, which gives them the longest active winning streak of all teams, standing at nine straight if you include the two playoff wins. Plus, their defense is playing very tough, as they managed to win the game against Kansas City even after the offense only produced a total of field goals. Still, the win last weekend at KC was not as impressive as many had expected it to be for the Steelers, although road wins in the playoffs generally tend to be tough and well-earned. The Patriots won the early meeting between these two teams at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, although the Steelers were without Roethlisberger. This time, he will be playing. But on the flip side, this time, the game is in Foxboro, and again, I believe that this is significant. These two extremely hot teams will be fighting with everything that they have got, and this should be a really tough, physical contest. Much like with the NFC game, it is very hard to tell who is going to come out on top, because there are plenty of arguments to be made on both sides. In the end, as with that NFC game, I go with the team with superior experience, as well as with home field advantage, which I feel will play a part in this particular contest. New England is no joke. My pick: New England