The divisional round gave us a thrilling come from behind victory for Pittsburgh, a lesson in pure offensive dominance from Green Bay, a relatively anxiety free win for Chicago, and one of the bigger upsets in recent playoff memory as the Jets frustrated Tom Brady and company with a brilliant defensive game plan. Now the stage is set for the final four, where both conferences will have the number six seeds playing against the second seeded teams. While the fact that only the #2 and #6 teams remain is likely nothing more than a coincidence, it does show that there are no sure things in football, and that once you make the playoffs, anything can happen. The final four also suggests that despite this season unofficially being the ‘year of the quarterback’, the last four teams standing all boast an outstanding defense, while only one of the teams boasts a truly elite quarterback (although Pittsburgh fans have some room to argue that). The point is, the old adage that defense wins championships seems to be accurate, as all four teams are among the top six teams in fewest points allowed per game. This of course doesn’t mean that both games will be defensive duels in which it will be a constant battle for field position, as all four teams put up 28 points or more last week. Both games should be hard fought and wrought with interesting storylines and intriguing player matchups, so let’s take a look where the smart money lies in each of the two games against the spread and in the game totals.
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NFL Picks For Conference Championship Games:
For two weeks straight, the Jets have put their money where Rex Ryan’s mouth is, coming away with two huge wins against two teams that were expected to defeat New York without much of a problem. First Peyton Manning was largely stymied by the Jets’ defensive scheme, keeping Reggie Wayne to only one catch in the process. Then last week the Jets utilized several dime formations, electing to smother the Patriots receivers in the secondary. This coverage scheme worked wonders, as Tom Brady was frurstrated all day, and did not throw for a touchdown until 13 seconds left in the 3rd quarter. Keeping what is sure to be the league MVP out of the endzone for almost three full quarters is remarkable, and proves that Rex Ryan is more than just a boastful loudmouth. The man can flat out coach, as he made all the necessary adjustments to bounce back from the 45-3 thrashing the Pats handed him earlier in the year with one of the biggest wins in the franchise’s history. Against the Steelers, they will face a slightly less fearsome offense, but one of the top defenses in the league. While Mark Sanchez probably can’t single handedly win a game against a team like Pittsburgh, he has proven during his short career that he is capable of playing well in big games, and won’t make too many costly errors. Against a Steelers rushing defense that is almost impossible to run on, Sanchez will be called upon to make some big throws, but he has shown that he can be relied upon to do so. The Jets already traveled to Pittsburgh once this season and were victorious, and they have demonstrated that they have what it takes to mingle with the big boys of the AFC. This game will be close, and very possibly decided by a late-game field goal. If the Steelers do sneak away with one, expect it to be by no more than 3 points, although I wouldn’t bet against a straight up Jets win. They are one of the few teams that actually plays better on the road, sporting an 8-2 record, including of course the last two playoff wins in Indianapolis and New England. The Steelers meanwhile are 6-3 at home, so they are far from invincible at Heinz Field. New York is 4-0 ATS in their last 4 against the AFC, and 12-4 ATS in their last 16 road games. Meanwhile, the Steelers have only 1 win in their last 5 ATS after scoring 30+ points in their previous game. Say what you will about Rex Ryan’s arrogant and brash personality, but his team is firmly behind him, and they have the tools to get it done against a solid but unspectacular Steelers team.
Much like the Steelers vs. Ravens last week, this game features two of the best defenses in the league, hence the extremely low game total line. However, both teams proved last week that they are capable of putting up an impressive amount of points, and are also more vulnerable on defense than many think. Yes, Pittsburgh allowed only 14.5 points per game in the regular season, but the playoffs are an entirely different animal. First of all, neither team has a lame-duck offense. The Jets scored 26 or more points 9 times during the regular season, including 34 against a similarly stingy Bears defense. The Steelers have now scored 27 or more points in their last 3 games, and are never far away from points with a deep field threat like Mike Wallace. In addition, the Steelers showed that they can be scored on, as Baltimore put up 21 against them in the first half last week. Although they were able to clamp down in the second half, the Ravens proved that you can put up some points against the Steelers if you can force turnovers. The Over is 10-1 in New York’s last 11 on the road, and is 7-1 when the Jets are an underdog. It seems like Pittsburgh saves their high scoring games for the playoffs, as the last 5 Steelers Conference Championship games have all been Over, and in Pittsburgh’s last 21 games in January, the Over has hit 19 times. While this doesn’t mean this is going to be a complete shootout, it is not difficult to envision a scenario where both teams put up around 20 points. Take the Over even in a game of two defensively-oriented teams.
Aaron Rodgers has decided that he has heard enough of the asinine comments about how he is not a ‘big time’ quarterback because of his lack of a playoff track record, and is silencing his critics with great efficiency and dominance during this playoff run. Rodgers has run absolutely wild in the last two weeks, throwing for 6 touchdowns, running for another, and not having a single interception. It is safe to say that Green Bay fans are finally asking themselves ‘Brett Who?’. It is not a coincidence that Rodgers’ dominance is timed with the emergence of a running game in Green Bay, which finally takes a little pressure of Rodgers and forces opposing defenses to not sell out to the throw on every down. With James Starks taking over as lead rusher, the Packers are now a complete offense, and easily the most dangerous team left in the playoffs. If the Packers’ offensive prowess wasn’t enough to worry opposing teams, they also need to consider that Green Bay also boasts one of the best defenses in the league, with Clay Matthews giving opposing quarterbacks nightmares, and cornerback Tramon Williams coming up with big play after big play. The Packers are definitely the most complete team left in the playoffs, and despite having to play three straight games on the road to get to the Super Bowl, have to be a top contender to win it. Of course Chicago has defied expectations to reach the final four, but upon closer inspection, at least some of what they have done as been a bit of a mirage. They had a relatively cushy regular season schedule and still lost 5 times, and then lucked into playing by far the worst team in the playoffs in the 7-9 Seahawks. They have the fortune to play this game at home, but even playing at Solider Field will not be enough for the Bears to keep pace with the Packers. Green Bay has simply too many weapons, whereas Jay Cutler is maddeningly inconsistent, and the lauded defense still gave up 24 points to Seattle when it was all said and done. The Pack are 4-1 ATS in their last 5, and 7-3 ATS in their last 10 against teams from the NFC. Meanwhile, Chicago is 2-9 ATS in their last 11 as an underdog of 3.5 to 10 points. Chicago’s season has been fun to watch, but it ends this Sunday as Green Bay keep on rolling into Dallas for the Super Bowl.
Much like the Jets vs. Steelers game, both defenses in this game are among the league’s best. However, both teams also have highly capable offenses, as Green Bay averages over 25 points per game, and Chicago has scored 35 points or more in 3 of their last 4 games. As much as the Bears would like to hand the ball off to Matt Forte 25 times to control the clock and keep Rodgers off the field, they likely won’t be afforded such a convenience. Firstly, it seems quite possible that the Packers will be leading for most of the game, forcing Cutler to take to the air to play catch up. Secondly, Forte has simply not been good enough to earn first downs consistently on his own, so the Bears will need to rely on their aerial game a fair amount. In addition, it just seems foolish to bet against Aaron Rodgers putting up points with the way he is playing right now. He is seemingly scoring at will, and having receivers like Greg Jennings, James Jones and Donald Driver doesn’t hurt either. The Over is 6-1 in Chicago’s last 7 games, and 9-1 in their last 10 in January. It is also 5-2 in Green Bay’s last 7 road games, and 16-7 in their last 23 as favorites of 3.5-10 points. Look for Rodgers to have another multiple touchdown game through the air, and another using his legs, as this one easily surpasses the Over.