Submitted by Richie Baccellieri on Friday, January 20, 2017 at 8:08 PM
Championship Sunday is almost here. We know about the big storylines—Aaron Rodgers looking to secure his legacy with a second Super Bowl appearance, with Matt Ryan trying to build a legacy by getting there for the first time. Or two great organizations in the Steelers and Patriots, with a couple future Hall of Fame quarterbacks looking to get yet another ring.
Those stories and a few more are in the media every day. But there are some more subtle battles taking place that a careful review of game film shows, and those battles will also play a big part in deciding who wins and covers on Championship Sunday.
Packers (+6, 60.5) Falcons (3 PM ET, FOX): For the sake of this discussion let’s consider it a given that Julio Jones gets his numbers—the Packers could still win in either case and the Falcons can’t win without him. Green Bay’s problems at corner with injuries have been well-discussed and are a significant problem. What’s overlooked is that the Packers are exceptional at safety, with Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett. They can provide over-the-top help on Jones.
That means Atlanta’s offensive fortunes could swing on whether Mohamed Sanu can get open consistently. If the Falcons can get Sanu matched up on Damarious Randle, they can make hay. If the Packers keep Micah Hyde on Sanu, the matchup tilts in their favor...but if Green Bay does that, who picks up Devonta Freeman out of the backfield? Hyde is a competent slot corner and the Packer linebackers are better at pass-rushing than covering. Big decisions for defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
When Green Bay has the ball, the intrigue is a little more straight-forward. In Atlanta’s win over Seattle, Vic Beasley and Dwight Freeney were part of a pass rush that stayed after Russell Wilson all game. But the Seahawk offensive line was a sieve. Green Bay’s is good, particularly left tackle David Bakhtari. The Falcon defensive ends have to both get pressure and keep Rodgers in the pocket. Pulling off both against this offensive front won’t be easy.
Steelers (+6, 50.5) Patriots (6:40 PM ET, CBS): New England’s back seven covers as well as anyone in the NFL and certainly the best of the four teams still playing football. There is one weak spot and though and it’s at strong safety where Patrick Chung can be exploited.
Let’s assume that Malcolm Butler will chase Antonio Brown and that both players will win their share of battles. That’s going to leave it up to slot receiver Eli Rogers or tight end Jesse James to work on Chung and get themselves open. James isn’t prolific, but he’s made some big catches and needs to be an X-factor in this game for Pittsburgh to pull an upset.
When the Steelers are on defense, Ryan Shazier has enjoyed a big postseason, with interceptions in the wins over both Miami and Kansas City. You know New England is going to want to get their running backs involved in the passing game, both Dion Lewis and James White. If Shazier can run with them and take a weapon away from Tom Brady it greatly aids the upset bid.
There’s a lot of variables up in the air for both of these games and I’ll be ready with my answers. Sign up for my plays on both games Sunday, plus the Super Bowl and get bonus basketball action for the two weeks in between.