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ITH Championship Sunday Preview

Written by Josh Jenkins

The Super Bowl decides it all but for the most part, is more an exhibition for the average football – and entertainment – fan.

February 6 will be a great day for NFL fans, regardless of who is participating but the pair of games scheduled for the upcoming ‘Championship Sunday‘ is what football is all about. Just like preliminary final weekend in the AFL, the games that decide the AFC and NFC champions are arguably the greatest of each season.

The storylines of the 2017 Conference Championship games is the quarterbacks.

Matt Ryan – likely this season’s MVP, Tom Brady – gunning for his fifth ring and avenging his early season suspension, Ben Roethlisberger – chasing a third ring and Aaron Rodgers who is playing the position as well, if not better than anyone ever has.

Time to dig a little deeper and see if we can’t find the winners;

GREEN BAY at ATLANTA (Georgia Dome, Monday 6:35am CST)
This one has the makings of a classic. Two deadly quarterbacks, high octane skill players on offence and defences who are far from elite but make just enough plays to have an impact.
During the regular season, Ryan and Rodgers combined for 78 passing touchdowns to end up as the top two scoring quarterbacks in the league. In fact, the Falcons versatile offence put up the eighth most points in the history of the NFL. The Falcons posted 540 points and to prove that was not a regular season thing, pounded the vaunted Seattle defence for 36 more.

Ryan has always been an adept passer but under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s guidance, Ryan and his vast array of weapons have become a near unstoppable force. The Falcons lowest score of the season was 15 which came in a loss at Philadelphia – other than that, they never dipped below 20 points.

Julio Jones (1,409 yards, 6 TD) is the superstar who attracts all of the attention and rightly so, but he has found the end zone just six times. Receivers Mohammed Sanu (653 yards, 4 TD) and Taylor Gabriel (579 yards, 6 TD), tight end Austin Hooper (271 yards, 3 TD) and electric running backs Devonta Freeman (1,079 yards, 11 TD) and Tevin Coleman (520 yards, 8 TD) are the reason Atlanta finds itself in the NFC Championship game.

Green Bay possesses a few playmakers on defence but no one that can shut down Jones one v one or that can slow down all of Sanu, Gabriel, Freeman and Coleman.

It will be more a case of whether Rodgers and his crew of receivers can keep pace.

Despite early season queries, even from the Lambeau faithful, Rodgers has catapulted back into conversation over being the greatest ever! Jordy Nelson’s comeback from ACL surgery has helped but he was not there last Monday morning when the Packers topped the rampant Cowboys 34-31. Nelson’s health is again uncertain for this week after injuring his ribs in the Wildcard game against New York.

Coach Mike McCarthy has found a replacement running back in Ty Montgomery whilst Jared Cook, DaVante Adams, Randall Cobb and Richard Rodgers have been catching the fire A-Rodge has been throwing.

137 yards and 2 scores might be unreasonable to expect from the TE’s again, but with #12 at the helm, moving the ball and putting up points won’t be an issue.

Tasked with stopping him is the ever-improving Falcons defence under former Seahawks DC and now Falcons head coach Dan Quinn. Quinn was running the show when the ‘Hawks ‘Legion of Boom’ was at its most dominant and he has replicated that Seattle defence in Atlanta – with more success than some might admit.

He has a fast linebacker who tackle relentlessly in LSU grad Deion Jones and the regular season leader in sacks, Vic Beasley. Robert Alford, rookie Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen are far from household names but all make plays when the Falcons need it most.

Offensive firepower is king in this one but if one of the defensive units can cause a couple of turnovers, that might be enough for that quarterback to carry his team to the big dance.

KEYS TO THE GAME
ATLANTA
1) Get pressure on Aaron Rodgers but do not concede the ‘schoolyard plays.’
2) Use the RB’s are receivers. It’s been free money all season.
3) Keep on keeping on. No one has stopped you all season so carry on the momentum.

GREEN BAY
1) Catch the rock. Aaron will hit his receivers, all they need to do is be ready.
2) Force TO’s. Ryan and co will score 35 unless the Pack can force some takeaways.
3) Any Pepper left ? Can veterans Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews get at Ryan ?

PITTSBURGH at NEW ENGLAND (Gillette Stadium, Monday 10:10am CST)
History suggests New England are the closest of the four remaining teams to the Super Bowl. Going through Foxborough has proven to be a nightmare for anyone in the AFC not named Baltimore.

This year looks no different but the Steelers will take enormous confidence from going into the notoriously difficult stadium that is Arrowhead and beating Kansas City.
The game plan has changed greatly but the effectiveness is the same. Gone is the predictable deep shots from Big Ben and in is the pound the rock, run it until you can stop it method behind superstar running back Le’Veon Bell.

Roethlisberger is still more than capable of dropping in the perfect long ball to Antonio Brown or Sammie Coates but using Bell on the ground 25+ times per game has been a recipe for success.

When the Patriots visited Heinz Field (with In The Huddle AU members in attendance), Big Ben was in casual clothes meaning Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Patrick Chung and Rob Ninkovich were able to worry less about reserve QB Landry Jones and more about Bell’s exquisite ground game. Bell still racked up 149 total yards but just 81 on the ground despite 21 carries. This time things can be different with the ever-present threat of a monster Ben to Brown TD connection. Malcolm Butler will draw the Brown match-up and whilst he has developed into a great cover corner, shadowing 84 is a dangerous proposition.

Flipping the ball, and Tom Brady awaits, on his home field and as driven as ever to win his fifth ring. TE Rob Gronkowski is gone but Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have more than enough weapons to secure two more wins. Dion Lewis proved his worth last week with three scores. One as a running back, one as a kick returner and one as a receiver! A phenomenal effort from a man who missed a year of football through a torn ACL.

Julian Edelman has been re-born late in the season and as Brady’s main target, he has flourished, regularly attracting more than a dozen targets. Chris Hogan is a deep threat whilst Martellus Bennett, Danny Amendola and newly acquired Michael Floyd can all do some damage when Brady sees a matchup he likes.

LeGarrette Blount – a former Steeler – punished his old side when the teams met in October. He rumbled his way to 127 yards and two TD’s on 24 carries. His ‘Blount-force’ is something to Pats regularly rely upon but the addition of Lewis and the variety James White brings means McDaniels can plug in whomever is performing on the day.

SportsBet have Pittsburgh as $3 outsiders and with good reason but the Steelers defence is causing havoc late in the season and Bell has been unstoppable for two months. But then again, Tom Brady is a different beast altogether.

KEYS TO THE GAME;
NEW ENGLAND
1) Keep 12 clean. Brady stays upright then it’s likely NE advance.
2) Load the box. Make Ben beat them on the road, but don’t allow Bell to dominate.
3) Own the ball. Keep it out of 26’s hands.

PITTSBURGH
1) Possess the ball. Allow 26 to tote the rock.
2) Keep getting to the QB. Steelers have cause the most sacks in 2nd half of the season.
3) Ben must be Ben. At stages, the Steelers will need championship-level throws from #7.

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