As the NFL Conference Championship games near, sports bettors are trying to decide where to put their money. Will the Falcons’ elite offense come apart? Will the Steelers surprise? Where is Vegas getting it wrong?
Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons (-5, 61)
Packers’ red-zone dominance vs. Falcons’ shoddy TD prevention
Oddsmakers know an offensive maelstrom when they see it – and this weekend’s NFC Championship Game between the Packers and the Falcons has all the makings of a touchdown-laden classic, with a total sitting in the low-60s as of Wednesday. Both teams have rolled through the last two months of the season largely on the strength of their impressive offensive attacks – and as you’ll read below, both will look to exploit significant mismatches in hopes of reaching the Super Bowl in Houston on Feb. 5.
The Packers have done a lot of things right in their incredible run to the conference championship, but their red-zone performance has been among the most impressive. The Aaron Rodgers-led offense has converted a whopping 90.9 percent of its red-zone visits into touchdowns over the past three games, moving the team above 63 percent for the season – a top-10 showing league-wide. The Packers’ 63.9% road conversion rate ranks sixth in the NFL.
The Falcons are deserving opponents, but they didn’t get here because of their elite red-zone defense. Atlanta has allowed foes to convert red-zone trips into six points more than 70 percent of the time so far this season; only the playoff-averse Los Angeles Rams performed worse. And Atlanta’s 71.0-percent rate at the Georgia Dome is the worst in the league – yes, even worse than the aforementioned Rams. If Green Bay gets into the red zone at will, it could be a long day for the Atlanta defense.
Atlanta’s elite home pass attack vs. Green Bay’s porous road D
On the flip side, the Falcons humbled just about every defense that came into the Georgia Dome during the regular season, and did the same against the Seattle Seahawks in their divisional round tilt. Matt Ryan has surged his way into MVP talks with a sensational 2016 campaign that has seen Atlanta average better than 35 points per game in its own stadium – and that could spell serious trouble for a Green Bay defense that couldn’t do much of anything on the road.
The Falcons led the NFL in home scoring by better than four points over the runner-up New Orleans Saints, and that’s mostly thanks to Ryan. The veteran signal caller helped Atlanta post an absurd 120.0 team passer rating at home; no other team finished higher than 109.8. And Ryan has saved his best for late in the season, posting a 130.5 rating over his last three games. It’s a stunning turnaround from last season, when the Falcons’ passer rating was a dismal 87.8.
Atlanta’s conference championship matchup couldn’t have been better from a pass defense perspective. Green Bay allowed a higher passer rating on the road (108.8) than any team in football, a major reason why the team finished 25th overall in passer rating against (94.8). Dak Prescott’s 103.2 rating in last week’s divisional round game will do little to quell concerns among Packers fans that this team isn’t equipped to slow Ryan down – especially in familiar surroundings.
Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots (-5.5, 50.5)
Steelers’ third-down D trouble vs. Pats’ clutch offense
The AFC Championship features two quarterbacks who are rather comfortable in the spotlight: New England Patriots legend Tom Brady will be seeking his seventh trip to the Super Bowl, while Pittsburgh veteran Ben Roethlisberger is looking to reach his fourth career title game. But for Big Ben and the Steelers to get to the big game, they’ll need to overcome a pair of mismatches that has the Patriots in the driver’s seat according to oddsmakers.
It starts with third-down defense, where Pittsburgh has struggled for most of the season. The Steelers have allowed teams to extend drives on third down more than 40 percent of the time, ranking them 23rd in the league; that rate jumps to 42.1 percent over Pittsburgh’s last three games – and while the Steelers did well to contain Kansas City’s third-down efforts last week (2-for-9), the Chiefs aren’t exactly an offensive power, having converted just 37.4 percent of third downs on the year.
Things are about to get a whole lot tougher for Pittsburgh in that regard. Brady and the Patriots rank fourth in the NFL in third-down conversion rate (45.2 percent), a significant improvement over 2015 (39.7). And to no one’s surprise, New England has been even more proficient down the stretch, converting third downs at a 52.3-percent clip over its last three games. If the Steelers don’t find a way to force punts, they’ll be watching the Super Bowl from the couch.
Pittsburgh’s penalty problems vs. New England’s elite discipline
There’s little doubt that the Steelers have the offensive components to keep up with the Patriots on the scoreboard, even at hostile Gillette Stadium. But Pittsburgh will need to find a way to remain composed even if things aren’t going its way; not only do the Steelers rank as one of the most penalized teams in the league this season, they’re matched up against a New England team that showed impressive discipline en route to another sensational campaign.
The Steelers come into this one having racked up the sixth-most accepted penalties in the league (122), resulting in the fourth-most accepted penalty yards (1,181). They reached double-digit infractions three times during the regular season, including their previous meeting with the Patriots, when they were flagged 10 times for 85 yards. Even more discouraging: a season-high seven of those penalties came on the offensive end, resulting in 55 total yards lost.
By comparison, the Patriots have had just 98 accepted flags against in 2016; only four teams had fewer, and three of those teams have played one fewer game than New England. The Patriots’ 869 accepted penalty yards is also bottom-10 in the league, and more than 300 fewer than their conference championship opponent. New England had just four penalties for 40 yards in the regular-season win over Pittsburgh – and if the gap is just as big this weekend, the Steelers will have an even bigger hill to climb.
Editor’s note: This story was written by Monty Andrews for Covers.com, a sister site also owned by Tribune.