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Conference Championship Preview

AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

New England (-5.5) vs. Pittsburgh

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: New England 2nd; Pittsburgh 7th
PLAYER PRODUCTIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: New England 2nd; Pittsburgh 6th
TURNOVER MARGIN: New England 3rd (+12); Pittsburgh T9th (+5)

Teams that have reached a conference championship game after finishing in the top 3 in play design during the regular season have prevailed and advanced to the Super Bowl 9 out of 11 times since 2008. They are a perfect 7-0 when the conference championship game is played at home. That bodes well for New England (and Atlanta as discussed below). This is Bill Belichick's best designed team since the 16-0 2007 juggernaut. Yeah, they played the softest schedule in the NFL per coaching statistics. But even after adjusting for the weak opponents, this is still Belichick's best designed team since 2007. The loss of superstar TE Rob Gronkowski has hurt. Back when these teams met in the regular season and the Patriots won 28-16, Gronkowski was a downfield mismatch for the Steelers secondary. But New England didn't have WR Michael Floyd and he and WR Chris Hogan should cause DC Keith Floyd plenty of anxiety. The difference between this year's Patriots and past years is Tom Brady is throwing the ball downfield a lot more. That will be trouble for a Pittsburgh secondary that starts 2 rookies and does not have the man-to-man skills to just matchup with Brady's receivers. Look for Floyd to have a big game if Butler designs man coverage and Brady to pick the coverage apart if Butler designs zone. On offense, DLs Trey Flowers, Malcom Brown and Vince Valentine have developed into supreme run stuffers. They yielded more than 65 yards rushing in a game just twice in their last 7 games. So it will be difficult assignment for Le'Veon Bell. If New England's front seven slows down Bell, the game will be left in the hands of Ben Roethlisberger. Belichick and DC Matt Patricia will double Antonio Brown all over field and force Big Ben to be patient and work with other options. But Roethlisberger almost always loses his patience at least once per game. Look for this to be a physical grudge match for 3 quarters and Brady to put Pittsburgh away in the Q4.

QC's Guess: New England SU & ATS

NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Atlanta (-5) vs. Green Bay

PLAY DESIGN DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Atlanta 1st; Green Bay 24th
PLAYER PRODUCITIVITY DIFFERENTIAL RANKINGS: Atlanta 1st; Green Bay 28th
TURNOVER MARGIN: Atlanta T4th (+11); Seattle 6th (+8)

These teams met at mid-season when Atlanta rallied to win, 33-32. It should be another shootout. In that first game, the Packers played without Clay Matthews on defense and Randall Cobb, Ty Montgomery and Jared Cook on offense. In fact, HC Mike McCarthy really didn't have any RB other than FB Aaron Ripowski. QB Aaron Rodgers' playmakers had names like Don Jackson and Trevor Davis. Rookie WR Geronimo Allison had just been promotoed from the practice squad. So Rodgers played like a single-wing tailback and bedeviled the Falcons with 60 yards rushing and 4 TD passes. If that happens again, Green Bay should advance to Super Bowl 51. Atlanta finished the regular season with the third-highest play design differential since QC invented the coaching stat in 2008. Only the 2013 Seahawks (Super Bowl champs) and the 2010 Chargers (a cautionary tale of special teams) consistently won the design battle more decisively. With supercharger RBs Davonte Freeman and Tevin Coleman running behind a top-shelf offensive line in formations that frequently featured 3 TE, OC Kyle Shannahan designed more play-action passes for QB Matt Ryan than any other designer in the NFL (27.6% of dropbacks). As a result, Ryan threw TD passes to 13 different receivers, including 5--5!!--TEs (Austin Hooper (3), Jacob Tamme (3), Levine Toilolo (2), Joshua Perkins (1) and D.J. Tialavea (1)). The Falcons run the ball well, but they make opponents pay for overplaying the run even more. The Atlanta D is another matter. It has given up 29 or more points in 6 of 9 home games. The D's stats improved during the last month of the season, but the opponents it faced had poor (Carolina) or awful (Los Angeles and San Francisco) offenses. QC gave Green Bay up for dead after it fell to 4-6 with a loss to Washington. QC won't make that mistake again. We've already seen Rodgers wreck Atlanta's defense all by himsef this year. In addition, the Packers are first team since 2007 NY Giants to win 2 or more playoff games after finishing the season with a negative play design differential. Those Giants went on to stun the unbeaten Patriots in the Super Bowl. That makes this a tough pick. QC won't pick against a home team in this spot that is designed as well as Atlanta is designed. But he won't give Rodgers 5 points either. This should be close (a FG either way).

QC's Guess: Atlanta Falcons SU; Green Bay Packers ATS

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