After the NFL Playoffs began with a half dozen duds, er, double digit blowout wins by home favorites, football fans were treated to an instant classic.
The Green Bay Packers became the first road team – and first underdog – to win with a thrilling 34-31 victory in Dallas over the Cowboys on the final play of regulation. The win earned the Packers a trip to Atlanta to decide the NFC Championship next Sunday.
A few hours later the NFL’s version of the Final Four was completed with yet another game that went down to the final minutes as Pittsburgh won at Kansas City, 18-16, to advance to the AFC Championship also to be played next Sunday.
That game featured a pair of oddities. Pittsburgh kicker Chris Boswell set a post season record with six field goals to account for all of Pittsburgh’s scoring. Also, the 18-16 final was the same score by which the Steelers defeated Cincinnati to win their Wild Card game in last season’s playoffs.
As the NFC’s third seed, Green Bay’s win ended a streak of three straight seasons in which the number 1 seeds in each conference met in the Super Bowl. The last time both conferences were not won by the top seeds was in the 2012 season when the AFC number 4 seeded Baltimore Ravens held on to defeat the NFC number 2 seed San Francisco 49ers, 34-31 in Super Bowl 47, er, XLVII.
The game may have ultimately been decided when Dallas QB Dak Prescott spiked the football on first down with 48 seconds remaining as the Cowboys were driving downfield for what turned out to be a game-tying field goal. The decision could be criticized from the standpoint that Dallas still had one timeout and, if there was too much time left on the clock after Dallas had tied the game or taken the lead, Green Bay still had two timeouts remaining.
With Dallas still having a timeout to use there was no need to spike the ball to stop the clock and waste that first down. It is possible Dallas could have milked the clock with Green Bay not using their timeouts and being content to let the clock run down and take their chances in overtime if the Cowboys kicked a FG rather than taking a chance for a touchdown.
It still took a brilliant third down pass completion from Rodgers to Jared Cook to set up Mason Crosby’s successful 51-yard game-winning FG.
Green Bay will be at second seeded Atlanta to determine the NFC representative in Super Bowl 51. On Saturday the Falcons, despite trailing 7-0 early, had little trouble in getting past Seattle, winning 36-20.
New England also had a fairly easy time defeating Houston, 34-16, later on Saturday despite playing what for them was a very sloppy game. The top seeded Patriots will host third seeded Pittsburgh in the late game next Sunday to determine the AFC’s Super Bowl team.
Thus, after the first six playoff games produced pointspread success by backing the home favorite, the weekend ended with a pair of not just covers by the road underdog but outright wins.
Initial reports from around Las Vegas reported Sunday’s results were historically bad for the sportsbooks despite both underdogs winning their games outright. Both Pittsburgh and Green Bay have been very popular teams over the second half of the season with those long winning streaks, and because of those lengthy streaks many bettors eschewed taking the points and took the underdogs on the money-line.
For many years offense has been a more meaningful indicator of success in the earlier rounds of the playoffs but in the conference championship games defense has been more of a key factor. Since the playoffs format was last changed in 1990 to include 12 rather than 10, the team that had allowed fewer points during the regular season has had more success in winning the game that decides who plays in the Super Bowl.
Even looking at the final four games of the regular season, the team that allowed fewer points has had much greater success in winning conference championship games. In both instances New England has a significant edge over Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship game.
In the NFC, Green Bay had a slight edge over Atlanta in points allowed during the regular season but Atlanta has a slight edge over the final four games of the regular season. Recall that both Atlanta and Green Bay won their final four regular season games, with Green Bay’s winning streak beginning two games earlier.
What is interesting and a bit ironic about these characteristics is, although the team with better defense as measured by points allowed, has had better success in winning Conference Championship games, the games themselves have been higher scoring than expected.
Since 1990 there have been 52 Conference Championship games and they have produced 29 OVERS, 22 UNDERS and one push.
As with the earlier rounds, the average margin of victory in Conference Championship games has been by double digits (12.7 points). Thus far 25 of the 52 games played since 1990 have been decided by more than 10 points.
Both Conference Championship games are rematches of games played during the regular season. Here’s a preview of and forecast for each.
Green Bay +4 at Atlanta (60): Green Bay’s dramatic win over Dallas was the Packers’ eighth in a row and the sixth straight game in which the Pack scored at least 30 points. The offense is performing at an elite level even with QB Aaron Rodgers not having his favorite target, WR Jordy Nelson, available last week due to a pair of broken ribs. Early reports suggest Nelson might be available for this game.
Atlanta has the NFL’s top offense, averaging 6.7 yards per play (Green Bay averages 5.8 ypp). The Falcons defense allows 5.6 ypp and their net differential of plus 1.1 ypp is the NFL’s best. Green Bay allows 5.9 ypp for a net differential of minus 0.1 ypp. In their regular season meeting in Week 8 the Falcons, as 3-point home favorites, defeated the Packers, 33-32.
It was a back and forth game with Green Bay taking a 32-26 lead with four minutes remaining in the game following a TD and successful 2-point conversion. Atlanta then marched down the field and scored the game winning TD with 31 seconds remaining with the successful extra point accounting for the margin of victory.
The Falcons had the statistical edge, outgaining the Packers by 36 yards despite running four fewer plays (a yards per play edge of 1.0). It was a cleanly played game with neither team committing a turnover. In fact, both teams excelled in protecting the football all season. The Packers have lost just 1.0 turnover per game and Atlanta has been even better, turning it over just 0.65 times per game.
Atlanta has the reputation of having the much superior rushing game but their edge is not as great as perceived. Although Atlanta averaged 119 rushing yards per game to Green Bay’s 104, using a yards per rush basis the teams were even, averaging 4.5 ypr. Defensively the Packers allowed just 4.2 ypr whereas Atlanta allowed 4.6 ypr. At the same time, Atlanta fares better in the passing game when viewed from the perspective of yards per pass completion.
Green Bay averages just 10.7 yards per completion while Atlanta averages 12.6 ypc. Defensively Green Bay allows 11.7 ypc as compared to Atlanta’s 10.2 ypc. However you look at this game the phrase “high scoring” easily comes to mind. The total opened at 58.5 and was quickly bet up to 60, making for possibly just the third time since 1988 a total could close at 60 or higher.
Playing OVER such a high total, while having instinctive appeal, can be dangerous. Their regular season meeting produced 65 total points. But in Atlanta’s other 16 games only six produced more than 60 total points whereas the other 10 produced fewer than 60. In Green Bay’s other 11 games only five produced more than 60 while 12 produced fewer. Still, it’s hard to feel confident about playing the UNDER.
In last week’s wins Atlanta had 28 first downs against a strong Seattle defense and Green Bay had 27 first downs at Dallas. In the regular season game Atlanta had 25 first downs, Green Bay 24. The NFL average this season has been 20.3 per team per game.
Although only 34 of the 264 games played thus far have seen more than 60 total points scored the Packers and Falcons accounted for more than a third of them (12). In their most recent meeting prior to this season in 2014 Green Bay defeated Atlanta, 43-37, in a game featuring 967 yards of offense.
Considering their first meeting and their style of play throughout the season there is a greater than average likelihood this game comes down to the final drive with both quarterbacks capable of rallying from behind. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is considered the favorite to win the MVP. But no QB is playing better than the Packers’ Rodgers. His current form and post season experience make the Packers an attractive underdog. GREEN BAY, OVER
Pittsburgh +6 at New England (51): New England is making a record sixth straight appearance in a Conference Championship game, looking to even its record at 3-3 in this stretch. The Pats have won eight straight games since a midseason Monday night home loss to Seattle (which followed New England’s bye week). Six of those eight wins have been by at least 13 points, including each of the last four. But the Steelers have been just as hot, with nine straight wins following a midseason four-game losing streak.
Although the first three of those wins were by double digits, only one of their last six wins have been by more than 7 points (their 30-12 Wild Card win over Miami) with four of the last five wins by 4 points or less. Last week’s win at Kansas City can be considered ugly in the sense the Steelers did not score a single touchdown, getting all 18 points on six Chris Boswell field goals. Pittsburgh has to be concerned about their inability to find the endzone in last week’s win.
RB Le’Veon Bell rushed for 170 yards, eclipsing the franchise Playoff rushing record he had set a week earlier. Perhaps they had great respect for the Kansas City defense but little respect for the Chiefs’ offense and thus were not as aggressive as they could have been. That approach will not work against New England, and if the Steelers do not have more touchdowns than field goals against the Pats they probably lose – by a significant margin.
New England played its sloppiest game of the season in defeating Houston, 34-16. Perhaps they took the Texans lightly and maybe with good reason after having soundly defeated them 27-0 early in the regular season. Houston pulled to within 14-13 early in the second quarter and it took until the last offensive play for New England to kick a FG and take a 17-13 halftime lead. It was still a one-score game when Houston’s FG on the second play of the fourth quarter made the score 24-16 before the Pats scored a TD less than three minutes later to effectively seal the victory, adding a late FG to make the final score 34-16 and covering as closing 17 point favorites.
QB Tom Brady was intercepted twice and running back/kick returner Dion Lewis lost a fumble, although Lewis offset his miscue with a kick return TD, a rushing TD and a receiving TD. In Week 7 the Steelers hosted the Patriots but QB Ben Roethlisberger did not play due to injury. His backup, Landry Jones, did not play poorly, tossing just one interception but not being sacked, but was clearly the second best QB that day as Brady led New England to a wire-to-wire, 27-16 win, covering as 7.5 point road favorites.
To defeat the Patriots the Steelers cannot turn over the football. You cannot give the Patriots extra possessions. Since the start of the season the Patriots have been focused on winning the Super Bowl and overcoming the four-game suspension to Brady to open the season.
Each of the last five AFC title games – all involving New England – have stayed UNDER the total. Pittsburgh has much to recommend it but Brady has the QB edge over Roethlisberger and Bill Belichick has the coaching edge over Mike Tomlin. And the Pats are the better team defensively. New England rarely makes mistakes, and following last week’s sloppy effort the Pats should be much better prepared and focused for this game.
The Patriots are now 16-3 SU at Foxborough in the playoffs in the Brady/Belichick era and a respectable 10-8-1 ATS. And, 12 of their 16 wins have been by 7 points or more. NEW ENGLAND, UNDER
Last week: 3-5