In the AFC, the New England Patriots are in their record sixth consecutive AFC championship game, 11th overall in the Brady-Bill Belichick era, while the Pittsburgh Steelers are looking to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since losing to the Packers in Super Bowl XLV.
Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger have gone head-to-head nine times in their career, with Brady winning six of those matchups.
“They’re the best in the world, they’re the gold standard if you will, so you want to have that opportunity to go play the best. It’ll be an awesome challenge for us,” Roethlisberger said of Brady and the Patriots on Wednesday.
Here is a key factor to watch in each of Sunday’s championship games and how they project.
NFC championship game: Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons (-4.5)
Winner: Atlanta Falcons, 61.3 percent
Pick: Green Bay Packers +4.5
The Falcons will have trouble containing Rodgers and the Packers’ passing attack, but Green Bay has its own problems trying to deal with Atlanta’s running game.
During the regular season, Tevin Coleman produced 941 yards from scrimmage while leading the position in yards per route run (2.6). Devonta Freeman had 1,541 yards from scrimmage, averaging 1.6 yards per route run, seventh-most among running backs.
Atlanta’s offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, has been stellar at creating schemes that exploit an opponent’s weakness and uses his running backs in tandem with his wideouts to target mismatches in the secondary, particularly against linebackers.
In the regular-season meeting in Week 8, Coleman was out but the Falcons saw Freeman catch four of five targets against four different defenders — defensive backs Micah Hyde and Morgan Burnett and linebackers Joe Thomas Jr. and Jake Ryan — for 23 yards and a touchdown. Against the Seattle Seahawks in Sunday’s divisional game, Coleman caught passes against Wright, cornerback DeShawn Shead and linebacker Kam Chancellor. Freeman caught all three of his targets against linebacker K.J. Wright and had a 53-yard reception against defensive end Cliff Avril when the Seahawks decided to blitz.
“They are very explosive,” Green Bay linebacker Nick Perry told reporters on Tuesday. “When we look at the film, we have to make sure we don’t give up those explosive plays. Everything lives off that. They are good at what they do. We are going to look at the film and go over it and make sure we prevent as much as we can of those guys giving up explosive plays.”
AFC championship game: Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots (-5.5)
Winner: New England Patriots, 69.6 percent
Pick: New England Patriots -5.5
New England Patriots running back Dion Lewis had a historic night against the Houston Texans in Saturday’s AFC divisional game, becoming the first player in NFL postseason history to have a rushing touchdown, receiving touchdown and kick return touchdown in a single game. Their quarterback, Tom Brady, did not fare as well.
Brady was sacked twice in the first half and the Texans’ defensive coordinator (and one-time Belichick assistant coach), Romeo Crennel, frequently employed inside pressure to keep Brady off balance in the pocket. The Texans ended up with two sacks, eight hits and 12 hurries by the end of the game, holding Brady to a 73.2 rating under pressure. He had an 84.9 passer rating under pressure during the regular season.
After seeing the success Houston had inside, the Steelers could scheme to get linebacker James Harrison against center David Andrews. Andrews ranked 21 out of 29 centers for his (in)ability to pass block during the regular season per the game charters at Pro Football Focus and is last among 12 centers playing at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps in the playoffs. Harrison, meanwhile, has 7.5 sacks in his last 10 games after having no sacks during the first seven games of the season. He’s also the highest-rated edge rusher in the playoffs, per PFF, with 12 total sacks, hits and hurries in two postseason games.
Pittsburgh will want to avoid left tackle Nate Solder. Solder hasn’t allowed a sack since Week 10 and allowed Brady to be hit on Saturday for the first time since Week 16.