The playoffs finally kicked into high gear last weekend when the Packers knocked out the Cowboys in a thrilling finish that would've kept "The Master of Suspense" himself on the edge of his seat. With the stakes even higher this weekend, and the collective quality of the remaining teams even better, the two battles for a berth in Super Bowl LI should be downright special.
In Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady, we have arguably the greatest ever quartet of conference championship round quarterbacks. Weak links are few and far between on these four offenses, but as always there are edges to be found as the time approaches to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.
Packers/Falcons Under 7.5 Punts
Picks against the spread for both games are below, but first a prop that answers arguably the most difficult question surrounding either game on Sunday: How will either defense make a stop in the Georgia Dome?
When the Falcons run their offense, Ryan and the extremely well-balanced Atlanta attack can pick on a Packers secondary that's in shambles. On the other side of the ball, the Falcons' challenge isn't any easier. Despite a vapid supporting cast, Rodgers has proven impervious to any and all obstacles for the past month and a half and counting. Collectively, this helps to explain why the game's total has eclipsed 60 - a playoff record and the second-highest total for any game in NFL history.
With two elite offenses and in the absence of good defense, the punters can anticipate a light workload as both teams relentlessly move the chains.
Patriots -6 vs. Steelers
"Trust your numbers" is a common mantra across the sports betting community. Applying a couple of key numbers conservatively, the Patriots' home-field advantage is worth three points on Sunday and they're three points better than the Steelers. That accounts for the six-point spread. From there, a deeper dive into the situation and the matchup tilts the scales in the home team's favor.
First off, as Mike Tomlin quickly pointed out in his post-game locker room speech in Kansas City (made public thanks to Antonio Brown), New England gets the benefit of an extra day of rest after beating the Texans last Saturday. Also helping the Patriots' cause is staying at home, where they've been since New Year's Day, while Pittsburgh is back on the road for the second straight week.
The Steelers could use the extra rest New England is getting, with Le'Veon Bell coming off back-to-back games of 30+ touches and defensive leader James Harrison fighting through shoulder and triceps injuries.
Digging into the matchup, perhaps the strongest and most common pro-Pittsburgh argument is that we still don't know how good the Patriots' defense is because they've faced the weakest opposing offenses of any team in the league. This has plenty of merit, but can also be countered.
For starters, not knowing how good something is doesn't mean it's bad. While it would be a misleading oversimplification to call New England's D the best, you can't ask much more of it than to allow the fewest points in the NFL.
And second, we also don't know how good the Steelers' defense is. They got torched early in the season, but that came against strong opposition and without a couple of key cogs in the starting lineup. They've been much better of late with all hands on deck, but like Patriots they've benefited by facing weak opposition during that stretch. Pittsburgh might have the edge on defense, but the gap isn't as wide as some imply.
In another critical factor, while the Steelers are extremely talented and can be expected to put up big numbers, they often struggle to match their production with points on the scoreboard. Last week's box score is a fitting example - they had massive edges in total yards and yards per play. They compiled more first downs. They won the turnover battle. And they led in time of possession by almost 10 minutes. Yet they had to hang on for dear life to escape with a win when the stats say it shouldn't have been close.
New England also won without playing its best last week and won't cover the spread with a similar showing this Sunday. But here's perhaps the Patriots' biggest advantage over Pittsburgh: Nobody is more aware of the need for improvement than Brady and Bill Belichick, and their ability to use their heads and clean things up will be unmatched on the opposing sideline.
Pick of the Week: Falcons -5 vs. Packers
Using the fundamental numbers as a starting point again, the Falcons can fairly be given 2.5 points for home-field advantage and another 2.5 for their edge over the Packers as a team. But as with the AFC title game, the situation can serve as a guide to picking a side.
Just like Steelers-Patriots the home team comes in with extra rest, but to a far greater extreme. Atlanta had a bye when Green Bay played on Wild Card Weekend. Atlanta won at home last Saturday, while Green Bay was on the road and played a day later. And this will be the Packers' third road game in four weeks, whereas the Falcons haven't traveled since before Christmas. But even more significantly, this will be Green Bay's 16th game in 16 weeks since its Week 4 bye - that's the equivalent of playing a full regular season without a bye. Factor in that it's been must-win mode for the Packers since Thanksgiving, and nobody could fault them should they out of gas in the Georgia Dome's swan song.
Also working in Atlanta's favor, the sky-high total slightly diminishes the significance of each point in the spread. A team doesn't have to dominate as much to win a shootout by a touchdown as it does to win a lower-scoring game by the same margin. So with just a little more than an outright victory, the Falcons cover the spread while punching their ticket to the Super Bowl.
Last week: 2-1
Picks of the Week: 11-8