Heading into the NFL’s highly anticipated conference championships this Sunday, the four teams left standing are all peaking at the right time.
Pittsburgh is riding a nine-game winning streak, New England and Green Bay have both won eight straight, and while Atlanta has “only” won five in a row, they have averaged 38 points per game doing so.
Storylines abound entering Sunday’s decisive conference championship tilts, as they always do when elite teams are competing for a Super Bowl berth.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers saved the Packers’ season by running the table and backing up a boast made when the team sat at 4-6. The last victory – a 34-31 instant classic over top-seeded Dallas – included the same last-second heroics Rodgers has built his reputation on as he seeks that elusive second Lombardi Trophy.
Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to a similar surge after starting 4-5, putting himself in position for a rare third Super Bowl title.
Tom Brady has them both covered, and his stellar play has buoyed the Patriots despite the loss of star tight end Rob Gronkowski. Brady will appear in an unprecedented 11th conference championship, so he clearly laps the field in terms of postseason experience.
Experience is the key for Matt Ryan, the only QB in this year’s final four who has not won a Super Bowl. Ryan’s last playoff appearance in 2012 ended one step short with an NFC Championship Game loss, and on the heels of an MVP-caliber season he will no doubt be looking to get the Super Bowl monkey off his back.
Green Bay Packers (12-6) @ Atlanta Falcons (12-5) – Sunday 3:05pm ET
The first game of the day features two high-octane offensive attacks led by the two leading candidates for MVP.
Atlanta has put up over 40 points on five occasions this season, and just missed the mark in last week’s 36-20 romp over the Seattle Seahawks. The team tied the vaunted 1999 St. Louis Rams offense for total points scored, and their 33.8 per game average was by far the best in the business.
Green Bay has topped 30 points in each of its last six games, so this game should be a shootout. When these two teams met earlier this year, they combined for 11 scoring drives and just six defensive stops in a 33-32 Falcons victory.
The oddsmakers at the Bovada sportsbook like the home team here, giving Atlanta the 4-point edge in their early lines. As for each team’s odds of winning the Super Bowl, Bovada tabs Atlanta (+260) as slight favorites over Green Bay (+350).
Pittsburgh Steelers (13-5) @ New England Patriots (15-2) – Sunday 6:40pm ET
Roethlisberger has led the Steelers on nine playoff runs since entering the league in 2004, reaching four AFC Championship Games along the way.
Brady has taken the Patriots on 12 playoff runs over that span, including an astounding nine conference championships, but interestingly, the two have only crossed paths once – in the 2004 edition won by New England.
Roethlisberger was a rookie then, and he has come a long way since with two titles to his credit, but Bovada still puts the Pats on another level as big 6-point home favorites here. Pittsburgh’s touchdown-less 18-16 victory over Kansas City in the divisional round may have something to do with that spread.
The site is also bullish on Brady and Belichick winning their fifth ring together, posting New England (+150) as the clear favorite, with Pittsburgh (+425) bringing up the rear.