Spread picks for NFL Conference Championship weekend
After a slow start to the postseason, last week’s games lived up to lofty expectations. With two road underdogs winning out, the two Conference Championship games feature the three highest-graded quarterbacks in the league to this point, as well as a two-time Super Bowl Champion and likely Hall of Fame candidate in Ben Roethlisberger. As with all but one game so far this postseason, both games represent rematches from earlier this season, giving us some reference from which to work as we look to predict who will appear in Super Bowl LI. Look for the Packers-Falcons game to be a value play in Green Bay’s direction, while it appears that Vegas has a decent bead on the difference between the Steelers and the Patriots in New England.
[Editor’s note: Analyst Eric Eager utilizes Pro Football Focus’ NFL Premium Stats in his predictive model. For more on Premium Stats, click here. For more game predictions, follow Eric on Twitter at @EricEager82.]
Packers at Falcons (-4.5)
Prediction: Falcons win by 1 (Packers cover)
In Week 8, the Falcons won a thriller 33-32 at home against a banged up Green Bay team missing Randall Cobb, Jared Cook and Ty Montgomery on the offensive side of the ball, and Clay Matthews on defense. While it appears that WR Jordy Nelson will be a question mark for this game, the Packers return to the Georgia Dome healthier and on an even bigger roll offensively than they were midseason. Since that Week 8 matchup, Aaron Rodgers has been the highest-graded quarterback in the league by a wide margin, generating 8.1 yards per pass attempt and a league-high 29 touchdown passes during that stretch (to just four interceptions). This level of play would be enough to elevate Green Bay as the favorite in this matchup—if Atlanta QB Matt Ryan wasn’t the third-highest-graded quarterback in that stretch, with a league-high 9.1 yards per pass attempt to his name and 22 touchdown passes (to just three interceptions). With Nelson injured, the Falcons’ skill position players are clearly superior the Packers’. Offensive line play is something of a wash, with Green Bay possessing the league’s highest-graded pass-blocking O-line, while Atlanta’s front five form the highest run-blocking unit in the NFL. The Packers and Falcons rank 15th and 17th in our cumulative team defensive grades, respectively, on the season, while the Falcons hold the clear edge in special teams (12th versus 23rd). In a game likely decided by one defensive stop, look for Green Bay (fifth in the league, generating a turnover on 14.0 percent of its defensive plays) to cover the spread against a Falcons team in the middle of the pack in taking the ball away.
Steelers at Patriots (-6)
Prediction: Patriots win by 7 (Patriots cover)
I don’t have as much confidence in this spread pick as I do in the previous game, but I do have New England with roughly a 66 percent chance of winning outright. While New England showed some rust offensively last week against a good Houston defense, Roethlisberger has had a down year by his standards, falling to 14th in our quarterback grades (80.8), after finishing three of four seasons with a 90.0 overall grade or above. The Patriots’ defense, second in PFF’s cumulative grading system on the season (second in run defense and first in pass coverage, as seen below), should be able to slow a Pittsburgh group that failed to score a touchdown a week ago against a leaky Kansas City unit. Alan Branch and Malcom Brown have been especially stout against the run, generating the fifth- and sixth-highest run-stop percentages among defensive tackles so far this season, while cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan are in the top dozen players in their position group in PFF’s grading system. As a consequence, look for Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown to produce far less than the 274 combined yards they amassed at Arrowhead Stadium, making it likely that the Patriots’ edge at the quarterback position—with Tom Brady, the highest-graded quarterback in the PFF era—will translate into an edge in points on the field.