ATLANTA FALCONS vs GREEN BAY PACKERS
Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons have already exceeded all expectations this season but Dan Quinn’s men will be quietly confident of reaching the Super Bowl for the second time in franchise history. Quinn, who has coached in two of the last three showpiece events with the Seattle Seahawks, has been simply sublime since taking over as head coach and he has played a key role in their rise to prominence.
Julio Jones is widely regarded as the best, if not a close second, receiver in the sport and the Packers will need to be flawless to prevent the Falcons man from making a positive impact on Sunday evening. On his day, Jones can win matches more or less on his own – as shown in his 300-yard game against the Carolina Panthers earlier this season. Meanwhile, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman offer Ryan some much-needed support out of the backfield.
Aaron Rodgers has kept the Packers alive on more than one occasion this year but this could be a step too far. This will be Atlanta’s last game in the Georgia Dome before their move at the beginning of next season and the Falcons will be very difficult to beat. This Green Bay defence has crumbled in the past and they may struggle to cope with the NFL’s number one ranked offense if Ryan and Jones get hot early on.
Ultimately, defence wins championships but I’m expecting the Atlanta offense to prevail in this clash. Home advantage is crucial throughout the postseason and the atmosphere inside the Georgia Dome will be nothing short of deafening come game day. Rodgers has had an MVP calibre second half of the year but Matty Ice has arguably been the best quarterback in the NFL this year – and I’m backing Ryan to lead Atlanta to the Super Bowl.
TIP: Atlanta to win (11/20)
ANYTIME TD SCORER: Julio Jones (9/10)
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS vs PITTSBURGH STEELERS
Tom Brady’s revenge mission is far from over; there is still a chapter or two to go. The New England quarterback has been playing angry since returning from suspension and he will be desperate to send a statement of intent to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell ahead of the Super Bowl in Houston. Even without star tight-end Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots machine and philosophy of ‘next man up’ just keeps on rolling.
Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown stoked the fire ahead of this clash after capturing head coach Mike Tomlin criticising New England in the Steelers locker room via Facebook Live. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has since brushed those remarks under the carpet but one thing is for sure: he won’t forget it. The Brady-Belichick combination has led the Patriots to unprecedented success in recent years and a fifth ring could well be on the cards.
Ben Roethlisberger and co will try to exploit the NFL’s best scoring defence; although that is no easy feat. The Patriots have struggled against the run at times this year but if anyone can break their resistance, it is Le’Veon Bell. Pittsburgh have leaned on Bell in recent weeks and the Steelers star has recorded over 100 scrimmage yards in seven of his last eight games. If he plays at his best, New England could be in trouble.
If the Bell, Brown and Big Ben trident perform well, the Steelers could topple the Patriots in their own backyard – something that doesn’t happen very often. For that reason, I have to side with New England in Foxborough. Tom Brady may be 39 years old but he is playing at a career-high level and that should be more than enough to get past this mediocre Steelers defensive unit.
TIP: New England to win (5/12)
ANYTIME TD SCORER: Antonio Brown (5/6)