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Conference Championships Preview

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

It’s very possible that this is the first time where the conference championships include the four best quarterbacks in that season. All of these teams are on hot streaks. The four teams combine are on a 30 game winning streak. What should be expected Sunday and whose streak will end?

Green Bay Packers vs Atlanta Falcons

What a combination of storylines converging in a showdown to earn a trip to the Super Bowl. Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers have won eight straight games and are still trying to “run the table”. The Atlanta Falcons have Matt Ryan, the likely NFL MVP, and the NFL’s best offense will be playing in the last game ever at the Georgia Dome.

Shootout.

That is what most people are expecting this game to be. The Over/Under for total points scored in the game is currently 60, but that even seems low. It doesn’t seem crazy to think 80+ points could be scored in this game. The previous matchup between these teams in Week 8 points to this being a very high scoring game. The Falcons ended up winning 33-32. Despite scoring 32 points, the Packers offense was without Randall Cobb, Jared Cook, and Ty Montgomery. The Packers’ defense is also more beat up than it was then with Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins, and Morgan Burnett hurt.

This might be a hyperbole, but whoever punts first might lose this game. That is how explosive these offenses are. However, the Packers offense may not be at full strength on Sunday. Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, and Geronimo Allison are all questionable and it is uncertain whether any or all of those three will play. The Falcons, on the other hand, should have all of their players available. The only player that was limited in practice on Friday was Julio Jones who says he will be playing.

The Falcons should look to establish the run game early to force Green Bay to go into more man-to-man coverage in the secondary. Given how beat up the Packers’ secondary is, highly athletic players like Jones and Mohamed Sanu should have no trouble getting open.

The X-Factor for the Packers will be Montgomery. No team in the NFL has allowed more receptions or yards to running backs this season. Given that Montgomery transitioned from wide receiver to running back earlier this season, this should be a perfect matchup for him.

This should be a very high scoring game that goes back and forth. The health of Rodgers’ weapons may affect the outcome of the game. However, it’s hard to imagine Adams and Allison not being able to give it a go. If the Packers have Nelson as well, that could put them over the top.

Prediction: Packers 42-41

Pittsburgh Steelers vs New England Patriots

The only thing standing between Tom Brady and a record breaking seventh individual Super Bowl appearance are the Pittsburgh Steelers. And the Patriots are the only thing standing between the Steerers and a record-breaking ninth franchise Super Bowl appearance.

Unlike the Packers and Falcons who are very pass heavy, the Patriots and Steelers both have more balanced offenses. Brady and Ben Roethlisberger can beat teams in the air. Wide receiver Julian Edelman on the Patriots has 1106 receiving yards and Antonio Brown of the Steelers has 1284 receiving yards.

If the passing game isn’t working, both teams can demoralize a team with its ground games. Patriots’ running back LeGarrette Blount has 299 carries for 1161 yards and 18 touchdowns this season. Pittsburgh may have the best running back in all of football in Le’Veon Bell who ran 1268 yards and seven touchdowns on 261 carries.

The Patriots boasted the best defense in the NFL in not allowing points. New England led the NFL in only allowing 15.6 points per game. However, this is probably the hottest offense the Patriots have played all season.

These two teams faced each other in Week 7 with the Patriots reigning supreme, 27-16. Looking back at the game is mostly meaningless, however. The Steelers were without Roethlisberger and were forced to play backup Landry Jones at quarterback. Tight end Rob Gronkowski led New England is receiving with 93 yards and a touchdown, but will not be playing in this matchup on Sunday. What is encouraging for Pittsburgh iis Brown and Bell combined for 255 yards that game with Jones at quarterback.

The Steelers need to put pressure on Brady. Since Week 9, the Steelers have led the NFL with 33 sacks. Getting Brady to the ground will be crucial. Letting the greatest quarterback of all time have time in the pocket will be devastating to a Steelers defense who are in the bottom half of the NFL in allowing passing yards.

It’s very tough to predict against the Patriots when history says that's stupid. That being said, the Steelers have won nine straight games and will win their 10th in a row.

Prediction: Steelers 31-28

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Should the Chiefs part ways with Alex Smith?

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The toughest thing for an NFL team is finding its franchise quarterback. There are not many quarterbacks in the NFL that a team would feel comfortable strategizing and putting all its resources towards.

The Kansas City Chiefs were hoping that Alex Smith would be that quarterback when they traded for him before the 2013 season. Is there the possibility that he is the right guy or should the Chiefs move on?

At first it seemed as if the Chiefs may have their guy as Kansas City went 11-5 with a trip to the playoffs in 2013 with Smith as quarterback. However, four years later and the Chiefs have yet to reach the promised land, a Super Bowl. In fact, the Chiefs have only won one playoff game in that time. Four years is not a very long time. It took Brett Favre five years to reach a Super Bowl. On the other hand, Favre was in his sixth NFL season while Smith is in his 11th season.

One thing to straighten out first is that wins are not a quarterback stat. It is very similar to how wins are a terrible stat for MLB pitchers. Obviously the better the quarterback the higher chance there is that his team wins. There are also many different factors that are involved in the outcome of a game that is outside the quarterbacks control, such as defense, playcalling, etc.

What do the Chiefs have in Smith? They have a safe and average quarterback. Smith has been known for years as a game manager. He is someone who is smart and can run the offense, but his physical abilities are nothing too special. Smith will rarely lose his team a game, but also isn’t good enough to carry his team to a win.

He is also very consistent and the Chiefs know what to expect. In the past six years, Smith has had a passer rating between 89.1 and 95.4 five times. This season, Smith finished the year with a 91.2 passer rating, which ranked 16th in the NFL.

The Chiefs’ roster the past few years has been constructed great for the regular season, but not so much for the playoffs. Since Smith has become the quarterback in 2013, the Chiefs regular season record is 43-21. A major reason for Kansas City’s success is its defense. In the past four years, the Chiefs have ranked fifth, second, third, and seventh in points allowed. Put an elite defense like that with even an average offense and the team will win games. That’s fine for the regular season when the quality of play is not that strong.

The problem is when the playoffs start. The Chiefs no longer play teams like the Los Angeles Rams, but instead play teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots. The common denominator between almost all the teams the Chiefs face in the playoffs is that those teams have above-average or elite quarterbacks. Even with a great defense like the Chiefs have, those offense are going to put up points. Smith isn’t good enough to carry a team in a shootout or if it has to score something like 24 points or more.

It’s possible the Chiefs can reach and win a Super Bowl with Smith. An elite defense and likely a very good running game would be needed and both would have to produce every game. It’s just not very likely. Smith is also 33 and is at the point of his career where he will start declining instead of getting better.

The issue is that the Chiefs are in a tough situation. One one hand, unless the roster changes significantly in the next couple years, Kansas City will have good records in the near future, but probably won’t advance far in the playoffs. That puts the Chiefs in a tough spot if they were to try and find a replacement. Unless Kansas City trades up in a draft, most of the top quarterbacks are likely to be taken before the Chiefs have their first draft pick. It’s also no guarantee that whoever Kansas City drafts would be better than Smith.

If the Chiefs want to win a Super Bowl, they need to find a new quarterback. That being said, Kansas City shouldn’t just dump Smith this offseason. The Chiefs should look to trade or draft a quarterback, but keep Smith as a mentor for a few seasons. Smith has a smart football mind and can help develop a new quarterback.

If Smith starts to decline the Chiefs can try out whoever their new guy is. If it takes time to find and develop a new quarterback so be it, but at least the Chiefs fans will still have a quality team to watch with Smith as quarterback

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NFL Divisional Round Preview

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Seattle Seahawks vs Atlanta Falcons

Can the Seahawks continue their strong play away from the comforts of CenturyLink Field? Seattle had one of the largest home and away splits this season with an away record of 3-4-1, while boasting a record of 7-1 at home

The matchup to watch will be Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ passing game against the elite Seattle secondary. Ryan should win the NFL MVP this season and will need another MVP performance for the Falcons to advance. These two teams faced off against each other in Week 6 with the Seahawks prevailing, 26-24. However, that game was in Seattle.

Atlanta’s secondary was poor this season, ranking 28th in passing yards by allowing 266.7 yards per game. The Falcons will need to neutralize Seattle running back Thomas Rawls, who had 161 yards last week, to give Atlanta’s secondary a chance. If the the Seahawks can run the ball and open up play action plays, that is bad news for Atlanta. The Falcons were average at stopping the run, ranking 17th and allowing 104.5 rushing yards per game.

Atlanta’s defense isn’t great, but should be good enough to hold Seattle to a respectable score. If the Falcons’ defense can’t, they have the offense to win a shootout as well.

Prediction: Falcons, 31-28

Houston Texans vs New England Patriots

This should be the least competitive game of the Divisional Round. The Texans won their Wild Card game, 27-14, however, it was against the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders were forced to play their third string quarterback, Connor Cook. Given Cook’s inexperience and lower skill level than starter Derek Carr or even Matt McGloin, it’s not surprising that the Raiders’ offense struggled against a good Texans’ defense.

This time around the Texans have to face future Hall-of-Famer Tom Brady instead. Houston will be starting either Brock Osweiler, who the Texans benched earlier in the year, or Tom Savage who is recovering from a concussion. Neither is a very good option to go against the Patriots elite defense. New England led the NFL in points allowed by only allowing 15.6 points per game. The Patriots running defense is very good, ranking third and only allowing 88.6 points per game.

Texans’ running back Lamar Miller only had 73 rushing yards on 31 carries against Oakland and won’t be very successful playing against the Patriots’ defense. If the Texans have to rely on the arm of Osweiler or Savage, the game could get ugly quick. There’s a reason the Patriots are a 15-point favorite.

Prediction: Patriots, 45-17

Green Bay Packers vs Dallas Cowboys

Similar to the Steelers, the Packers are coming into this game hot with a seven-game winning streak. The Cowboys were by far the most impressive team this season, losing only two games. Those two games were both to the hands of the New York Giants who the Packers just defeated in the Wild Card round.

This will be the first NFL postseason experience for both Cowboys’ quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott. On the other hand, both players have played this season as if both are seasoned veterans. The Cowboys will come into this game the healthiest they have been all season. Every active Cowboy practiced on Wednesday and everyone should be available for Sunday. The Packers will likely be without wide receiver Jordy Nelson, running back James Starks and cornerback Quinten Rollins.

Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense has been on fire the past two months and should put up points. Since Week 7, Rodgers is first in completions (150), passing yards (1591), and touchdowns (15). He also has not thrown an interception since then either. The key for the Cowboys will to win the time of possession game and limit the time Rodgers is on the field. Despite playing better recently, the Packers defense still has major holes. If Elliot has another good game, the Cowboys should win. If this is a shootout, the Packers should win. Elliot will continue his great play he had in the regular season into the playoffs.

Prediction: Cowboys, 28-21

Pittsburgh Steelers vs Kansas City Chiefs

This game is one that is hard to gauge who the favorite should be. On one hand, the Steelers are coming into this game with an eight-game winning streak with their offense playing really well. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thrown too many interceptions recently, six in the past four games, but is playing well overall. Also, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown are playing really good football right now.

Then again, the game is in Kansas City and the Steelers will be playing a very

balanced Chiefs team. These two teams played each other towards the beginning of the season and the Steelers dominated the Chiefs 43-14. That was Week 4, however, and both teams are different than when that game was played. Similar to how the Falcons need to contain Rawls, the Chiefs need to contain Bell. In the previous matchup between these two teams, Bell ran for 144 yards and ran for 167 yards and two touchdowns against the Miami Dolphins last week.

The Chiefs’ ability to pressure the quarterback has not been good this season, ranking 28th in sacks this season. Against the Steelers offensive line that likely won’t change so the Chiefs will need to make the Steelers offense one dimensional. Roethlisberger has made mistakes in recent weeks and forcing him to win the game with his arm could lead to turnovers. The Chiefs are a very good team and this should be close, but the Steelers’ offense is too dynamic to lose this game

Prediction: Steelers, 24-21

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