The first Final Four I ever watched was in 1987, when Indiana's Keith Smart hit a baseline jumper to beat Rony Seikaly and Syracuse in the waning seconds of the title game. I might have owned a Seikaly "Hoops" basketball card, but don't remember.
Yes, that national championship game between the Hoosiers and Orangemen was ridiculously entertaining. Don't remember the other two teams in that Final Four, though. And that's what makes the NFL's conference championship games so unique. Everyone remembers who goes to the Super Bowl -- the final two, even the team that loses. Yet, the losers on Championship Sunday typically disappear into the ether of your mind -- alongside the other playoff participants who bailed out in the first two rounds -- despite the fact that they arrived at Super Sunday's doorstep.
The Packers, Falcons, Steelers and Patriots all intend to avoid that fate on Sunday. For Green Bay and Atlanta, the NFC Championship Game will mark their fourth postseason meeting, with none of the prior games being particularly close. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh and New England have locked horns in four previous playoff bouts, including two AFC Championship Games: in Ben Roethlisberger's rookie year of 2004, and at the jumping-off point of the Patriots dynasty back in 2001.
Now, let's get to it!
Elliot Harrison went 3-1 on his predictions for the Divisional Round, giving him a record of 176-86-2 thus far this season. How will he fare in the Divisional Round? His picks are below:
Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET, FOX
Dude, what a quarterback matchup for all the NFC marbles. Aaron Rodgers is being treated like the best player in pro football -- partially because he's performing like the best player in pro football. Matt Ryan beat him out for first-team All-Pro honors -- and probably will do the same in the MVP race, given Ryan's consistent catalogue from Week 1 on. So ... can either defense stop the opposition's red-hot signal caller? Will Rodgers take over the game in the fourth quarter? Will Ryan's last game in the friendly confines of the Georgia Dome provide the kind of audibling advantage that'll allow the Falcons to take apart Green Bay's depleted secondary? I will go with yes and yes -- although I'm not sure Rodgers' late-game heroics will be enough to send the Packers to their sixth Super Bowl.
The issue for Green Bay, and what could very well decide this game, is the run defense versus the fantastic tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Ezekiel Elliott ran over the Pack last Sunday, racking up 125 yards at a clip of nearly 6 per carry. What wasn't anticipated -- and might've cost the Cowboys that game -- was Dallas going away from Zeke at curious times. Atlanta's offensive line might not get the same push on Green Bay's front seven, but if you saw Freeman and Coleman versus the Seahawks, you know what they do for that offense. That diversity of the Falcons' attack -- a nightmare for any defensive coordinator to oppose -- is the reason why they posted the third-most passing yards despite finishing 26th in pass attempts.
On the other side, Rodgers' targets -- including Ty Montgomery out of the backfield -- present a mismatch for the Atlanta defense. If the Falcons can spy Rodgers, like De'Vondre Campbell and Co. were able to do a couple of times against Russell Wilson, they should manage a few stops. But if Atlanta fails to get any pressure -- something the Cowboys struggled to do all too often last week -- ruh roh. #GBvsATL
Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET, CBS
It's the team no one knows what to expect from when it's on the road vs. the team that seemingly never wins by enough to match anyone's expectations. The Steelers' road woes have been well-documented, particularly the hiccups at Philadelphia, Miami and Baltimore. While Pittsburgh did win at Buffalo in Week 14, many folks noted that it took a Herculean individual effort from Le'Veon Bell -- kinda like what he supplied last Sunday night. The previous night, the Patriots' 18-point win over the Brock Osweiler-led Texans was deemed underwhelming. Bill Belichick mentioning his team needed to play better didn't lighten the load of the Super Bowl-or-bust burden New England carries this time of year (every year). Will the pressure of trying to stop what is often the league's scariest offense -- with 50 million football fans anticipating they'll do so -- prove too taxing for the Pats to make their ninth Super Bowl appearance?
New England typically fares well under these conditions. Sure, the 2010 home loss to the Jets comes to mind, as the Patriots were the top seed that year and fell in the Divisional Round. But the only pressure Tom Brady caved to in recent memory was that of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware in last year's AFC Championship Game, sans any running game to offset it. Not a problem this year, as the Patriots employ the powerful LeGarrette Blount and shifty Dion Lewis, and are facing a viable -- but not dominant -- run defense. The balance should be there for Brady to not have to throw 50 times.
If Pittsburgh is to upset everyone's Super Bowl favorite, the premier RB in the league must come up huge (again). Bell's production over his last eight games is staggering: 1,431 scrimmage yards. That pace would produce 2,862 yards over a full 16-game season -- which, yes, would easily be an NFL record (by more than 350 yards). Bell's ridiculous output might not be enough if Ben Roethlisberger continues to be shaky away from Heinz (nine TDs, nine INTs, sub-80 passer rating this season). Methinks he'll play well, but the Steelers lose. #PITvsNE