NFL predictions and picks for the 2017 Conference Round of the playoffs from the experts at ESPN are here, and Sunday’s NFC and AFC games are intriguing. While the experts are leaning towards the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots, a few of the analysts believe the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers will pull off upsets. Anything can happen during the playoffs, and each of these games has the potential to be close to the very end.
Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots — Sunday at 6:40 p.m. ET
Despite not playing their best game against the Houston Texans in the AFC Divisional Round, the New England Patriots still won by a score of 34-16. Tom Brady, now 39-years-old, is showing no signs of slowing down, and he is always able to get the most out of the weapons around him. While the Texans presented a challenge for the Patriots on the defensive end, their offense was not exactly scary.
In the Steelers, the Patriots will be up for a much more difficult task. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is one of the top signal callers in the league, and he has the playoff experience. Running back Le’Veon Bell is the league’s top back, and wide receiver Antonio Brown may very well be the most precise route runner in the entire NFL. Simply put, the Steelers are a juggernaut on offense, and the Patriots defense is going to have its hand full on Sunday.
Big Ben and Brady are set to play in the AFC Championship.
13 of the last 14 Super Bowls will feature Brady, Manning and Roethlisberger. pic.twitter.com/xJMIRARCO1
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) January 16, 2017
While the Patriots are 6-point favorites, the Steelers are going to make this a very close game. As USA Today notes, the Steelers defense is much improved since their loss in Week 7 to the Patriots.
“It cannot be overstated just how far this defense has come since the first time these two teams squared off. Let’s hit the highlights of what is improved about this group. Week 7 was the first game back for Ryan Shazier after injury. He didn’t start and only played around half of the snaps. On the touchdown that sealed the win for New England, Vince Williams was out there and missed the tackle. Shazier is a heat-seeking missile and is playing lights-out.”
In addition to the improved defense, Roethlisberger missed the Steelers’ date with the Patriots earlier this season. They lost by a score a 27-16, but the Steelers were very much in the game without Big Ben. Despite things looking up for the Steelers, seven out of nine ESPN experts believe the Patriots will win this game.
Projected Winner: Patriots by 6
Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons — Sunday at 3:05 p.m. ET
Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers are the hottest team in the NFL, and they will face Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at 3:05 p.m. ET to decide who will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Seven out of nine ESPN experts believe the Falcons are going to win this game, and they are five-point favorites. Regardless of the fact that the Falcons are favored and playing this game at home, this is going to come down to the wire.
Both of these teams met earlier this season, and the Falcons won by a score of 33-32. While Ryan has been elite this year, Rodgers is somehow playing even better football. Many experts wrote him off earlier this season, but he has looked better recently than he has in years.
Matt Ryan: 38 passing TD in 2016 (2nd in NFL)
Aaron Rodgers: 40 passing TD in 2016 (1st in NFL)
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) January 18, 2017
While the Falcons are going to put points up, wide receiver Julio Jones is not fully healthy. As CBS Sports notes, Jones’ less than perfect health situation is a huge advantage for the Packers.
“The last time the two teams met, the Packers held Julio Jones to three catches for 29 yards. They’ll require a similar type of effort a week after Dez Bryant destroyed their thin secondary for 132 yards and two scores. But Jones is hobbled with a toe injury (the same one that hampered his production during the regular season). He was on the field for just 58 percent of the team’s offensive snaps against the Seahawks, per Football Outsiders. And according to Falcons coach Dan Quinn, he’ll be limited during practice this week. He didn’t practice Wednesday. Jones isn’t expected to miss the game, but he likely won’t be 100 percent.”
Jones has frequently been on the injury report over the past few seasons, but this injury may be more serious. Only playing 58 percent of snaps against the Seahawks last week is a cause for concern, and it is unknown whether or not he will be able to play more snaps against the Packers.
Projected Winner: Falcons by 3
[Featured Image by Jim Rogash/Getty Images]