In spite of the recent boom in popularity for stacking teams, generally sports fans love the underdog. My Pops was always one of those people— if two teams were playing and he had no skin in the game, his boilerplate stance was, “You know me, I’m going for the underdog!” Some sports pundits believe fans bamboozle themselves into believing they want to see “the Cinderella team” advance towards a championship, when in actuality they don’t. There’s some truth to this; a Bucknell vs. Lehigh NCAA basketball championship would yield latrine level ratings, even if it is a remarkably compelling story.
Fortunately for the average fan, only one Cinderella usually reaches the brink of a title. This Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers are playing the role of “Cinderella”, not for their lack of talent (both have that in abundance). But they are both underdogs who each overcame four-game mid-season losing skids, and are now playing with house money as they ride white hot winning streaks into Championship Sunday.
Both games have a Cinderella vs. “the better team on paper” feel. Odds are only one Cinderella will reach Super Bowl LI. So which is it? It’s most likely the team featuring “Cinderella Man”.
Sidebar: Ya boy went 3-1 again last week (3-1 against the spread), giving me a 14-6 record in the Divisional round, and a 29-11 record in the first two rounds all-time. Looking to improve on a 4-4 Conference Championship record. Kenneth Hicks matched Anthony Hueston’s 4-0 on Wildcard picks with a 4-0 Divisional week.
(#4) Green Bay Packers at (#2) Atlanta Falcons (-5)
Before we jump into the NFC Championship, a final word on Dak Prescott and the Cowboys.
Dak was great on Sunday. He shook off some early jitters to be the catalyst for his team’s comeback that fell short basically because Green Bay had the ball last. And even though he lost the game, Dak won the job as face of the Dallas Cowboys for the next decade— that much was solidified. What remains largely undersold though is Dak’s performance relative to Tony Romo’s in 2014. The regular season stuff you should already know about (and the year-end stats are even more striking— 70% to 68% completions, 247 to 229 ypg, 34 to 23 TD passes, nine to four INTs, and a 113.2 to 104.9 passer rating for Romo and Prescott respectively). And while people continue to denigrate #9, ’14 Romo and ’16 Dak ended their seasons virtually the same way: A narrow divisional round defeat to the Packers despite an impressive performance by the Dallas signal caller.
As been my position all year, Romo could’ve gotten the Cowboys to this exact place if given the chance once he returned from injury. Still, Dak Prescott nearly matching Romo as a rookie, while playing the full slate of games and adding a mobility component to the position undoubtedly makes him the man moving forward. As stated here last week, this year just wasn’t his time.
It is the time time of Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
Even without his best pass-catcher, Rodgers was spectacular yet again, and made a throw for the ages inside the final 10 seconds of the game to set up the winning field goal. With the wizardry he’s now consistently pulling off in the game’s final moments, the man seems nearly impossible to stop. But to be fair, teams often struggle to send AR12 home.
Four of Rodgers’ six career playoff losses ended on the last play of the game. Perhaps more importantly, the Packers average 30.8 points in playoff wins under his hail holiness (he’s also put up 45 in a loss). So it would appear to beat him, you must be prepared to score 32 points, or hold Green Bay under 30 points, and it doesn’t hurt to have the ball last.
In their dismantling of the Seahawks, the Falcons proved they could score 32 points on just about anyone, legitimizing themselves as a confident Super Bowl threat entering the NFC Championship. They’re healthier, have a more complete offense with more weapons and they’re playing at home in the final game in the history of the Georgia Dome. The crowd will be bloodthirsty. (How often can you say that about an Atlanta crowd?) A Falcons victory wouldn’t be the least bit shocking. They’ve been undervalued all season and really should win this game…except for one obvious factor.
If Matt Ryan can take full advantage of the significantly hobbled Packers secondary and play Aaron Rodgers to a draw, Atlanta will go to the Super Bowl. But there’s little reason to believe at this point anybody could match or surpass the play of Rodgers. Playing indoors once again should keep the Green Bay offense humming— they again must get off to a quick start, and if Mike McCarthy whip up a way to neutralize the pass rush of Vic Beasley, the Packers will be sitting pretty.
This has all the makings of another instant classic. When Ryan out-dueled Rodgers in late October (he had the ball last), it actually launched the Pack into a tailspin as they dropped their next three contests. After the fourth L, Rodgers made his now famous “run the table” comment (which really wasn’t a prediction, by the way), and of course, they haven’t lost since.
Between this and the Rodgers magnum opus, it feels like the Georgia Dome is a special place for
Aaron Cinderella Man— I guess it makes sense for him to win the final football game in “The House that Deion Built”.
The Packers reach their sixth (they better have the ball last).
(#3) Pittsburgh Steelers at (#1) New England Patriots (-6)
In true Cinderella fashion, the Steelers keep pushing past my inaccurate predictions. They dominated Miami in style two weekends ago, and went into Kansas City and won a true road night game against a very tough and rested Chiefs team…without scoring a touchdown! The Steelers’ 18-16 triumph was the most unimpressive impressive win in recent memory. But now they travel to Foxborough to face a team that as recent memory would have it, beat the Steelers soundly earlier this year. Granted, Rob Gronkowski played that day and Ben Roethlisberger didn’t, so things could be very different. However less than recent history reminds us of Ben and the Steelers catching a fade in their last trip to Gillette 16 months ago.
Much has changed since then though…or has it?
All of the usual suspects on each team involved in that game will be there Sunday, except Gronk. And while their matchup this season was a bit lopsided with Landry Jones throwing the pigskin around, the Steelers defense did let up 27 points to New England at home, a fact that triggers the realization that even less recent history reveals that Tom Brady owns the Steelers in his career.
Beyond the hot streak Le’Veon Bell is on (337 rushing yards in two playoff games…cray), New England should be worried about the improvements Pittsburgh has made on defense. According to NBC’s Cris Collinsworth, James Harrison evidently spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on his body each year and, “Anything anyone puts in front of him, he does it.” Infer what you will from that statement, I already have. But he’s playing great, and absolutely forced a clear holding penalty on Eric Fisher the game’s biggest play Sunday night. The Steelers are getting to the quarterback (the Pats struggled to protect Brady last week) and they are LAYING PEOPLE OUT. Ask Matt Moore and Chris Conley.
Pittsburgh has its own issues though. Since halftime of the Dolphins game, their explosive offense has produced only one touchdown. Against the Chiefs, the Steelers were in the red zone four times and inside the 25 seven times and failed to score a touchdown. In two playoff games, they’ve only only produced one long touchdown drive that didn’t involve a 50-yard score. Why does that matter? Because the Patriots don’t give up big plays. So if Roethlisberger can’t produce long touchdown drives, they’re in trouble.
Bell may be the key again, but Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley would be wise to split him out wide and throw him the ball, a different look from what they’ve done the last two weeks. The Pats allowed only 3.9 ypc (eighth fewest), 88.6 rushing ypg (tied for third fewest) and six rushing TDs (fewest in the NFL) in 2016.
Sidebar: For all the lousy QBs the Patriots faced, look at the running backs they faced: David Johnson, Jay Ajayi, Lamar Miller, Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley, Matt Forte and Lesean McCoy twice.
We’ve seen better Patriots teams. In fact, we’ve seen better Patriots teams not make it this far. New England was far from sharp against the Texans (they still covered a 16 point spread though), even though Dion Lewis was phenomenal. Bill Belichick will need another new wrinkle this week— it’s time for Martellus Bennett to finally serve as the Gronk insurance he was brought in to be. Besides, Bennett was barely used against Houston, and historically the only player who destroys the Steelers more than Brady is Gronkowski.
Antonio Brown’s reprehensible Facebook Live post is mostly a non-story being forced into a story, much like the Giants’ boat trip. But like the boat trip, it opens the door for a distraction because it’s all anyone will want to talk about. Odell Beckham struggled and the Giants lost to the Packers; it’s hard to say if Brown will struggle, but he won’t be dynamic enough for the Steelers to beat the Patriots.
Don’t sleep— this is still “Deflategate Revenge Tour Part II”. Brady coming off a sub-par game, playing at home in his ELEVENTH(!!!!) AFC Championship Game against a distracted team we told you he owns during the preseason is a recipe for another Patriots Super Bowl appearance. Pittsburgh still covers.
With the fourth seeded Packers making Super Bowl LI, they are the Cinderella team, and Aaron Rodgers is Cinderella Man. Tom Brady is the original Cinderella Man. This is the matchup I predicted in the preseason—last week, we compared a Super Bowl super clash between the two legends as the “Kobe vs. LeBron matchup basketball never gave us”. In actuality, it’s the Jordan vs. Kobe matchup history couldn’t give us.
Kenneth’s Super Bowl Pick: Packers vs. Patriots
Anthony’s Super Bowl Pick: Packers vs. Patriots