It’s not easy to have an underwhelming blowout win in the second round on the playoffs, but the New England Patriots did just that on Saturday night. The Patriots were supposed to blow the Houston Texans away, but as the clock struck halftime, Houston was within four points and there was real worry within the stands at Gillette Stadium. The game was never in real danger—Brock Osweiler made sure of that—but even Bill Belichick acknowledged, “We have to play better, we have to coach better than we did tonight, or there won’t be much left in our season.”
In victory, the Patriots were sloppy. Tom Brady completed just 18 of 38 passes and threw two interceptions. Even some of the passes he completed—a 45-yarder to Chris Hogan and one for 26 to Julian Edelman among them—were less than tight spirals and needed receivers to make tough adjustments with the ball in the air. It was Brady’s worst game in a while and it came at the worst possible time. Moreover, it came against one of the few tough defenses New England has faced all year. Their schedule was the easiest in football according to Football Outsiders.
So, is all of this real reason for worry? Probably not. Football analysis is often rooted in overreaction, so let’s not cede to that here. The Patriots are still the team that ranked first in DVOA during the regular season, Tom Brady is still the best quarterback of all-time and Bill Belichick is still the best coach of all-time. Their run game is as good as ever—not only did LeGarrette Blount rush for 1,161 yards, but Dion Lewis is also starting to make plays after a previously quiet return from injury. Despite a special teams error on Saturday, Lewis looks more and more like the guy who terrorized opponents out of the backfield last season.
Houston was also the best defense remaining. Given the history of New England’s offensive line, it’s worrisome that the Texans hit Brady eight times, per NFL GSIS, and sacked him twice, but five of those hits were between Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus. As good as James Harrison was on Sunday, the Steelers don’t have anyone on the level of either of those two players rushing the passer. In fact, Vic Beasley is probably the only player on any of the remaining teams who can reasonably claim to be on that level and the Patriots don’t have to worry about him. Pittsburgh is the best defense left (other than the Patriots themselves) and they have some issues of their own. No team can challenge New England’s offense in the same way Houston did.
Defensively, it’s a different story. Every mistake that Houston couldn’t take advantage of will be taken advantage of by Pittsburgh and, if they move on, Atlanta or Green Bay. Their margin for error is much smaller—a scary thought for Patriot fans given that New England was 26th in adjusted sack rate, 20th in DVOA against #1 receivers and 20th in pass defense DVOA against running backs.
All that being said, it doesn’t make much sense for the Patriots to worry beyond what would normally be warranted in the week leading up to the AFC title game. It’s telling that, as bad as they played, they covered a 16-point spread and the Texans still never really had a chance. Saturday simply served to remind us that the Patriots are mortal.
On to the games.
Championship Weekend Picks
Vegas Insider’s consensus lines are used. Home teams listed in CAPS.
FALCONS -4.5 over Packers: After last week, it’s fair to say that Aaron Rodgers is impossible—every time I’ve tried to talk about that throw this week, I’ve been reduced to a blubbering mess, stammering like King George VI, trying and failing to articulate just how incredible it was. The run that he’s on right now—six straight weeks of Green Bay scoring over 30 points, four straight with over 300 passing yards (the last two being over 350), 14 touchdown passes in his last four games and over eight yards per attempt in five of his last six games—is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. The interception he threw on Sunday was his first since November 13. It’s just unbelievable and it probably won’t stop this week.
Atlanta finished 27th in regular season defensive DVOA; in weighted defensive DVOA they’re 21st after last week. The Falcons will get a boost with Jordy Nelson’s (presumed) absence, but the fact of the matter is that they don’t have much of an answer for Rodgers. Even with Vic Beasley’s league-leading 15.5 sacks, Atlanta still ranks just 24th in adjusted sack rate at 5.4 percent. Compare that to a Green Bay line that ranks 11th in adjusted sack rate and can match up Bryan Bulaga—whose 90.4 PFF pass blocking grade is fourth among tackles—with Beasley, and it looks like Rodgers is going to have the time he needs in the pocket. Left tackle David Bakhtiari, center Corey Linsley and right guard T.J. Lang are also strong pass blockers, though Bakhtiari and Lang may still be dealing with injuries suffered during Sunday’s game.
In the secondary, I think Atlanta some individual matchup advantages if Nelson is out. Despite overall defensive struggles, the Falcons were 9th and 10th in pass defense DVOA against #1 and 2 wideouts this year. We saw Randall Cobb struggle in a bigger role last season when Nelson was out for an extended period of time and Jalen Collins is a tough matchup on the outside. His 83.9 PFF grade is 17th among corners this season. Robert Alford and Brian Poole aren’t exactly easy pickings either. Jared Cook led the team in receiving yards last week, but if the Falcons are in man coverage, he’ll be going up against Deion Jones, a frontrunner for defensive rookie of the year. None of these edges are immense, but they add up. Rodgers can still tip the scales in Green Bay’s favor—especially with time in the pocket—but in a high-scoring game, every minor defensive advantage matters.
Atlanta’s run defense has been horrific all year, but relying on Ty Montgomery is antithetical to the Packers have done all year. Only once has Montgomery had over 11 carries in a game. The Packers’ margin for error would also be thinner in this situation. If the Falcons build up a 10-point lead, it’s hard to justify running the ball over giving it to Rodgers.
On the other side of the ball, Atlanta is well equipped to take advantage of Green Bay’s cornerback troubles. The Packers are 28th in DVOA against #1 wideouts and 29th against #2 wideouts and those numbers include games from before their entire secondary got hurt. Green Bay may not be able to survive on the inevitable snaps where Julio Jones is matched up against Damarious Randall—or Micah Hyde if Atlanta decides to put him in the slot. Toss Taylor Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu into that mix and things could get downright ugly. Ladarius Gunter is the only reliable cornerback in Green Bay’s secondary right now and even he’s on thin ice with a middling 71.9 PFF coverage grade. The Packers can lean on their safeties if the Falcons go deep, but Atlanta has thrived on screens to Gabriel and the dual-threat running back combination of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Jones will also find enough space on relatively short slant or comeback routes to wreak havoc.
Rodgers has outplayed Matt Ryan over the past 10 weeks or so, but don’t underestimate Ryan. Deserving or not, he’ll probably be the MVP and Dallas nearly beat Green Bay last week with Dak Prescott—a markedly worse quarterback than Ryan. Even with Rodgers playing as impossibly well as he’s playing, Ryan is good enough that this game will come down to factors other than the Packers’ advantage at quarterback. And Atlanta’s wide receivers have significantly better matchups than Green Bay’s.
Moreover, Ryan will likely have time to work in the pocket as well. Chris Chester is a concern at right guard, but Alex Mack and Ryan Schraeder, both of whom have strong All-Pro cases, flank him and Green Bay’s best pass rushers—Nick Perry, Julius Peppers, Clay Matthews—all play on the outside. I’d bet on Perry picking up one or two pressures against Jake Matthews, who allowed a sack to Michael Bennett last week, but it’s a longshot to suggest that there will be any sort of constant pressure on Matt Ryan.
The Falcons also have a better chance at running the ball than Green Bay. Mike Daniels is a scary-good run defender, but Mack and Andy Levitre are both strong run blockers. Couple that with the fact that Atlanta runs the ball to the middle just 42 percent of the time. Ironically, the only team that goes there less is the Packers. If Green Bay succeeds in shutting off the middle—a tough proposition given that the Falcons are 4th in adjusted line yards in that area—Atlanta can just go to the left or right tackle, where they rank 10th and 4th in adjusted line yards, respectively.
Aaron Rodgers is the best player in this game—both the game on Sunday and the entire game of football. But one player can only take a team so far. Atlanta has advantages everywhere else and at a certain point, there’s only so much Rodgers can do.
PATRIOTS -6 over Steelers: As far as I’m concerned, this has been New England’s title to win from Day 1. The Patriots are the best team in football by DVOA and weighted DVOA, Tom Brady should win the MVP, their offense is among the best in football—even without Rob Gronkowski—and their defense is arguably the best remaining.
Brady didn’t look himself last week, but let’s not get carried away. He posted the highest ever PFF QB grade, 99.3 during the regular season and 98.6 including the playoffs. He was fifth in DYAR, second in DVOA and QBR, led the league in interception percentage and so on. With Patriots-Texans being the least interesting game of last weekend and Aaron Rodgers (rightfully) receiving all the hype possible, it’s easy to forget that Brady is still there. It’s also easy to forget just how lopsided this quarterback matchup is. Take a look at these numbers.
QB 1 on the road: 8 games, 1904 yds, 9 TDs, 8 INTs, 78.4 passer rating, 59.36 completion percentage, 6.73 yds/attempt
QB 2 on the road: 8 games, 1910 yds, 13 TDs, 7 INTs, 81.2 passer rating, 58.17 completion percentage, 6.24 yds/attempt
QB 1 is Roethlisberger. QB 2 is Blake Bortles. This week, on the road again, Roethlisberger didn’t exactly inspire confidence that the split was just an aberration either. He couldn’t seem to complete a pass inside Kansas City’s 30-yard line and the two biggest throws of the game—a 52-yarder to Antonio Brown and the 3rd & 3 conversion that sealed the game (also to Brown) came because linebacker Justin Houston was somehow covering the star wideout. The fact of the matter is that we can’t trust Ben Roethlisberger right now.
The Steelers also can’t trust any receiver whose first name isn’t Antonio and whose last name isn’t Brown. During the playoffs, Eli Rogers has just six catches for 46 yards. Cobi Hamilton has two for 14, Darrius Heyward-Bey has one for 10, Sammie Coates has none and tight end Jesse James has six for 89. It’s worth noting, however, that the bulk of James’ production was against Kansas City, a team that struggles to cover tight ends. Against New England, this lack of depth is a death sentence. Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia will be content to key in on Brown and the run game, leaving Logan Ryan and Eric Rowe, both good corners, to cover the other two receivers one-on-one. With Malcolm Butler, recipient of a 90.2 PFF grade, matched up against Brown, things are already tougher than usual for the star wideout. Remember, when the Chiefs didn’t mess up their coverage last week, Brown was relatively quiet. Take away that 52-yarder—a mistake that, if New England made it, would cause Bill Belichick to spontaneously combust on the sideline—and Brown had just five catches for 56 yards. If the Patriots can even limit Brown to 100 yards—nearly double that—the only place the Steelers will have a real advantage offensively is in the run game.
Make no mistake; the Steelers will be able to run the ball down New England’s throat. Even if Belichick throws eight-man boxes at Pittsburgh with regularity, the Steelers’ advantage up front may be insurmountable. The Patriots were good at run defense during the season—they finished fourth in run defense DVOA—but every place you look along the line, the Steelers have the edge. Not only did the Steelers rank inside the top-5 in virtually every run-blocking category, they were immaculate in PFF grading. The lowest graded player on their line, Alejandro Villanueva, finished with an 82.3, good enough for 24th among tackles. Not to mention the fact that what Le’Veon Bell is doing in the running game is roughly equivalent to what Aaron Rodgers is doing in the passing game. Bell’s patience, the way he practically teleports through holes that don’t seem to exist, is unprecedented. The Patriots can hope to slow him down—with Jabaal Sheard, Malcom Brown, Alan Branch and Chris Long, their four-man front isn’t half-bad at this whole run defense thing—but they can’t hope to stop him.
Perhaps New England’s best antidote to Bell is to be aggressive on offense early on and force Pittsburgh to move away from the run. It’s certainly not out of the question that the Patriots can find themselves up 10-0 by the end of the first quarter and dictate things from there. The Steelers’ defense has played well during the playoffs, but this has been an inconsistent group all year and facing Tom Brady is a hell of a lot tougher than facing Alex Smith or Matt Moore.
The Steelers, despite playing well at times, still finished 32nd in DVOA against #1 wideouts. In this particular matchup, the fact that Julian Edelman normally lines up in the slot muddies that stat a bit—slot corner William Gay was a bright spot for the Steelers—but the Patriots are going to be aggressive on the outside. Chris Hogan can beat up on the likes of Ross Cockrell and Artie Burns. If Michael Floyd gets on the same page as Brady—far from a guarantee—so can he. There’s also the issue of Martellus Bennett—every team struggles to match up with the tight end and the Steelers may not do much better.
Unless James Harrison can duplicate his effort last week, it’s tough to see Pittsburgh’s pass rush doing much either. Nate Solder will be a much tougher matchup for the 38-year old than Eric Fisher was last week—he’s a key part of a New England line that finished sixth in adjusted sack rate. The Steelers’ pass rush lagged this season, ranking a mediocre 19th in adjusted sack rate. Bud Dupree and Stephon Tuitt are among the Steelers’ most productive rushers, but Marcus Cannon has an 87.2 PFF grade at right tackle and while Tuitt may have an advantage over Joe Thuney, it’s marginal at best.
New England can run the ball as well, especially with Dion Lewis taking a bigger role. Lewis averaged 4.4 yards per carry during the regular season and the Patriots can win up front in the run game. More importantly, he’s a threat in the receiving game. The Steelers were 19th in pass defense DVOA against running backs and none of their linebackers are trustworthy in coverage. Expect Lewis—or James White—get free on a wheel route at some point.
It’s also worth remembering that as sloppy as Pittsburgh’s defense has been at times, the red zone has always been their calling card. Per Football Outsiders’ premium stats, they’re fourth in red zone defense DVOA. New England is eighth in red zone offense DVOA, but when you look at the splits further, their advantage becomes clear. The reason the Patriots don’t rank higher in the category is an abysmal red zone rushing DVOA. When you just look at passing — New England threw 356 times in the red zone compared to 104 rushing attempts—the Patriots have a dominant 60.9 percent DVOA. If the Steelers’ defense can’t win in the red zone, the Steelers cannot win this game.
Put simply, the Patriots are a significantly better football team than the Steelers. Pittsburgh may keep it competitive, but I expect a New England victory of 10 points or more.
Last Week: 3-1-0
All stats are from pro-football-reference.com, footballoutsiders.com or profootballfocus.com unless otherwise noted
 Is James Harrison’s (probable) PED use going to be the elephant in the room as long as he’s still playing? Has there been a more obvious usage of PEDs in the post-Mitchell Report era? It’s like he put no effort into hiding it, almost as if the NFL’s drug testing program is antiquated and practically invites players to use PEDs to compensate for the immense wear-and-tear football puts on their bodies. This is a massive scandal waiting to happen.