8 Things to Watch for as ‘Conference Championship Sunday’ Approaches

1. Can Bill Belichick contain Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell?

There might not be a better coach in the history of the game at taking away the opponent’s best weapon than Bill Belichick. He did it earlier this season when his and Matt Patricia’s defense held Le’Veon Bell to 81 yards rushing when these two teams met during the regular season.

That was a different Bell then, though. Bell has been the league’s best rusher as far as yards per game, carries per game, touches per game, and yards from scrimmage per game. Not to mention, the Michigan State alum is coming off two games in which he became the first running back ever to post 150-yard rushing games in his first two career postseason games.

In addition to Bell’s otherworldly talents, he’s running behind an offensive line that, according the NFL Research, ranks first in the league in yards before contact and fewest run plays stuffed.

But I’m sure Belichick is up for the challenge of devising a gameplan that seeks to make the Pro Bowler a non-factor on Sunday. He’s got a history of doing doing it — ask Thurman Thomas when the Bills played the Giants in Super Bowl XXV about the Belichick-led New York defense or ask Marshall Faulk how Super Bowl XXXVI went for him, going up against the Patriots and the Hoodie.

The magic number to watch — 90. The Steelers are 9-0 when Bell rushes for 90 or more yards. On the other hand, New England’s D has gone 24 games without allowing a single rusher to break 90 on the ground against them.

2. Can the Steelers defense put pressure on Tom Brady?

Think of games where Tom Brady looks, well, human. Actually, think of the games where he looks straight bad — Baltimore, Denver, Giants, even some Jets games when the Jets aren’t awful. Now ask yourself, what are those teams doing to give such fits to likely the greatest player at his position in NFL history? Pressure. And not just normal pressure coming around the ends or occasionally getting a blitzing linebacker or safety through a gap to hit the QB. Those defenses disrupted Brady because they got in his face. They collapsed the pocket, gave him no space, no vision, no sight lines, no chance of holding the ball long enough to get a WR open deep. Houston did an admirable job in the divisional round of getting pressure up the middle and landing body blows on Brady — it just wasn’t enough (and the Texans offense will shoulder a good chunk of the blame there as well).

But if the Steelers are successful, you have to think the Pittsburgh offense will take advantage of any extra possessions their defense affords them or turnovers they can get.

The key number here is 3. New England is 2-4 in the playoffs when Brady gets sacked 3+ times.

3. Will either New England or Pittsburgh’s defenses show cracks?

While both defenses are playing as stoutly as one could imagine, there are some legitimate concerns for both:

  • Despite the teams combining to go 17-0 since Nov. 14, how will each respond when playing against the quarterbacks that this game will feature?
  • Each defense ranks in the top 5 in every major statistical category — but neither defense has matched up with the offenses they will see Sunday.
  • These are two of the league’s most efficient offenses, according to DVOA — New England first and Pittsburgh 8th.

Of New England’s 17 games, only four were against teams ranked in the top 17 in points scored per game. Pittsburgh, you ask, is ranked where? Tenth.

During their current 9-game winning streak, the Steelers offense scored less than 24 points only once — last week against KC. The previous eight games they averaged 27 points per.

4. Will Pittsburgh be able to put past performances against Tom Brady behind them?

History doesn’t always play into the present. But it’s hard to look past it completely. Brady is 9-2 in his career against Pittsburgh. And against the Mike Tomlin-coached Steelers, the future Hall of Famer is 5-1 with 19 TDs/0 INTs. Yeah, those are the types of historic numbers that are hard to overlook.

For the Steelers to advance to another Super Bowl, you’d have to think they will need to put a dent in those pristine stats.

5. Can Vic Beasley disrupt Aaron Rodgers?

A fun matchup to watch Sunday will be the chess match between Aaron Rodgers and Atlanta LB Vic Beasley. Offensive lineman Bryan Bulaga and T.J. Lang will be tasked with keeping Beasely away from their mobile QB, but how Rodgers uses his legs, himself, will tell the story. The second year OLB led the NFL with 15.5 sacks. But few are better than Rodgers at moving the pocket and avoiding the pressure.

6. Which QB’s historically great hot streak is more likely to end Sunday?

One is likely the MVP of the league and has been the most consistent quarterback from week 1 until now. The other has been the best QB since week 12 when his team began their 8-game winning streak. The Big Ben – Tom Brady matchup Sunday night might not even be the best QB battle of the day. The Rodgers – Ryan duel could be a shootout of mass proportions — Ryan is ranked as league’s best quarterback according to DVOA and Rodgers is eighth. In addition, both offenses are ranked in the top 4 in efficiency.

One of the these two fantastic players will watch their season end Sunday, but don’t bank on it being either of their faults. Neither defenses in this game are stellar — even though people are hastily running out and making comparisons of Atlanta’s defense to Seattle’s. Let’s hold on for a minute though. The two units rank 22nd (GB) and 23rd (ATL) in team defense, according to DVOA.

Whoever’s hot streak ends Sunday might just be a matter of who has the ball in their hands last.

7. Can Mike McCarthy beat Atlanta without a run game?

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone — Mike McCarthy has never embraced a true running game in Green Bay. And when you have one of the all time greats under center, you don’t feel pressured to have some outstanding RB. One of McCarthy’s most magical tricks this year might be that he had Ty Montgomery — a wide receiver — carrying the bulk of the load out of the backfield during this 8-game win streak.

That said, the Packers ran the ball with incredible efficiency this year — ranked fourth in that category, according to Football Outsiders.

The answer to this question might depend on how the Falcons answer — will Matt Ryan come out slinging it to keep up with A-Rod or will Atlanta slow the game down, control the clock, and run the ball. How the Falcons respond will determine if Green Bay’s gameplan can work.

Keep this in mind, though: for all this hype about the Falcon defense, the unit ranks 29th against the run. If Green Bay chooses to run, they might have some space.

8. Is the GB defense physical enough to stand up to Falcon running backs DeVonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman?

Green Bay’s defense ranks 14th in efficiency against the rush — and they’ll need to be even better than that against Atlanta’s two-headed running back attack. The Falcons are seventh in rushing efficiency and are the best in football when it comes to driving down field and getting points — 3.06 points per drive, best in the NFL.

The Falcons outstanding efficiency has much to do with their balanced offensive attack. The Green Bay defense is going to have to pick and choose what weapons to stop and when — take a page out of the “Belichick” gameplan.

 

Feedback is always welcome through the website in the comments box or on my Twitter feed — @brian22goodwin.

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Author: Brian Goodwin

An educator for 15 years. I have a passion for sports and a passion for writing about sports. I'm very excited to run this blog and have conversations with people about relevant topics, mostly pertaining to sports but also in all aspects of life.

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