Reaction to the Facebook Live video Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown shot in the locker room after his team's 18-16 win over Kansas City last Sunday is drowning out actual football analysis.
That's not so different from two weeks ago, when the New York Giants wide receivers' trip to Miami six days before they played in Green Bay in the wild-card round made all the news.
And then that mini-vacation dominated sports talk television and radio after they played poorly and lost 38-13.
The week buildup between games is part of the reason why football is so exciting, but with that comes the drawback of focusing (and hammering) on some off-field red herrings that have little to nothing to do with the actual games.
Anyway, onto the matchups, which can't come soon enough.
Here are the latest predictions for the conference championship tilts, with a focus on recent news that might affect the outcomes.
|Game||Line||Predicted Winner||SB Odds (Each Team)|
|Green Bay at Atlanta||Atlanta (-4.5)||Green Bay||Green Bay +375; Atlanta +260|
|Pittsburgh at New England||New England (-5.5)||New England||Pittsburgh +425; New England +150|
Odds via OddsShark
Green Bay at Atlanta
The Packers' and Falcons' wide receiver groups are so banged up heading into Sunday that you can't help but wonder if we'll see Donald Driver, Greg Jennings and Roddy White suit up for one-game returns to the NFL.
That's out of the realm of possibility (although it would be fun), but the situations in both cities are concerning, more so up north.
On the Green Bay side, four wide receivers are on the injury report.
Per a source that spoke to Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com, No. 1 wide receiver Jordy Nelson only has a "small chance" to play Sunday.
Nelson broke ribs after a big hit from Giants cornerback Leon Hall in the second quarter of their wild-card game. He missed last week's matchup against Dallas as well.
Nelson did practice on a limited basis Wednesday, however, providing a glimmer of hope that he could be on the field Sunday.
But the news outside Nelson isn't good for the receivers. From Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal:
Unfortunately for the Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Nelson’s not alone on the official injury report. Davante Adams (ankle), Geronimo Allison (hamstring) and Jeff Janis (quadriceps) also were listed following Wednesday’s practice. The only receivers on the 53-man roster who weren’t on the injury report were Randall Cobb and Trevor Davis.
The Adams news is particularly troublesome. Per Wilde, quoting Packers head coach Mike McCarthy:
With the way Aaron Rodgers is playing, Green Bay could hire a semi-pro team's wideouts for a weekend and he'll still find a way to score at least 20, but regardless, the situation is something to monitor.
Likewise, Julio Jones and Taylor Gabriel are banged up for Atlanta, with Jones battling a sprained toe and Gabriel fighting off a foot injury. Jones missed practice Wednesday, while Gabriel was limited.
Both played through their respective ailments last week in a 36-20 win over Seattle, although Jones left the game early.
Falcons head coach Dan Quinn did say that Jones will be "ready to rock" for Sunday, per Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com, but how healthy can he get by the weekend?
All of this leads one to wonder whether Atlanta could have the significant advantage going into Sunday, as (a) they have fewer wideout injuries, and (b) they have a consistent run game to call upon, unlike Green Bay.
But the bottom line is this: Aaron Rodgers has thrown for 24 touchdowns and just one interception in his last nine games. He's doing things no other quarterback has ever done in the NFL before.
Somehow, some way, Rodgers will lead the Packers to victory.
Give the edge to Green Bay, 38-34, although if a DEFCON 1 situation happens and all or most of the Packers wide receivers on the injury report have to miss the game, then the pick may change.
Pittsburgh at New England
The news this week surrounded the aforementioned Brown video and the Steelers' (and Patriots') reactions to it, but that story is already dying down.
Therefore, the focus in New England is on the field, where a lot of questions will be answered.
For starters, will Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger be able to finally shake off the road rust? Big Ben has only nine touchdowns in nine games on the road this year. Most notably, he also has nine picks.
Roethlisberger struggled against Kansas City on Sunday, going 20-of-31 passing for only 224 yards and a costly red-zone interception. Big Ben had issues all night when he got close to the Chiefs end zone. As Vincent Verhei of Football Outsiders noted:
He just isn't the same player on the road, as his career home-road splits (via Pro Football Reference) show.
Secondly, the matchup to watch this week is Brown versus New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler, which probably will go a little something like their commercial.
Who will get the edge in this one-on-one battle? In two previous matchups, Brown hasn't been ineffective by any means, but he has been slowed down a little bit. From Mike Clay of ESPN:
In Brown's defense, Big Ben missed one of those games (a 27-16 loss to New England this season). However, Butler (and fellow Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan) are two of the best in the game right now. Per Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus:
Put two and two together and the Steelers' aerial attack might have some issues this Sunday.
On the other side of the ball, Tom Brady and the Pats will score. Since Brady returned from a four-game suspension, New England has scored under 22 points just once, and that was in a very tough matchup in Denver that the Pats won anyway, 16-3.
The Steelers are not going to face a quarterback on Sunday who might do this:
Although Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell is on fire right now, it's hard seeing the Steelers pass game getting much going, and it's even harder seeing the Patriots offense being stopped.
Like the Green Bay-Atlanta game, the edge goes to the better quarterback. The Pats win, 31-24.