Four teams remain in the race for the Super Bowl as we head into the conference Championship weekend.
The divisional round sorted the challengers out from the pretenders as the class of the NFL advanced to strike within one match of competing for the Vince Lombardi trophy.
The first two matches proved to be one-sided contests as the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots advanced with relative ease.
However, Sunday night witnessed two titanic clashes, with arguably one of the finest playoff games in recent memory taking place at AT&T Stadium as the Green Bay Packers advanced. The Pittsburgh Steelers surged into the Championship game for the first time in six years with a victory on the road.
The Packers strode into Dallas off the back of a convincing win over the New York Giants in the wildcard round, but were wary of the task ahead, having been beaten by the Cowboys earlier in the season.
However, Rodgers put on a clinic in the first half, scoring touchdowns on each of the Packers’ first possessions to hand them a commanding lead over Jason Garrett’s men.
Dallas proved their resilience built from the start of the campaign when they lost starting quarterback Tony Romo, as Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott brought them back into the contest in the second half, levelling late in the fourth quarter.
Mason Crosby nailed a 56-yard field goal to put Green Bay ahead once again, only for Dan Bailey to answer. However, a coaching mistake gave Rodgers too much left on the clock to put his team back in field-goal range.
He produced an astounding throw on the run to pick out Jared Cook on the sideline, who made an excellent catch to set up a 51-yarder for Crosby to send the Packers into the NFC title game.
Rodgers holds the key for the Packers as their defense was horribly exposed by the Cowboys in the second half. If he can maintain the outstanding level of form that he has displayed and the receivers keep making clutch catches, then Mike McCarthy’s men can lift the Vince Lombardi trophy.
The Falcons had a stern test on their hands against an experienced Seattle Seahawks outfit at Georgia Dome. However, after Russell Wilson drove the length of the field on the first drive of the game, Atlanta and MVP-candidate Matt Ryan responded emphatically by racking up the points.
Ryan disseminated the ball to a number of receivers over the course of the contest, while Julio Jones bested Richard Sherman in their contest, with the All-Pro wideout enjoying a solid day with 67 yards and a touchdown.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman were also productive enough on the ground to keep the visitors honest in their defensive strategy and easing the pressure on Ryan.
The Seahawks were unable to put enough heat on Ryan, which will please head coach Dan Quinn, as like the Packers with Rodgers, Ryan’s play is their avenue to success.
Their defense improved in the second half to keep Seattle at bay, although the scoring power of the Falcons’ offense made them one-dimensional.
This allowed their pass-rush to tee off against the Seahawks’ poor offensive line and trouble Wilson enough to keep him off Ryan’s pace.
The Atlanta quarterback failed to fire in his last NFC Championship game in the 2012 term and against an inspired Rodgers he will have to be at his best to reach his first Super Bowl., with odds of -190 with Bovada sportsbook.
The Patriots were expected to hammer the Houston Texans in their divisional round clash at Gillette Stadium. And although they secured a comfortable victory it was far from plain sailing for Bill Belichick’s men as they needed their defense to hold firm as Tom Brady and company sputtered at times.
Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney both produced excellent performances as they harassed the Patriots quarterback all evening.
Only Julian Edelman and Dion Lewis were able to break the shackles and put enough points on the board to ensure that the club advanced to their sixth AFC Championship title game on the spin.
New England’s defense were on song against Brock Osweiler as the Texans quarterback continued to struggle. He threw three interceptions with Devin McCourty, Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon all picking off the 26-year-old as he attempted to drag his side back into the contest.
The AFC East outfit have boasted the best scoring defense in the NFL, and with three potent offenses remaining in the race for the Super Bowl they will need to continue to be at the peak of their powers to secure the club’s fifth Vince Lombardi trophy.
Brady had an underwhelming performance against the Texans, throwing two interceptions. However, expect him to bounce back strongly as he rarely has two bad displays in a row, while he has an incredibly strong record in contests with the Steelers.
It might be enough to take them over the line and on to Super Bowl LI with Bovada Sportsbook backing them at odds of -230 .
The Steelers are renowned for their quality on the offensive side of the ball with the Killer B’s – Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell destroying teams throughout the season.
The trio were outstanding in their win over the Miami Dolphins, but did not quite peak against the Kansas City Chiefs, although Bell had another big game of yardage on the ground.
Pittsburgh could not punch the ball into the endzone at Arrowhead Stadium and were forced to rely on the boot of Chris Boswell to kick them to victory.
Brown and Roethlisberger struggled to connect in the redzone, which also culminated in an interception of the Steelers quarterback in the endzone by Eric Berry. Bell also failed to fire near the goalline, leaving Mike Tomlin’s men in desperate need of improvement ahead of their trip to Gillette Stadium.
Defensively, the Steelers have been one of most-improved outfits in the second half of the campaign and they were at their best to thwart Alex Smith and company.
They made critical stops, with ageless linebacker James Harrison earning a vital holding penalty to stop the Chiefs tying the game in the dying stages of the fourth quarter.
Rookies Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrove have stabilised the team, but their young side will have to produce another stellar performance on the road to make their first trip to the Super Bowl since the 2010 campaign.
New England Patriots to beat Pittsburgh Steelers
Atlanta Falcons to beat Green Bay Packers
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