We’re at the business end of the NFL season now and the race for the Vince Lombardi Trophy has been whittled down to just a few teams. These are the four teams left with the biggest chance at glory come Super Bowl LI on February 5 in Houston, Texas.
New England Patriots (10-2, $3.30)
The Pats have had one of their strangest seasons in recent memory. They were forced to start backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and rookie Jacoby Brissett at the start of the season in the absence of the suspended Tom Brady but still went 3-1 in that time. In the eight games Brady has played since his return in Week 5, New England went 7-1 with the only loss coming at home against Seattle.
Despite this oddness, the Patriots are still Super Bowl favourites heading into Week 14.
At 39, Tom Brady is ageing like a fine wine, with career-highs in completion percentage and QBR. Much of that is thanks to the receivers that are around him, including Rob Gronkowski and Julius Edelman.
While none of those guys are at the top of the receiver rankings, the shared workload makes it difficult for defences when they have to worry about seven guys making catches rather than just one or two.
The biggest issue facing the Pats is the loss of Gronk with a season-ending back injury. In past years, the lack of a tight end would have crippled the New England offence but now with the addition of Martellus Bennett, Bill Belichick has a tight end to fill the gap left by Gronk.
It hasn’t been all on Brady this season – New England’s defence has provided much of their success. They have one of the stingiest defences in the league, ranking second in total points per game behind Seattle.
Oakland Raiders (10-2, $13)
Heading into Week 14, the Raiders are the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Holding a tie-breaker over New England – the Oakland outfit look on course to host the Patriots in the AFC Championship.
The Raiders are one of the more high-powered offences in the NFL, sitting fourth in passing yards per game (277.1) and third in points per game (28.8).
After a few seasons of mediocrity that left the team considering a move to Las Vegas or Los Angeles, a resurgence has seemingly come from nowhere, being led by third-year quarterback Derek Carr’s MVP-level season.
Carr is in the top ten in yards (3,375), TDs (24), QBR (100.3) and yards per game (281), seeing his receivers prosper. Amari Cooper’s 981 yards is good for sixth in the league and Michael Crabtree is in the top 25 with 785 yards.
The problem with the Raiders is on the other side of the ball. Their defence is one of the most lacklustre in the league. Sitting right near the bottom at 30th in opposition yards per game at 389.7, ahead of only Cleveland and San Francisco, they leak 24.9 points per game (22nd in the league).
The only bright point of Oakland’s defence has been defensive end Khalil Mack who has been making a case for defensive player of the year with four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and 10 sacks. This ranks him as second in two of those categories and third in the other.
Conference Championship Prediction
The combined strength of the Patriots’ offence and defence will prove to be too much for the Raiders. New England’s defence won’t be able to nullify the Raiders’ offence but will slow it down enough for Tom Brady to do Tom Brady things and let the Patriots’ offence win the game for them.
AFC Championship Game Prediction: New England over Oakland Raiders
Dallas Cowboys (11-1, $4.50)
Led by rookie sensations Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, the Dallas Cowboys have taken the league by storm and look like appearing in their first Super Bowl in two decades.
The Cowboys only loss came in Week 1 when both Prescott and Elliott started in their first NFL game against arch-rival the New York Giants on Sunday Night Football and even then, it was still only a one-point loss.
Ever since then, the Cowboys haven’t looked back. They’ve won their last 11 straight and appear like the best team in the NFL.
Behind Prescott and Elliott, the ‘Boys have one of the most prolific offences in the league, ranking second in rushing yards per game (155.8), fourth in the NFL in total yards per game (395.7) and fifth in points per game (27.8).
Ezekiel Elliott has all but locked up the Offensive Rookie of the Year honours, but has also made a case for MVP. He leads the league in rushing attempts (263), yards (1,285), yards per game (Elliott’s 107.1 makes him the only player to average more than 100 yards per game this season) and first downs (76).
The Cowboys defence has also held up their end of the bargain. While they’re just 18th in the league for total yards against, they’re second in rushing yards per game and fifth in points. So, while they may give up some yards, especially through the air, it doesn’t always result in the opposition scoring heavily.
Seattle Seahawks (8-3-1, $6)
The Seahawks are experiencing a rollercoaster of a season, but finally look like they’re putting it all together in time for another Super Bowl run.
When they’ve been on song, the franchise has dominated teams like they did in last week’s 40-7 win over Carolina. When they’ve been struggling on the other hand, it’s been hard to watch. Take the 9-3 loss to Los Angeles or a 6-6 tie with Arizona as a case in point.
The usually high-powered offence of the Seahawks has been somewhat stagnant this season, ranking 14th in passing yards at 256.4 yards per game and 20th in both rushing yards and points at 101.5 and 21.8, respectively.
Quarterback Russell Wilson struggled early, suffering an ankle sprain in Week 1 and a knee sprain in Week 3 that significantly affected the Seahawks offence as Wilson was confined to the pocket and wasn’t able to scramble and run like he normally would. Now with Wilson finally healthy, Seattle has looked more like themselves offensively.
The ground game has been a problem, unable to replace the production of Marshawn Lynch following his retirement. Starting running back Thomas Rawls has struggled with injuries, their most productive RB Christine Michael was released to make room for Rawls and backup CJ Prosise hasn’t played since Week 11.
As always, the Seahawks defence has been rock solid. They lead the league in points per game at 16.2 but have been giving up a little more yardage than usual, raking eighth in yards per game (330.3), ninth in passing yards per game (231) and just 14th in rushing yards per game (99.3).
A season ending injury to defensive leader, safety Earl Thomas doesn’t help matters with the Legion of Boom’s impact severely diminished when missing a player.
Conference Championship Prediction
Dallas has been just too dominant to pick against. The game will be won for Dallas on the ground with Seattle’s average rushing defence struggling to contain Ezekiel Elliott and depleted secondary looking vulnerable.
If Seattle are to win, they’ll need to do so through the air and take advantage of Dallas’ weak secondary while also keeping Elliott under 100 yards.
NFC Championship Game Prediction: Dallas Cowboys over Seattle Seahawks
2017 Super Bowl Match Up: New England Patriots v Dallas Cowboys
What do you think? Will Belichick and Brady return to the big dance to meet the on fire Cowboys, or will a surprise jump out from the pack? Tweet us your thoughts @nflnewsau and our predictor in chief @JacksonRussell
All odds have come courtesy of sportsbet.com.au