NFL Power Rankings: Conference championships

New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount (29) gains yardage as Houston Texans defenders A.J. Bouye (21) and Benardrick McKinney (55) pursue during the second half of an NFL divisional playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (Elise Amendola/AP)

We’re down to four teams remaining in the 2016-2017 NFL season as we head into conference championship weekend. In the AFC, the Pittsburgh Steelers will travel to Foxboro to take on the New England Patriots and in the NFC, the Atlanta Falcons will host the Green Bay Packers. With so much talent left, it’s time to rank these squads based on their offensive and defensive units.

Offense

1. New England Patriots

All four teams were among the top ten in total offense in the regular season, making this a tough choice. New England gets the nod due to their experience with star quarterback Tom Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. They posted 34 points on the Houston Texans last weekend, the same Texans who were the No. 1 overall and No. 2 passing defense during the regular season. With running back LeGarette Blount and wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell getting healthier, their efficiency should only improve going forward.

2. Atlanta Falcons

Statistically superior to the Patriots, the Falcons’ offense had a dominant regular season and carried that over to a 36-20 whipping of the Seattle Seahawks last weekend. They finished No. 2 in the regular season, while finishing in the top five in both passing and rushing. Offensive wizard Kyle Shanahan has helped quarterback Matt Ryan to a potential MVP season. Their offensive will remain explosive against the Packers and they arguably should be first on this list.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers

It feels wrong putting the team with the league’s best running back and wide receiver third on this list, but that’s the way it has to be. Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are both spectacular talents who had big performances in Pittsburgh’s wins over the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs this postseason. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a talented veteran in his own right, leading to a lethal trio. But the numbers very simply illustrate that as a unit the Steelers have performed a step behind Atlanta and New England.

4. Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers, fresh off a magnificent performance in upsetting the Dallas Cowboys Sunday, feels too low on this list as well. That’s what happens when there’s only four teams left, I suppose. Statistically, the Packers were behind the Patriots, Falcons and Steelers when it comes to total offense, as well as passing and rushing. They got off to a slow start this season and may be peaking at the right time, however a underachieving rushing attacks hinders Rodgers and company.

Defense

1. New England Patriots

Coordinator Matt Patricia has had his unit playing well the past several weeks. While they would have liked to have fared better against the feeble Texans, some flukes helped Houston pick up points. Their front seven has strong depth and the defensive backfield has a star in the making with Malcolm Butler, as well as the reliable Devin McCourty. They performed considerably better than their playoff peers, as they are the only team among those remaining who finished in the top ten of total defense during the season.

2.  Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers’ defensive strength lies in its experience. James Harrison is 38 and still out there making plays. Lawrence Timmons is an experienced standout in an intimidating linebacker unit. This postseason they have stepped up their play, holding the Dolphins to 12 points and the Chiefs to 16. Head coach Mike Tomlin’s defensive background has always served him well and their many clashes with the Patriots should help them in preparing for this weekend.

3. Green Bay Packers

Owners of the NFL’s eighth best rushing defense, the Packers will be challenged against Ryan and the Falcons this weekend. Unlike the offenses of all four teams, the defensive units were relatively unimpressive this season for the Packers and Falcons. The Packers were better statistically and boast the presence of playmakers like linebacker Clay Matthews and defensive end Julius Peppers. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett also stand out as talented players.

Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (95) sacks Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) during the second half of an NFL football divisional football game, Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017, in Atlanta. The Falcons won 36-20.(John Bazemore/AP)

4. Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons certainly hope the old adage “Offense wins games, but defense wins championships,” doesn’t have any merit to it. The Falcons finished 25th in overall defense and an even more discouraging 28th in pass defense. Going against a scorching hot Rodgers, that doesn’t bode well for advancing to the Super Bowl. The Falcons did hold the Seahawks under their season scoring and passing averages last weekend, but will need Vic Beasley, their only All-Pro defender, and his unit to contribute if they want to continue to win.


Matt Barresi is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at matthew.barresi@uconn.edu.