The 2016 season has been a year of proclaiming the Super Bowl race wide open in either conference. The class of the NFC looked to be the Dallas Cowboys for most of the season, but they were just taken down by a resurgent Green Bay Packers squad, and the four remaining sides are currently riding a collective 30-game win streak.
All four remaining teams are red hot entering Conference Championship weekend, with just two games standing between them and the Lombardi Trophy. The strengths of each side are increasingly obvious, and each is on form at the right time, but what about the soft underbelly that could potentially be exposed and targeted this week?
What is the Achilles heel of each remaining team that could cost them a Super Bowl?
New England Patriots: Inability to generate pass-rush pressure
The Patriots' defense has been an underrated unit all season long, but the reason it continues to get overlooked is because it does have some weaknesses that could cause problems against the right opposing offense.
Against the Texans, the Patriots were able to pressure QB Brock Osweiler on 15 of 44 dropbacks (34.1 percent), but Osweiler was taking an unusually long time to get rid of the ball (2.81 seconds on average), with 61.4 percent of his passes taking longer than 2.5 seconds to come out (the highest mark among all QBs this weekend). Chris Long led the team in the regular season with 57 total QB pressures, but he had just five sacks and rushed the passer 429 times to get that total.
New England's strength has been being able to generate pressure across an entire defense, with six different players notching at least 20 total QB pressures this season, and one more (Alan Branch) sitting with 17. As difficult as that might make scheming against the Patriots' offense, it may make it easier for opposing offensive linemen that can just line up and expect to win their one-on-one matchups.
The Steelers ended the season with the No. 3 ranked offensive line, but they’re playing better right now than that ranking. This is the best offensive line in the game on current form, with three of their five starters recording perfect pass protection against Kansas City. Against the Chiefs, Ben Roethlisberger was under pressure just three times—one of which he was responsible for. This year has been far from his best, but Roethlisberger has still been pretty good when kept clean (101.2 passer rating on the season). When pressured, his passer rating drops 35.0 points, to 66.2, and he has thrown as many picks (five) as touchdowns this season when under duress. Pressuring him is the surest way to derail the Steelers' offense, but the Patriots may not have the defensive firepower to get that done, which will make it very difficult to stop Pittsburgh's attack.
Pittsburgh Steelers: QB Ben Roethlisberger
This can be firmly counted among things I didn’t expect to be the case in 2016, but Ben Roethlisberger has been a problem for the Steelers at times this season. His overall grade in 2015 was 93.5, third in the NFL; this year, it has slipped to just 80.5, his lowest since the 2008 season.
It’s not that Roethlisberger has just been consistently worse, it’s that his season has been a series of inconsistent swings. He has seven games this season with a grade of 80.0 or higher, but four games with a grade under 50.0, including one mark of 31.4, and one more at 51.6.
Roethlisberger has thrown five interceptions in his last three games, eight in his last five and nine in his last six. He has been a major turnover machine in that time span. In some of those games, he has been able to offset those turnovers with big plays and production, but in others, he hasn’t.
Against the Miami Dolphins, we saw the swings in his play in quick sequence. For instance, he threw the ball directly to a defensive lineman dropping into coverage, only to see it end up as a completed pass when the defender couldn’t bring it in; next he was able to make a nice play by avoiding traffic in the pocket and hitting his receiver across the middle—only to see that pass dropped and intercepted.
Right now, the Steelers have the league’s best offensive line. They also have Le’Veon Bell running the ball well, and a defense that is rounding into form. They are a team that suddenly looks very hard to find a weakness on, but all of a sudden, they have a QB capable of losing them the game with poor decisions and costly turnovers.
No quarterback has been kept clean as often as Ben Roethlisberger this season, with 77.0 percent of his dropbacks seeing him clean in the pocket. Including the playoffs, though, he has now thrown 11 interceptions without pressure being a factor, and those plays can be the difference in the postseason when games are tight.
Atlanta Falcons: Coverage out wide
Losing the team’s No. 1 cornerback, Desmond Trufant, for the season was a huge blow to a defense that was already not among the league’s best. The Falcons know their offense will put up points, but they will likely need their defense to help them out by slowing down the opposition at some stage, especially facing a team as red hot as the Green Bay Packers.
Against Seattle, the Falcons' top three corners gave up passer ratings of 135.9 (Robert Alford), 118.8 (Jalen Collins) and 118.8 (Brian Poole) when targeted. Collectively, they surrendered 10 receptions for 178 yards and a touchdown on 13 targets.
QB Russell Wilson—with the league’s worst offensive line in front of him—put up only 225 yards in the game, but Atlanta’s cornerbacks were routinely overmatched against the Seahawks' receivers.
Green Bay may not have a dramatically better receiving corps, especially with Jordy Nelson less than 100 percent, but they do have Aaron Rodgers and a far better offensive line protecting him. The Falcons will be unlikely to generate much pressure up front (itself an issue), meaning the back-end coverage is going to need to hold up, and hold up for longer than they are used to.
Wilson was able to target that weak spot and cause some problems, but he didn’t have the platform to be able to do it consistently. Aaron Rodgers will, and so will whichever team comes out of the AFC Championship game. That said, the Falcons need to up their game in coverage if they don’t want every game to become a straight shootout.
Green Bay Packers: The entire secondary
Atlanta’s back seven has some issues, but Green Bay’s is a disaster, especially with safety Morgan Burnett questionable with a quad injury after being taken out by his own teammate early in the Dallas game.
Green Bay came into this season with a very young and inexperienced group of cornerbacks, but they had shown plenty of promise. All of that positivity eroded over the season, with Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, in particular, suffering monster regressions in year two. Randall’s overall grade has tumbled from 69.4 as a rookie to 40.9 in his second season, while Rollins has seen his grade fall from 80.5 to 66.1. Ladarius Gunter has been the best of the group overall on the outside, but he has had his season punctuated by awful games, including last week against Dallas.
Gunter has surrendered either multiple touchdowns or 100+ receiving yards (or both) in a game four times this season, and has coughed up 769 yards in 18 games without recording an interception.
The Packers' linebacker and safety groups have been steady, but not impactful, in coverage, and have been better against the run than the pass, leaving Green Bay with major concerns about just how they are going to slow down the league’s best offense in the next game (and in the Super Bowl, if they get that far).
Atlanta has wide receiver Julio Jones ready to deploy, and Green Bay simply has nobody that can match up with him and come out of the battle with his dignity still intact.