The saying is that “defense wins championships,” but as the NFL heads into conference championship weekend, the primary focus will be offense, offense and more offense.
Of course, that’s to be expected when four of the league’s most elite and capable offenses round out the sole remaining survivors — survivors that feature quarterbacks Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers.
But each team will need more than their future Hall of Fame gunslingers to come out victorious and will likely rely heavily on their defenses to make a Super Bowl appearance their reality. So with that in mind, here’s a look at five conference championship game X-factors.
5. Falcons fans at Georgia Dome
This past weekend, the Atlanta Falcons gave the Seattle Seahawks a little taste of their own medicine. Or should we say, their fans did.
Rather than playing in Seattle behind the 12th Man, the Seahawks traveled to the Georgia Dome and were on the opposite end of an advantage they usually have. They were drowned out by Falcons fans and it absolutely factored into the game.
One example of the fan impact seemingly came on an Atlanta safety in the second quarter when Russell Wilson tripped on a teammate. The safety trimmed Seattle’s lead to 10-9 and gave Falcons momentum they wouldn’t relinquish.
Falcons head coach Dan Quinn even praised the fans for their noise and support.
“When you have a crowd like ours, for sure it’s an edge,” Quinn said Monday. “I think anyone who was in that environment last Saturday night (knows). I asked people, and they said ‘That’s the loudest I’ve ever heard the Dome.’ That fired me up to know we are going to bring the same energy as they are.
“That pumped me up beyond belief to hear that was as loud as they’ve ever heard it. I said, ‘All right, if that is as loud as it can get there is only one challenge out there, then.’ We hope that same comment is happening next week. Can we turn it up again?”
You can bet that the fans will be even louder on Sunday. This will be the final game at the Georgia Dome, and Falcons fans no doubt will do everything they can to try and help send the stadium and their team out properly — with a Super Bowl visit.
4. Patriots defensive tackles Malcom Brown and Alan Branch
It may seem crazy, but if the New England Patriots are forced to pick their poison on Sunday, they’re better suited dealing with Ben Roethlisberger over Le’Veon Bell.
As talented and experienced as Roethlisberger is, he’s on the downside of his career and operates at his best when Bell is twisting opposing defenses in knots. Accordingly, a big key for New England will be to make the Steelers offense more one-dimensional.
Enter defensive tackles Malcom Brown and Alan Branch.
Bell has a unique running style in that he dances and dodges behind his offensive line, patiently waiting for even the slightest opening. Then he attacks, hitting whatever gap is available to him and dishing out prolonged damage that way.
To prevent Bell from going off, Brown and Branch, who aren’t exactly spotlight thieves on a very talented defensive unit, must step up big. Not only will they need to tackle well, but above all else, they must maintain their gap discipline. If they can plug holes to the left and right of the center and maintain their gap integrity while Bell dances from sideline to sideline, it will force the game into the hands of Roethlisberger.
At that point, it’s all about putting pressure on Big Ben and using a corner and a safety to keep Antonio Brown in check — a Bill Belichick specialty.
3. Packers cornerback LaDarius Gunter
The Packers have a dynamic offense, are making due at running back, field talented receivers, solid linebackers, a capable all-around offensive line and some quality at safety. One area they don’t necessarily excel is at cornerback, where injuries, inexperience and inconsistency have done them in at times this season.
All told, that’s a bad combination when you’re going up against the Atlanta Falcons and a high-powered offense led by league MVP favorite Matt Ryan.
After taking only eight snaps as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2015, injuries have thrust LaDarius Gunter into an important role. And although he dealt with some adjustment issues early on, he’s played enough reps this season that he now feels comfortable. And it’s showing.
In the wild-card round of the playoffs, Gunter shut down New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. He followed that up with a gritty, albeit less inspiring performance against Dez Bryant and the Dallas Cowboys. But on Sunday, he faces perhaps his biggest test in Julio Jones.
If the Packers wish to upset the Falcons, it’s really as simple as taking Jones out of the game. And while that’s much easier said than done, it all begins with Gunter.
Against the Cowboys, Gunter’s lack of top-end speed was evident and, at times, damaging. It gets no easier with Jones, but that’s an adjustment Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers will have to make. If they can roll a safety over the top to prevent the big play, it will leave Gunter in a situation to play to his strengths. And if he performs as well as he did against Beckham Jr., perhaps an upset will be on tap.
2. Atlanta pass rushers
There will be a common theme to cap off this list, and it begins with the ability of Atlanta’s pass rush to disrupt the rhythm of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers without allowing him to change the game with his legs.
It’s a precarious situation for the Falcons to be in, but one they must adapt to and overcome. And if they wish to do that, the onus will fall onto the team’s pass rushers — Dwight Freeney, Brooks Reed and, of course, linebacker Vic Beasley.
The obvious problem is that Rodgers is a magician. We saw it in Green Bay’s divisional round game when Rodgers drew up a play in the huddle, rolled out and hit his tight end in a window so tiny that a matter of inches may have led to an incomplete pass. These incredible plays by Rodgers are the danger of facing the Packers. And it’s why the Falcons’ pass rush has to step up and make an impact.
Similar to how teams gameplan against Tom Brady and the Patriots, which we’ll get to in a moment, success against the Packers’ offense lives and dies with the pass rush. But even when opposing defenses get pressure on Rodgers, he’s still capable of doing damage with his legs.
It’s for that reason the Falcons must rely on all their pass rushers on Sunday, including Reed, who made his presence felt against Seattle.
Not only do the Falcons need to generate consistent pressure, but their defensive ends must contain the edge and keep Rodgers in the pocket. Even if they don’t tally a ton of sacks, generating a rush and keeping Rodgers inside the hash-marks will dramatically throw off Green Bay’s offensive rhythm.
This won’t be about stats in the box score after the game; as long as the Falcons can disrupt Green Bay, they’ve done their job. If they come away with a handful of sacks, but can’t keep Rodgers contained and pressured, it will not have been worth it.
1. Steelers linebackers Bud Dupree and James Harrison
This X-factor may seem obvious, but if we’ve learned anything over the last decade-plus, it’s that in order to beat Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, one very specific thing absolutely must happen: the defense must hit Brady. Then hit him again. And then hit him some more.
The New York Giants laid out the blueprint in Super Bowl XLII, and it’s worked repeatedly since then. When Brady is pounded into the ground, he’s more of a Clark Kent than Superman.
That means Sunday’s AFC Championship Game could very well boil down to how the Steelers’ front seven handle the Patriots’ offensive line and their quality tight ends, including Martellus Bennett, who is a tremendous and under-rated blocker.
This is where linebackers Bud Dupree and the ageless James Harrison come into play.
Sometimes it simply takes players getting hot at the right time, and currently, Dupree and Harrison are scorching hot. The outside linebackers have dominated over the first two rounds of the playoffs with big hits, quarterback pressures and timely sacks.
“They have a lot of guys that can do different things,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels recently told WEEI. “[Harrison] and [Dupree], those guys, I mean they’re constantly involved in the rush … They’re extremely well-coached; [defensive coordinator] coach [Keith] Butler does a great job. I know coach [Mike] Tomlin has always done a great job with them.”
More than any other players in any other game this weekend, Dupree and Harrison will be deciding factors. If they can hit Tom Brady and throw off his rhythm, the Steelers could be going to the Super Bowl. If not, the Steelers will be going home.