Sunday, January 15, 2017

NFL 2016-17 Divisional Playoffs Wrap-Up - Saturday

Yesterday's games were both decisive, with the home teams winning. That makes the home teams in this year's playoffs 6-0 so far, with the two games to be played later today. Not sure that we have ever seen the home teams sport a perfect record this far into the postseason during the current playoff format, which dates back to the 1990 season. 

An intriguing match-up took place in Atlanta, where the Falcons hosted the Seahawks. Ultimately, one play in the second quarter probably resulted in the key momentum switch that helped to determine the final outcome of the contest.

In New England, the heavily favored Patriots won again, although Houston was probably tougher than most people (myself included) expected them to be. Still, with the win, the Pats are in the AFC title game yet again, and will host it up at Foxboro, to boot.

Let's take a closer look at yesterday's games:




Falcons Knock Out Seahawks

I did not watch this entire game, although I nonetheless probably saw the most critical turning point in the game.

It happened when the game was still very tight in the second quarter. The Seahawks were leading, 10-7, with 10:33 left in the second quarter, and they had just stopped Atlanta's offense and forced a punt. Devin Hester, the former Chicago Bears star kick returner, returned it 60 yards to help set Seattle up with very good field position. It was the second great return on the day for Hester, who may retire after this.

But this huge play that could have given the Seahawks a big advantage was taken away by a silly penalty, and instead of having great field position, Seattle instead had to start the drive very close to their own end zone. Not too much later, Russell Wilson tripped and fell into the end zone, and Falcons defenders were quick to close in for a safety.

That made the score 10-9, and whatever momentum Seattle surely would have had with that 60-yard punt return by Hester was gone. The game was very close, and the Falcons got the ball back. They drove it down the field fairly well, although they had to settle for a field goal.

Still, after all of that, they found themselves up 12-10 in a game that they could just as easily have been down by either 13-7 or possibly even 17-7. That makes a pretty big difference.

Yes, there was still plenty of football left to be played, although it seems clear in retrospect that if Seattle was going to win this game, then this one punt return was the play that they needed to capitalize on.

Before the half ended, the Falcons finally got the touchdown to make it 19-10, and they left Seattle no time to work with. That meant that Seattle had to go into the locker room down 19-10 in a game that they had played well enough to win, if things had gone just slightly differently.

But Atlanta is a tough place to play for a road team, and that incredible swing in momentum had to be gnawing at them.

When the two teams took the field again, the Falcons capitalized still more on their momentum, and scored yet another touchdown, making it 26-10.

Ball game. The final score was 36-20 in favor of the Falcons, but Atlanta essentially won it when they took that commanding lead in the third quarter. There was little doubt after that about who was going to win this particular contest.

Indeed, the Falcons managed to beat Seattle surprisingly convincingly, as they punched their ticket to their first NFC Championship Game appearance since that hugely disappointing NFC title game loss to the 49ers, the one which Atlanta lost after taking a 17-0 lead early on.

Well, Matt Ryan and the Falcons will get another crack at finally reaching the Super Bowl. It would be the first time that Atlanta as a franchise would have managed to do it since the 1998 season, when another surprisingly good Falcons team shocked the favored Minnesota Vikings and earned the franchise's first, and so far only, Super Bowl appearance. This year's edition of the Falcons have a serious shot at making it back there, however.



New England

Patriots Predictably Down Texans

The Patriots established yet more records in this convincing win against the Texans.

First and foremost, they won the game, and by so doing, earned an NFL record sixth straight appearance, and an 11th appearance overall, in the AFC Championship Game. Both of those are easily records. Those are quite a incredible records, and it speaks to the consistency and continuity that this team has played with during the Belichick/Brady era.

Speaking of that combination, this further establishes the combo's historical dominance, as it was the 23rd playoff win by the franchise with this coach/quarterback combination. For Brady, this was his 23rd career playoff win, putting him well ahead of the next closest competitor (Joe Montana, with 16 career playoff wins, and the closest among Brady's peers was 14 by Peyton Manning). Also, with this being Brady's record 11th overall Championship Game appearance, he pulls still farhter ahead of other greats in the game, again including Montana, who is second with seven overall, followed by the impressive likes of Terry Bradshaw, John Elway, and Roger Staubach, with six each. Among Brady's peers, Donovan McNabb and, again, Peyton Manning. And it gives still another shot at setting more records, and Brady will fight for a chance to earn his seventh career Super Bowl start (he already holds the record for the most Super Bowl appearances of any quarterback in history with six), and keeps alive his hopes of winning what would be a record fifth Super Bowl win.

Brady completed 18 of 38 passes for 287 yards, and he also threw two touchdowns. Julian Edelman once again served as Brady's favorite go to guy, as he caught eight passes for 137 yards. 

However, neither of those two guys was probably not the major hero for the Patriots last night, as running back Dion Lewis had the banner game of his career. He had a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, ran for one touchdown, and had still another touchdown reception. 

All of that sounds fine, although it should be noted that this game was closer than the final score of 34-16 would indicate. The Houston Texans played tough in this one, and after scoring early in the final quarter, they made it a one possession game, which means that they were still in it. In my predictions for the games this weekend, I said that the Texans would be lucky to still be in it in the fourth quarter. And although it did not last too long (the Patriots answered almost right away with another score of their own), I will say that I was impressed by how hard they played. They lost, but they lost respectably in this one.

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