Monday, January 23, 2017

NFL 2016-17 NFC & AFC Championship Game Wrap-Up

So, the match-up is now set! It will be the Atlanta Falcons versus the New England Patriots in this year's Super Bowl. 

Let's see how that happened:

NFC Championship Game

Green Bay



Atlanta Falcons 44, Green Bay Packers 21 - For a while there early on in this game, it was feeling a little like déjà vu all over again. The Falcons scored a touchdown in the first quarter to go up, 7-0. They notched a field goal not much later, to make it 10-0. Then they got another touchdown to go up 17-0. And so it was, in the second quarter, that they held a 17-0 lead, just like they had against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC title game four years ago, and we all remember what happened after that. The Falcons suddenly went lifeless in that one, and the 49ers, rather improbably, overcame that deficit to win the game and celebrated their Super Bowl berth. It as the largest comeback in NFC Championship Game history, and the second biggest in Championship Game history, period (the biggest margin overcome being the Colts over the Patriots in the 2006-07 season).

Only this time, things were different. This time, the Falcons were absolutely determined not to allow another collapse, like they allowed four years ago.

To that end, they were able to get themselves into scoring position after one of many Packers fumbles and mistakes just before the half. With seconds left, and with a field goal attempt almost assured, the Falcons star quarterback Matt Ryan, who had a truly spectacular day, threw a pass to the side of the end zone, and Julio Jones was able to just barely drag his toes while making a spectacular catch for yet another touchdown, and Atlanta suddenly had a lopsided 24-0 advantage heading into the locker room.

Not long into the third quarter, Ryan threw it to Jones again, and he beat LaDarius Gunter and then stiff-armed Damarious Randall, all while keeping his feet barely inbounds, and then raced down the field for a 73-yard touchdown, and a 31-0 Falcons lead. All in all, Jones had an incredibly impressive day, catching nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns, all without practice!

That touchdown, right in the beginning of the second half, sealed the deal for Atlanta. They were at home, red hot, and held a 31-0 lead. Ball game. The rest of the game was basically filler, with the Packers desperately trying to mount something in the way of a comeback, and the Falcons trying to run out as much time as possible. But the outcome of the game was decided with that incredible

Television coverage on FOX showed Aaron Rodgers watching that particular play, and kind of just sitting back with a face that betrayed his frustration following that play. Rodgers had himself a fantastic year following a slow start, and his assuredness that the Packers would qualify for the playoffs after dropping four straight games and sinking to 4-6 may have been the single biggest factor for their late season success. Green bay reeled off six straight wins to come back and win their division outright, and then beat the Giants at Lambeau and the Cowboys in Dallas to reach this NFC Championship Game. But once there, it was a nightmare for the Packers, and for Rodgers, specifically. They were trying to recover from that devastating loss two years ago in Seattle, the one which they seemed to have in the bag, only to have Seattle sweep the rug out from under them. Rodgers had himself a wonderful season, worthy of league MVP consideration, but he did not really show it in this game. His stats were deceptively impressive, as he finished by completing 27 of 45 passes for 287 yards and three touchdowns, as well as one interception. But the most important part of the game was early, as the Falcons built up a 3-10 lead that decided this particular contest. And up to that point, Rodgers and the Packers offense were riddled with mistake after mistake, and a large part of that was Atlanta's ability to get to Rodgers. He was on the ground more than I remember ever seeing him before, and he was scrambling and trying to evade pursuers throughout, and quite a few of his passes appeared forced and a bit off the mark as a result.

Rodgers counterpart on the other team, Matt Ryan, also had an incredible season worthy of league MVP honors. In fact, he is considered the favorite to receive the award. He completed 27 of 38 passes for 392 yards and four touchdowns and no interceptions in a solid performance that showed just how dominant he can be. This was the kind of performance that should silence all of his critics, although he himself said that before the doubters are silenced, the Falcons need to seal the deal and win this Super Bowl.

That's the spirit!

And you know what? Based on this very impressive performance against the Pack, I believe that the Falcons actually can win the big game, even as they face the dreaded Patriots, with Belichick and Brady. I am not necessarily saying that they will, but I admittedly was a bit surprised at just how good they looked yesterday. I had picked the Packers, but expected it to be a close game, and thought the Falcons had a chance. But blowing out the Packers as resoundingly and completely as they did? That was both startling and mighty impressive! 

AFC Championship Game



New England

New England Patriots 36, Pittsburgh Steelers 17  - These were the two best teams in the AFC,  so it was fitting that they would meet in this AFC title game.

The Steelers, much like the Packers in the NFC, overcame a four-game losing streak that saw them drop to an overall losing record, before they mounted a very impressive comeback, winning their final seven straight regular season games to easily win their division. They then dominated the Miami Dolphins in the Wildcard game, and just nosed out the Chiefs in Kansas City last weekend.

Their luck, however, ran out yesterday.

Of course, Foxboro is a very tough place to play, particularly in January. But Pittsburgh has not had much luck in recent years against the Patriots in general. Since Roethlisberger became the starting quarterback, the Steelers have compiled a 3-8 record overall against New England, and are 0-2 in the playoffs against them. If you add the two other losses, one during the regular season and one during the playoffs, that these two teams had during the Belichick/Brady era, then the Steelers are 3-10 overall against New England since the 2001-02 season, and 0-3 overall in the playoffs.

Yesterday's game basically underscored all of that. New England did not come out roaring and ripping apart their opponents, like the Falcons did in the NFC title game. Yet, they did do it in typically steady fashion, taking advantage of mistakes here and there, and slowly but surely building up a solid lead. They held a 17-9 lead going into the third quarter, when they absolutely exploded with two touchdowns and a field goal that basically put the game out of reach for Pittsburgh. They added a field goal after that in the fourth quarter, to make the lead 36-9, before the Steelers managed a garbage time touchdown to make the finally score look more respectable.

Brady was his usual impressive self, completing 32 of 42 passes for 384 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions. His performance was solid, and it allowed him to set yet another NFL record, as he now manages to reach his seventh Super Bowl as starting QB. he already held this record with six, which was one more than the next closest competitor, John Elway. Also, Brady will have a chance to break the tie that he has with Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana, as each of those men have won four Super Bowls as quarterback. Brady can get a fifth ring (one for the thumb) if the Pats win in two weeks.

Indeed, the Patriots now have the most successful coach/quarterback combo ever, and there really is no longer any debate. This will be the seventh Super Bowl appearance by Brady and Belichick, easily a record. And they have already won four together, which is also a record that they share with Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw, but which they can surpass with this win, should they get it. As a franchise, the Patriots earned their ninth Super Bowl appearance in franchise history, which breaks the tie of eight overall appearances that they shared with three other franchises (the Steelers, the Cowboys, and the Broncos all have eight as well). 

So, it was a bad day overall for the Steelers, who just looked like they had no answers against New England, either on offense or on defense. Roethlisberger completed 31 of 47 pass attempts for 314 yards, with one touchdown (in garbage time) and one interception. The Steelers lost the opportunity to reach a fourth Super Bowl with Roethlisberger at the helm, and what would have been a record ninth overall appearance for the franchise, which would have given them a chance to add to their record six Super Bowl wins. Instead, they will have to watch the Super Bowl on television like the rest of us. 

For the Patriots, this was basically the standard, expected result. Sure and steady, and grinding out a convincing win against a tough opponent. It was enough to get them back to the Super Bowl for the seventh time in the last 16 seasons, dating back to the 2001 season, when they also beat the Steelers in the AFC title game (that one was in Pittsburgh, though). 

This was the expected result, and already, the Patriots are slight favorites against Atlanta.

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