And then there were two. After the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots won their respective conference championship games Sunday, we now have our Super Bowl LI contenders.
The Falcons look like the team to beat right now after a 44-21 thrashing of the Green Bay Packers. Offensively, they were unstoppable. Defensively, they swarmed Aaron Rodgers like a hive of yellow jackets attacking a piece of raw steak. It was complete and utter domination.
We saw more of the same during the AFC Championship Game as the Patriots demoralized the Pittsburgh Steelers to the tune of 36-17. Utilizing a secret weapon offensively, they jumped out to an early lead and never looked back.
Despite the fact that we only had two games on the schedule, there were plenty of winners and losers from both conference title bouts. These are the top 10 that made our list.
Winner: Matt Ryan has Falcons soaring at the peak of his powers
Never have we seen Matty Ice so composed under pressure. Never have we seen him perform at such a high level when the stakes were this high. Ryan was a magician Sunday at home for the Falcons against the Packers, a team he owned from start to finish.
Starting on the game’s opening drive, Ryan showed off a legitimate mastery of Kyle Shanahan’s offense and delivered strikes all over the field. He ended up going 6-of-8 for 64 yards passing on that first drive, finishing with a nifty shovel-pass touchdown to Mohamed Sanu to put the Packers into an early hole (watch here).
Ryan looked like the league MVP both this weekend and during last weekend’s rout over the Seattle Seahawks. He finished with 392 yards on 27-of-38 passing with four touchdowns, no interceptions and added another score on a 14-yard touchdown run (watch here).
Atlanta has now scored 80 points the past two games against Seattle and Green Bay. This is an upgrade over what we saw during the regular season when the Falcons averaged a mere 33.8 points per game.
Ryan has never been this consistently good in his entire career. In his ninth career season, the 31-year-old quarterback is finally playing up to his vast potential and has the Falcons soaring to Super Bowl LI.
Loser: Green Bay’s defense MIA
A ton of credit goes to Shanahan, Ryan and the entire Atlanta offense. This was the No. 1 offense in the NFL throughout the 2016 season and is peaking at just the right time. But that doesn’t mean we can just give Green Bay’s defense a pass.
Whether it was the defensive front getting manhandled in the trenches, defensive backs getting ghosted down the field or straight-up missed tackles (keenly felt on Julio Jones’ huge 73-yard touchdown), the Packers couldn’t do anything right defensively.
And while players have to execute the game plan, just as much of the responsibility for Green Bay’s failure to stop Atlanta’s offense falls on defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who called an awful game. Too often, calls made by Capers ended up being exactly the wrong way to combat what Atlanta was doing. Players running the opposite way of Atlanta’s runs (by design), leaving the flats wide open for Atlanta’s running backs to take advantage, blitzing from the exact location that facilitated a huge play for the Falcons — all that was on display.
Capers has been with Green Bay since 2009. His defenses haven’t been great in recent years (No. 31 against the pass this year) and tend to get torched in the playoffs. It might finally be time for the Packers to let him go, though given the team’s reluctance to any change we’re not holding our breath.
It’s worth simply mentioning the numbers Atlanta put up Sunday, though. The Falcons gained 493 total yards, 30 first downs, went 10-of-13 on third-down conversions and scored 44 points.
Yes, Atlanta’s offense is fantastic. But the defensive effort by Green Bay was abominable, intolerable and unacceptable for a team contending for an NFL championship.
Winner: Julio Jones shrugs off painful foot injury for huge game
Julio Jones was unstoppable Sunday.
Catching nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns, his performance in the NFC title game was one for the books.
Julio: first WR w/ multiple 150-yard games in conf champ. Julio, Biletnikoff, Rice only WRs w/ 180+ in 2 playoff games, per @LawMurrayTheNU
— Chris Wesseling (@ChrisWesseling) January 22, 2017
Jones had to sit many plays out after enduring big hits, none bigger than when he was upended, landed right on his head before being flipped all the way around, only to hang onto the catch (watch here).
He was clearly uncomfortable on many occasions Sunday yet produced at a prodigious level — a sign of a man on a mission. With two weeks off to rest up before Super Bowl LI, you have to believe Jones is going to be a huge problem for the Patriots in Houston.
Loser: Aaron Ripkowski destroyed precious momentum on key fumble
One of the most pivotal moments this weekend revolved around one of Green Bay’s fan favorites.
Down 10-0, the Packers were finally getting some momentum going and had the ball in Atlanta territory. Then fullback Aaron Ripkowski carried a pile of Falcons defenders into the red zone. It looked like a fantastic play before he had the ball stripped by Jalen Collins, who fell on it.
Collins appeared to gain possession of the ball at the one-yard line, then rolled into the end zone. Ultimately, it was ruled that Collins didn’t have full possession until his leg touched the end zone (you can see the entire sequence here).
Despite that, the officials ruled it a touchback, giving the Falcons the ball at the Green Bay 20-yard line. It was a controversial call that didn’t sit well with ESPN refereeing insider Jim Daopoulos and many other NFL writers who watched the play live and on replay.
Ball should be down at the one yard line and Atlanta ball
— Jim Daopoulos (@RefereeJimD) January 22, 2017
Now, we’ll never know if the Packers could have stopped the Falcons from going 99-plus yards to score on that next drive.
Regardless, this huge mistake at such a key moment led to a blowout loss for the Packers. Instead of putting points on the board, possibly cutting it to a seven or three-point deficit, the Packers ended up losing any semblance of momentum. Nine plays later, Matt Ryan ran in a touchdown to put the Falcons up by the score of 17-0.
It was 24-0 at halftime and 31-0 before Rodgers finally led a scoring drive. By that time, the game was already decided.
Winner: Kyle Shanahan stock soaring
After engineering the NFL’s No. 1-ranked offense this past regular season, what Shanahan has accomplished thus far in the postseason has his already hot stock rising sky high.
His play calling during Atlanta’s blowout win over Green Bay Sunday was magnificent, and it’s just a continuation of what we’ve been seeing from the young offensive mastermind all year long. When the Falcons scored a touchdown on their first drive of the game, it marked the eighth game in a row that they had accomplished the feat.
Shanahan is presumed to be the next man in line to coach the San Francisco 49ers. It’s been reported that Falcons coaches have already been informed Shanahan will accept the job, and he’s reportedly already scheduled to meet with the club for a second interview this week (more on that here).
Obviously, the 49ers will have to sit tight another couple of weeks until after Super Bowl LI to officially offer Shanahan the head coaching job. But based on the way he’s elevated Atlanta to new heights offensively this year, they’ll be more than content to wait.
On that note, Jed York better be ready to make Kyle Shanahan a very rich young man.
Loser: Pittsburgh defense offers no resistance
Tom Brady and Co. had their way with the Steelers through the air, especially in the first half, and Chris Hogan was on fire (more on him in a bit).
At the end of the first half, Brady had already racked up 222 yards on 19-of-24 passing with the two touchdowns to Hogan and no interceptions. As a result, New England took a 17-9 lead into halftime.
Things didn’t change much in the second half, either.
While the running game never got going much, we did have a LeGarrette Blount sighting for the ages when he carried darn near the entire Steelers defense with him to the goal line (watch here) before putting the ball into the end zone one play later.
Julian Edelman came alive in the second half, joining Hogan in the 100-plus-yards club with eight catches for 118 yards and a touchdown.
In the end, the Patriots totaled 431 yards, 26 first downs, converted an impressive 11-of-17 third downs and demoralized the Steelers, who ended up looking very tired in the fourth quarter.
Winner: Tom Brady heading to his seventh Super Bowl
No other quarterback has had as much postseason success as Tom Brady. With the win Sunday against the Steelers, he’s headed back to compete in his seventh Super Bowl. No other quarterback has appeared in more than five (John Elway) and no quarterback has won five championships, which is something Brady can do in Houston two weeks from now.
Brady was darn precise against the Steelers, as we touched on discussing how putrid Pittsburgh’s defense was. Heck, barring his struggles against an amazing Houston defense last weekend, he’s been darn precise since coming back from his suspension in Week 5.
At the age of 39, Brady continues to amaze. Despite the fact that he’s only ever had one legitimate “No. 1 receiver” in Randy Moss, he’s put together a Hall of Fame career. He continually elevates the play of those around him and has never been a “me” guy, choosing to adhere to the team-centric philosophy of Bill Belichick.
And now he’s poised to set a new benchmark for Super Bowl success, though we’re pretty sure New England’s defense will have a lot to do with his fifth win, if the Pats can pull it off.
Loser: Steelers offense comes up small again
Sammie Coates and Cobi Hamilton both had huge drops. Hamilton’s cost the Steelers seven points. Eli Rogers fumbled. Antonio Brown didn’t even bother showing up until the second half (maybe his Facebook video really did have a negative impact after all).
Nothing was going right for the Steelers offensively in this game.
Then there was the brutal loss of Le’Veon Bell, who injured his groin early on and never was able to return, minus one play in which he looked like a shell of himself.
Ben Roethlisberger did what he could to overcome all these deficits, but even he made a terrible blunder in the fourth quarter trying to force a ball to Darrius Heyward-Bey down the right sideline. His pass was severely underthrown and Eric Rowe had no trouble stepping in front of the receiver for the easy interception.
Without Bell, Pittsburgh’s running game was almost non-existent. Roethlisberger finished with plenty of yards (314), most of it garnered in garbage time, and threw one touchdown.
But there is no doubt after the past two performances by this offense that the Steelers limped into the playoffs and only got this far because Andy Reid and Alex Smith are who they are. Sunday’s series of blunders, combined with Pittsburgh’s no-touchdowns win in Kansas City, were proof of this.
Winner: Chris Hogan was Pats’ secret weapon
Hogan was one of the biggest differences in the game for the Patriots Sunday night in Foxborough.
The first touchdown occurred in the first quarter. Hogan found himself wide open in the back of the end zone on the right side. When he caught the ball, there wasn’t a defender within five yards of him (watch here). This was partly due to his ability to find an open spot in the end zone and partly because Pittsburgh’s defense was confused on the play.
The second was just as bad on the part of the Steelers, who bit hard on a flea-flicker when Dion Lewis took a hand off from Tom Brady then pitched it back to Brady, who found Hogan wide open behind the defensive secondary for the easy touchdown (watch here). The big offender on the flea-flicker was safety Mike Mitchell, who really didn’t have to bite at all considering the Patriots hadn’t been able to establish any semblance of a rushing attack at the time.
Still, those weren’t the only big plays Hogan made. He finished with nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns, matching Julio Jones’ prolific production and proving to be the bane of Pittsburgh’s defensive backs.
Loser: Fans expecting competitive games
So much for parity in the NFL, right?
The playoffs as a whole haven’t featured much in the way of competition. Of the 10 playoff games that were contested this season, eight were won by 13 points or more. This lack of competition was magnified during the conference championships, with Atlanta pasting Green Bay by 23 points and New England waxing Pittsburgh by 19 points.
It made for rather boring football.
In fact, the only really fun game of the playoffs was the one between the Packers and Dallas Cowboys — a game that saw Aaron Rodgers pull many rabbits out of his hat, not to mention one that saw Dak Prescott prove he was up to the challenge of competing at the highest level.
The only other competitive game was the two-point affair between the Kansas City Chiefs and Steelers, and that was not exactly riveting until the very end.
Hopefully Super Bowl LI will finally provide NFL fans with a game that lives up to what we expect from the NFL postseason. So far, though, it’s been rather dreary.