Top 10 takeaways from NFL Conference Championship Sunday

Sunday’s slate of conference championship action kicked off with the Atlanta Falcons absolutely hammering Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. The game wasn’t close from the outset with Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ offense absolutely dominating a weak Packers defense in a 44-21 win.

The day concluded with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots firmly handling the Pittsburgh Steelers for their seventh trip to the Super Bowl during Brady’s career with the team.

These were the two end results. They now mean that Atlanta and New England will do battle in Super Bowl LI in Houston next month. But there’s a lot more to take away from what we saw on Sunday.

For his part, Ryan proved himself to be more than up to the task of taking on Aaron Rodgers. He outplayed his counterpart in every imaginable way — tallying five total touchdowns in the process. Aided by the otherworldly performance of Julio Jones, Atlanta’s offense proved again that it was the best in the business. It did so with coordinator Kyle Shanahan likely moving on to be the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Packers’ defense —led by coordinator Dom Capers — was absolutely humiliated in every way possible. What does this mean for the team moving forward?

Back to the AFC Championship game for a second. The hamstring injury Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell suffered early in the game sure did play a role here, but that didn’t impact just how poorly his defense played in this one. Pittsburgh proved to be over-matched by Brady and Co. in a game that some figured would be closer.

These are among the top-10 takeaways from NFL Conference Championship Sunday.

1. Tom is indeed Terrific

Leave it to Tom Brady to upstage what we saw from Matt Ryan earlier in the day (more on that later). Per usual, Brady was absolutely fantastic in the New England Patriots’ 36-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. He connected with both Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman throughout the game, taking advantage of an inexperienced Steelers secondary in the process.

That was the game plan from the get. New England opened up with passes on its first five offensive plays, eventually leading to a field goal to take the lead for good. The idea here was to keep a greenish Steelers secondary on its heels. That’s exactly what the Patriots did throughout the evening.

Brady ended the game having completed 32-of-42 passes for 384 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions en route to earning his whopping seventh AFC title.

This is what we expect from one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play. He knew where the Steelers’ weaknesses were and exploited them on a consistent basis. Just look at this touchdown pass to Hogan on a flea-flicker as a case study (watch here).

Josh McDaniels’ play call was brilliant here. He knew Pittsburgh’s secondary would inch to the box thinking it was a run. He also knew Brady would sell it well. In the end, it resulted in an easy touchdown.

As the Steelers failed to rebound from this disastrous play, Brady himself picked apart the defense at a clip we’ve rarely seen from a quarterback in postseason history.

Now, one win away from becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to win five Super Bowls, Brady continues to etch his name in the history books. His otherworldly performance on Sunday is just the latest example of this.

2. Matt Ryan is on a completely different level

Precision. That’s the best word we can use to describe what Ryan did to a disastrous Packers pass defense on Sunday. The stats tell us a story. He completed 27-of-38 passes for 392 yards with five total touchdowns in the 23-point win. That’s fine. That’s boxscore scouting in its clearest form. Though, it’s the tape that tells us another story.

From this touchdown strike to open the scoring to a improvisational 14-yard touchdown run and this 73-yard strike to Julio Jones, Ryan proved that he was the better of two quarterbacks on the field at the Georgia Dome on Sunday. That’s no small feat considering Aaron Rodgers headed into the conference title game having thrown 24 touchdowns compared to one pick in his previous nine games.

Ryan entered this weekend’s action with questions about his ability to win the big game. History itself told us a story of a quarterback that came up small when it counted the most. This narrative was somewhat thrown out the window following his performance in the divisional round, but it was going to remain there until he earned that elusive Super Bowl appearance.

Following Sunday’s blowout win over Green Bay, that narrative can be squashed. Ryan has now tossed 17 touchdowns and zero picks during the Falcons’ current six-game winning streak, leading the team to an average of 37.3 points during that span. He’s arrived. He’s the real deal. And the Falcons have benefited from his presence with the organization’s second Super Bowl appearance.

3. Steelers simply fail to show up 

We won’t really know if Antonio Brown’s postgame video following last week’s win was a major distraction for the Steelers. What we do know is that the team failed to show up in every way imaginable.

Its receivers, Brown included, failed to do anything of real substance against the No. 1-scoring defense in the NFL. Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger seemed off his game. Surely not 100 percent, accuracy was a major issue for the two-time Super Bowl winner. That had a direct impact on the outcome Sunday evening at Gillette Stadium.

Some will surely blame the groin injury Le’Veon Bell suffered early in the game. And in reality, that sure did play a role. After all, here’s a dude that put up 2,200 total yards in 14 games, postseason included, prior to Sunday’s outing. Losing him was a massive blow for a Steelers offense that has been more about Bell than Big Ben this season.

However, Bell’s absence didn’t help the Patriots put up 431 total yards while converting on 11-of-17 third-down opportunities. It didn’t lead to Antonio Brown struggling to do anything until the game was out of hand. It surely didn’t impact an inexperienced Steelers secondary being torched by Brady and Co. After all, the combination of Hogan and Edelman caught 17-of-22 targets for 298 yards and three touchdowns. Bell’s presence wouldn’t have changed that.

How a team fails to show up on one of the game’s grandest stages is beyond us. It makes absolutely no sense. And it speaks to organization-wide issues for the Steelers.

Did Mike Tomlin fail in preparing for the juggernaut that is New England? This is surely a question hat will be asked in Pittsburgh over the next several months. What we do know is that the Steelers simply didn’t show up when it counted the most. That’s embarrassing.

4. Packers defense continues playoff implosion

There’s a theory in play here that suggests the Green Bay Packers’ defense fails from a schematic standpoint in the postseason under coordinator Dom Capers. Heading into Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against Atlanta, this unit had yielded over 25 points per game in its past 10 playoff outings dating back to 2011.

Unfortunately for the Packers, Sunday’s performance was about as bad as it can get from a defensive standpoint. When all was said and done, this unit yielded 44 points, 493 total yards and 30 first downs in a blowout 44-21 loss to MVP candidate Matt Ryan and the Falcons.

As Micah Hyde and other defenders went down to injury, it was apparent that Capers and Co. were helpless against the onslaught that Ryan brought to the table. It really was a darned if you do, darned if you don’t proposition for the Packers’ defense here. They started out in zone coverage and were burned continually. As the game progressed, Green Bay went to straight man defense. That was an utter failure with Julio Jones dominating the likes of Quinten Rollins and LaDarius Gunter.

We can’t blame the Packers for not having the personnel to stop the league’s top-scoring offense. Heck the Seattle Seahawks and the Legion of Boom couldn’t compete in the divisional round.

We can, however, blame Capers for struggling to throw out a scheme that had any sort of chance to compete against this high-flying offense. Zone didn’t work. Man proved to be a failure. All the while, Green Bay failed to mix up its pass rush throughout the day. That primarily left Ryan with a clean pocket to pick apart an under-manned secondary.

That’s on Capers. And in reality, that’s been the theme for the defensive coordinator in the playoffs since he took over this unit back in 2009.

5. 49ers are presumably getting an offensive genius

He now can’t officially be hired until February 5th, but we’re still going to assume that Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will be the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. The two sides will meet late in the week. It’s a meeting that will likely include them running through potential general manager candidates (more on that here).

Based on the reactions we saw from others around the NFL on Sunday, the likely addition of Shanahan as their new head coach will be a coup for the 49ers.

Let’s be real here for a second. We have no idea if Shanahan is going to be a tremendous head coach. What we do know is that he’s a brilliant offensive mind. That was proved to a T in Atlanta’s win over Green Bay on Sunday. And no matter the talent the Falcons possess on that side of the ball, it was clear that he had a schematic advantage over the aforementioned Capers.

Surely there’s going to be a learning curve in San Francisco. It will be Shanahan’s first time as a head coach at any level. He doesn’t have anywhere near the talent on offense we see in Atlanta. Matt Ryan isn’t walking through that door. Julio Jones isn’t walking through that door.

But at the end of the day, San Francisco made the calculated decision to let the process play out. It now looks like a genius move. Of course, that’s dependent on Shanahan actually taking the job in an official manner. After all, there’s a certain owner in Indianapolis that might be thinking long and hard about this possibility following the firing of his general manager.

As it is, the 49ers are presumably getting an offensive genius to be their new head coach. All the while, their former head guy may end up replacing Shanahan in Atlanta. Just think about that one for a second.

6. Chris Hogan, postseason hero 

A former undrafted free agent of the San Francisco 49ers, Chris Hogan was released by the then Jim Harbaugh-led team immediately prior to the start of the 2011 season. He would end up catching on with the New York Giants, only to be released two weeks later. Apparently two teams’ junk is one team’s gold.

Hogan, who actually performed at a relatively high level for the Buffalo Bills from 2012-15, signed a  three-year, $12 million restricted free agent deal with New England last March. It’s a contract the division-rival Bills refused to match. And in reality, it tells us a story of two completely different organizations within the AFC East.

This was magnified and then some Sunday against Pittsburgh. With Michael Floyd a healthy inactive, Hogan absolutely dominated a weak Steelers secondary to the tune of nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns. It was a career-best performance from Hogan. And it just goes to show us how far above every other organization the Patriots are when it comes to their player personnel department.

Moving forward, this can’t be seen as a fluke. Hogan has been finding himself in an increasingly good relationship with Brady. He’s also taken on a larger role as the season progressed. The culmination of this was Sunday’s ridiculous performance from the former undrafted free agent. Now set to take on the Falcons in Super Bowl LI, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Hogan’s name is heard more again here in two weeks.

7. Patriots’ long-term vision proves to be a winner

By now it’s well known that the Patriots will be making their seventh Super Bowl appearance in the 17 years of the Bill Belichick era. That’s absolutely insane. Also well known is the fact that Tom Brady has another opportunity to break the record for the most Super Bowl wins for a quarterback in league history.

All this is fine and dandy. It’s what matters. The consistent success. The Lombardi’s. The trophy case that would make pretty much every other NFL organization jealous. But this isn’t on accident. They didn’t luck into this success.

In previewing NFL Conference Championship Weekend, we wondered aloud whether the Patriots would struggle to stop a high-flying Steelers offense after trading defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Jamie Collins within the past calendar year. Did their long-term vision finally give in to short-term failure? Well, that was answered and then some Sunday evening against the Steelers.

The Patriots’ pass rush didn’t necessarily show up here. Big Ben was not sacked in the game and only saw himself hit to the ground three times. That might be an issue in Super Bowl LI against Atlanta, but the team’s secondary made sure that it was more than up to the task here. That’s big. It also tells us a story of a Patriots organization that knows exactly what it has in personnel and schemes to its strengths.

Now one win from making their mark in the record books, it’s important that we look at those behind the scenes that’s made this work. Brady will get a ton of praise, as will Belichick. But in reality, the team’s player personnel department and its long-term vision is what’s helped New England has sustainable success over the past near two decades.

8. Toughing it out in January

We have to give Packers reciver Jordy Nelson credit for playing through broken ribs on Sunday. It’s an injury that was so bad he had to legitimately wear military-style great to protect said ribs. Even in defeat, Nelson ended up tallying six receptions for 67 yards and one touchdown. That’s amazing considering the injury he was playing through.

The same thing can be said for star Falcons receiver Julio Jones, who was reportedly playing through three different foot injuries, including two ligament issues.

Unlike Nelson, Jones’ performance came in a resounding win that sends his team to Super Bowl LI. Jones recorded nine receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns.

Now with a week off to heal, Jones should be fine for the Super Bowl against New England. Heck, look what he did at about 50 percent on Sunday.

In a game that saw multiple players leave to injury, it was really awesome to see these two receivers tough it out. Their respective teams needed them big time, and they showed exactly what January football is all about.  It’s all about putting everything you have out there and leaving it on the field. Both of these players did that and more on Sunday.

9. Big Ben’s regression

Heading into Conference Championship Sunday there was some talk that Ben Roethlisberger might be the worst remaining quarterback in the playoffs. This isn’t to discredit what he’s done in the past. It also didn’t take into account how each quarterback has performed throughout their careers. Instead, it was all about this season. That in and of itself is important. It also tells us a story about a quarterback in Pittsburgh that has regressed.

Despite winning their final five games heading into Sunday’s action, the Steelers didn’t get much of anything from Big Ben. That span of action saw him throw six touchdowns compared to eight interceptions en route to compiling an 77.5 quarterback rating. That’s surely not the quarterback we’ve become accustomed to over the years.

There’s surely an injury at play here. We can’t forget that Big Ben has been banged up over the past several years, this past regular season included. But at 34 years old and with the performance we’ve seen recently, one has to wonder whether his best days are behind him.

This isn’t to say that Pittsburgh can’t win with Big Ben at quarterback. Instead, it’s now all about the team continuing to move away from him as the central focus of its offense. Give the keys of the kingdom to Le’Veon Bell and run with it. Roethlisberger can surely be the part of a winning team. He just isn’t going to be the reason a team wins anymore. This year’s playoffs were a prime example of that

Massive changes ahead for the Packers? 

Aaron Rodgers deserves better. Whether it’s the team having to move a receiver to running back or the lack of talent on defense, he simply doesn’t have the supporting cast to win. That was no more apparent than what we saw on Sunday.

As mentioned above, the first decision that will have to be made is going to be on the defensive side of the ball. Green Bay has exhausted a first-round pick on defense in each of the past five drafts. During that very same span, general manager Ted Thompson and Co. have also spent four second-round picks on this side of the ball.

Despite all that, Green Bay yielded the second-most passing yards in the NFL and ranked in the bottom quarter of the league in points allowed during the regular season.

If it’s not Thompson and his front office taking the fall here, maybe it’s time for the Packers to move on from defensive coordinator Dom Capers.

On the other hand, Rodgers has done a tremendous job working with a less-than-stellar supporting cast on offense. Remember, it was just one season ago that his receivers were mocked at an incredibly high rate after dropping so many balls. Even with Jordy Nelson back in the mix, this can’t be considered too much of a strength for the Packers.

More than that, Green Bay needs to figure out what to do at running back. Is Ty Montgomery the long-term solution? If not, can Green Bay rely on an injury plagued and continually out of shape Eddie Lacy? Despite Montgomery’s decent performance as the season progressed, balance remains an issue on this side of the ball.

No matter what happens or how they do it, the Packers simply need to find a right mix of talent to mesh with Rodgers moving forward. If that means spending money in free agency, then so be it. After all, one thing became clear on Sunday. The status quo simply won’t help Rodgers compete for a title moving forward.