Four teams came into the conference championship games for each of the two National Football League (NFL) conferences, each led by high-profile, “elite” quarterbacks. For the careers of one or two, that adjective is debatable, but each put on a season worthy of the title in 2016.
Matt Ryan led the Atlanta Falcons to an 11-5 record and the No. 2 seed in the National Football Conference (NFC), accompanied by a slew of receivers in their prime. A distinctly inexperienced defense wasn’t too much of an issue for most prolific offense in football, recording second-best marks in the league for individual passing yards, passing touchdowns, and receiving yards. The highest-scoring offense entered the week scoring at least 30 points in the previous 5 games.
After a four-game skid midway through the year, Aaron Rodgers expressed that he felt the Green Bay Packers could “run the table” into the playoffs. That they did, winning the last six games of the regular season to win the NFC North and earn a home playoff game against the New York Giants. A haphazard collection of injured defensive players has been the primary Achilles body of the Pack, resulting in multiple players playing slightly out of position. It was combatted by an offense with league leading capability. Receiver Jordy Nelson returned from a season lost to injury in 2015 by leading the NFL in touchdown receptions, followed closely by drop-prone Davante Adams, and Rodgers finished at the top of the list for passing touchdowns.
Big Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers ended the season with the fourth-best record in the American Football Conference (AFC) at 11-5, but won the AFC North to earn the third seed. A sub-stellar statistical season for Roethlisberger was levied by the play of receiver Antonio Brown. Although not the leader in receiving yards, he did win a bet—for a new Porsche—between New York Jets receiver Brandon Marshall for this performance. With a defense that is anchored by James Harrison, the Steelers were also able to fight through a four-game losing streak, ending with seven straight marks in the W column.
After rightfully missing the first four games due to circumstance, Tom Brady returned to the Patriots to lay waste to the AFC. Finishing the season at 14-2, there was little doubt how successful they would be in their first playoff matchup against the Texans. A similarly capable offense, with one of the pillars of coaching behind it, eleven of the Pats 15 wins coming into the AFC championship were by a margin of at least 10.
The earlier NFC Championship game was billed as a true shootout, with two of the most prolific scoring teams of the past six weeks. The first half was dominated by one side, however. The Falcons were able to march down the field on their first three possessions for a touchdown, field goal and touchdown, in that order. The first Packers drive, in response to the Ryan touchdown pass, ended with a missed field goal by Mason Crosby. The second was finished as fullback Aaron Ripkowski fumbled deep in Falcons territory. The dagger had appeared early.
Remaining in most valuable player (MVP) form, Matt Ryan’s Falcons led 24-0 at halftime. They surpassed the 30-point mark less than 90 seconds into the second half, and that was that. Multiple third-down conversions kept Atlanta drives alive, holding the Green Bay defense on the field. Three Rodgers touchdowns couldn’t catch up as the final score reached 44-21 Atlanta. They will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
In Foxboro, Massachusetts, the Steelers came in hopes of upending the surging Patriots. Similarly to how the rest of the AFC experienced it, though, the Pats wear down on you with relentless offensive pressure. It took a flea-flicker in the middle of the second-quarter to grab a safe lead, and a dominant third to put it away for good. After losing star running back Le’veon Bell in the first quarter, the Steelers weren’t able to move the ball for most of the rest of the game, and failed to make key stops on defense. The final score was 36-17, New England. This puts them into their record ninth Super Bowl.
They say defense wins championships, but the more likely story will be which defense can make the key stops late against two of the hottest quarterbacks in the game right now. The Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots are preparing for Houston, and we could see quite the record-setting Super Bowl. My prediction is for a final of 38-34, Atlanta on top.