The Confetti has cleared and the dust has settled. Two teams remain in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy. After dominating a pair of the NFL’s hottest teams, the Falcons and Patriots will meet in Houston on February 5th for Super Bowl LI. Let’s take a quick look back at how they won their respective conferences.
Falcons beat Packers 44-21
There were 4 keys to the Falcons’ victory. First, they got out front early and put the pressure on Green Bay. Second, the blistering offense was unfazed by its offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s potential future with the 49ers. Third, they forced all kinds of miscues by opposing QB Aaron Rodgers. But most importantly, they won the defensive and special teams wars.
The game started off perfectly for Atlanta, as Shanahan dialed up a 13-play touchdown drive in which 7 different people had a hand at gaining yardage. Getting everyone involved and on the same page was brilliant, and it set the tone for the rest of the game. Green Bay had a nice drive to start too, but it stalled inside the 25-yard line, forcing a field goal. No problem for the ever-reliable Mason Crosby, right? Well, as I said, he had to miss sometime. As the kick sailed wide right, the fans in the Georgia Dome erupted and gave their team the momentum early. With the gifted field position, quarterback Matt Ryan and company set up their own kicker, Matt Bryant, for a field goal. He nailed it to put Atlanta up 10-0. However, Rodgers wasn’t ready to lie down. On the next drive, he threw 5 passes to 4 different players to quickly put Green Bay in the red zone. Then, after he handed the ball to fullback Aaron Ripkowski, the ball was ripped from the ball-carrier by cornerback Jalen Collins. He would recover the fumble himself and set up a Falcon touchdown later in the drive. From there, things went from bad to worse for the Packers, as their leader on defense, Micah Hyde, injured his shoulder while tackling running back Tevin Coleman. The good news? It would force the only punt for the Falcons before the last drive in the entire game.
The half started the same way it ended for Atlanta, after going up 24-0 with touchdown after touchdown, they scored another by means of an incredible 73-yard catch-and-run by Julio Jones. From there, finally, the Packers were able to get on the scoreboard when Rodgers found Devante Adams for the 2-yard score. The teams would trade touchdowns the rest of the way, finishing 44-21. Matt Ryan outdid himself, racking up 392 yards and 4 touchdowns. En route to a near perfect passer rating, he hooked up with Julio Jones 9 times for 180 yards. This duo is going to prove to be a nightmare for the Patriots. But if anyone is good at shutting down a team’s #1 man, it’s Bill Belichick. But more on that later. The Falcons offense performed at high levels once again, due in part to a weak Packers defense without leadership. It was an uphill battle before the game started, and without Hyde, it was nearly impossible. Atlanta did just what they needed to do by putting on the pressure early, and you can tell the Packers felt it. The best thing the Falcons did was force two turnovers in the first half… the fumble by Ripkowki and an easy pick on Rodgers extinguished all hope on the visitors’ sideline. The Falcons stuck to a flawless game plan and came out on top. Now, they face a tough test against the Patriots as they try to win the city of Atlanta its first NFL Championship, and the second trophy from any sport.
Patriots beat Steelers 36-17
If you’re up to date on my posts, the game plans I laid out make it very clear why this game was so lopsided. The Patriots made sure to eliminate the Steelers’ #1 threat. After running back Le’veon Bell got hurt early in the first quarter, New England adapted and began to double-team receiver Antonio Brown. That’s something the Steelers failed to do, adapt. I said that any play the Steelers didn’t rush at least 5 men would result in a positive play for the Pats, pending a dropped pass. Not only did Pittsburgh fail to do this, they played zone! Patriots quarterback Tom Brady LOVES zone coverage. He’s known for finding gaps in defenses and putting passes right on the numbers. Occasionally, the passes would bounce off his receivers’ hands, but veteran defensive coordinator Keith Butler never moved away from this failing game plan. The Patriots’ ability to adapt on defense helped, but the fact that they got to stay comfortable for the whole game made it easy for them to rout the Steelers at home.
After a promising drive to start the game, the Steelers held the Patriots to just a field goal. A defensive win for sure, but Pittsburgh was unable to score until Brady drove his team 80 yards for the Pats’ first touchdown. Only then was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger able to end a meticulous 13-play, 84-yard drive with a touchdown run by Deangelo Williams. Why Deangelo Williams? Le’veon Bell reportedly hurt his groin during the drive, and would not return to the game. With the Steelers’ #1 threat ruled out, the Patriots had an easy time covering the other superstar for Pittsburgh, Antonio Brown. On the ensuing Patriots possession, Belichick dialed up a flea-flicker that caught everybody off guard. Brady easily found a wide open Chris Hogan downfield for the 34-yard score. However it was still close at halftime; New England only led by a possession, 17-9.
The Steelers would fail to score again until just 2:36 remained in the game. The Patriots went on a string of touchdown-turnover runs, which apparently never got old for the Steelers. That is, while the Patriots defense had all the answers to the Steelers scoring attempts by forcing 3 turnovers, the offense was scoring at will. The Steelers never wavered from the zone defense which was proved ineffective. The only compliment for them is that they were able to hold running back Legarrette Blount to just 47 yards. But that was expected. The fact that they never put pressure on Brady was unacceptable, especially as he completed pass after pass. The inability to adapt to an obvious offensive attack in such a crucial game seems like the act of a first-year coach. For Pittsburgh’s sake, I hope they spend the offseason figuring out what went wrong. If any of you have their contact, refer them here! Anyway, Brady finished the game with 384 yards and 3 touchdowns… nearly matching Matt Ryan’s brilliant performance. But are you ready for the Cool Stat of the Day? Patriots Receiver Chris Hogan and Falcons receiver Julio Jones both caught 9 passes for 180 yards on exactly 12 targets. That’s two outstanding performances in two crucial games, and the fact that they have an identical stat line is unbelievable. They’ll look to put on a show for a much bigger audience in two weeks, when they meet in Houston to battle for Super Bowl LI.