If you’re a fan of close games, Championship Sunday was not for you.
The two contests combined for 118 points, but both were very one-sided.
Falcons 44, Packers 21
Aaron Rodgers said that Green Bay would run the table, but the team fell one win shy of a trip to Super Bowl 51. Atlanta’s high-octane offense, led by Matt Ryan‘s four touchdown passes, racked up an astounding franchise-playoff record 493 total yards, opening up a 17-point lead with 7:24 left in the first half.
It is clear now that the money Atlanta spent in the off-season has paid dividends. Mohamed Sanu, signed after a four-year stint with the Cincinnati Bengals, caught five of seven targets for 52 yards and opened the game with a touchdown reception on Atlanta’s first drive. Taylor Gabriel, signed after being cut by Cleveland, caught two passes for 24 yards.
The Falcons’ backfield tandem made a case for being the best duo in the league. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, two shifty, duel-threat running backs, combined for 148 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns.
Despite the team’s video game performance, it does not compare to Julio Jones. Largely regarded as one of the league’s top-tier receivers, Jones proved his talents on Sunday. After two catches for 10 yards on Atlanta’s first two drives, Jones finished with nine receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
The Falcons’ offense put the game away on their first drive of the second half. Just 69 seconds into the third quarter, Jones broke free on a slant route (while drawing a defensive holding penalty) and broke numerous tackles in route to a 73-yard touchdown that gave Atlanta an insurmountable 31-0 advantage.
Packers’ head coach Mike McCarthy can look at his second conference championship loss in the last three seasons and focus on missed opportunities. Two years ago, McCarthy watched his club blow a 12-point lead in the final two minutes in Seattle, losing the game in overtime due to Russell Wilson‘s touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse.
In the Georgia Dome‘s final game, Green Bay left points on the board early and often. Mason Crosby, who made two 50-yard field goals in the thrilling win in Dallas, pushed a 41-yard field goal wide right on the Packers’ first drive. One possession later, Aaron Ripkowski fumbled inside Atlanta’s five-yard line. Less than four minutes after the turnover, Ryan’s first rushing touchdown in 1,594 days gave Atlanta a three-possession lead and the route was on.
Atlanta is likely feeling homesick from a place they’ve only been once. The win over Green Bay propelled the Falcons to the Super Bowl for just the second time in team’s 51-year history. Their previous trip to the title game was in 1998, but they fell to John Elway and the Denver Broncos, 34-19, in Super Bowl XXXIII.
Their offense scored 540 points in the regular season, tied with the 2000 Rams for seventh most in league history.
Patriots 36, Steelers 17
Pittsburgh’s magical run towards a seventh Lombardi Trophy finally came to an end in Foxborough at Gillette Stadium, one of the NFL’s toughest venues.
Tom Brady‘s 384-yard, three-touchdown performance stamped his name firmly (in many pundit’s eyes) as the greatest quarterback in NFL history. A part from several critiques about the four-time Super Bowl-winner not beating any elite quarterbacks over a 12-game slate during the regular season, Brady outplayed another former-champion, Ben Roethlisberger.
“Tom Terrific” found Chris Hogan for two touchdowns in the first half, giving New England a 17-9 lead at the break. Hogan, who only played one year of college football at Monmouth, tallied nine receptions for 180 yards. That was not too shabby for an undrafted wide receiver who was cut by four teams in the last five seasons before landing with the Patriots last March.
In order to win in Foxborough, a team must limit their mistakes. The Steelers, like Green Bay before them, let missed opportunities come back to bite them. Chris Boswell, who made six field goals in the win over Kansas City in the divisional round, missed just the second extra point of his career after a five-yard touchdown run by DeAngelo Williams early in the second quarter.
Williams had 32 carries since October coming into the game, but was forced into the Steelers’ backfield early in the game when Le’Veon Bell suffered a groin injury. Bell had 63 combined touches in Pittsburgh’s playoffs wins over the Dolphins and Chiefs, , but was glued to the sidelines after just six carries on Sunday.
Bell had 75 catches throughout 12 games this season, but the aggravated groin caused him to watch helplessly as Pittsburgh’s inexperienced receiving corps dropped 119 potential yards through the air.
Roethlisberger completed 31 of 47 passes for 314 yards, but he under threw Darrius Heyward-Bey early in the fourth quarter and was intercepted by Eric Rowe.
Rowe added a 37-yard return and set up Stephen Gostkowski‘s game-sealing 26-yard field goal.
Big Ben added a garbage-time touchdown to Cobi Hamilton that put him over the 300-yard mark and made the final score a bit more palatable.
Julian Edelman joined Hogan with triple-digit receiving yards and a touchdown on eight catches. The former seventh-round pick has hit the 100-yard mark in four of New England’s last five playoff games.
It was just another day at the office for Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick. As you can see from the videos around the web, he was not very impressed with the Lamar Hunt Trophy. After all, Sunday was the seventh time he has won it. In 13 days, Belichick aims to break his four-all tie with Chuck Noll for most Super Bowl victories by a head coach.
PATRIOTS-FALCONS HISTORY (NE leads ATL, 7-6)
1972: Patriots 21, Falcons 20 — D. Hampton (ATL): 97 rush yards, TD
1977: Patriots 16, Falcons 10 — M. Haynes (NE): 2 interceptions
1980: Falcons 37, Patriots 21 — S. Bartkowski (ATL): 3 pass TD
1983: Falcons 24, Patriots 13 — W. Andrews (ATL): 125 rush yards
1986: Patriots 25, Falcons 17 — G. Riggs (ATL): 2 rush TD
1989: Falcons 16, Patriots 15 — D. Flutie (NE): 3 interceptions
1992: Falcons 34, Patriots 0 — B. Joe Tolliver (ATL): 2 pass TD
1995: Falcons 30, Patriots 17 — M. Anderson (ATL): 5 field goals
1998: Falcons 41, Patriots 10 — J. Anderson (ATL): 104 rush yards, 2 TD
2001: Patriots 24, Falcons 10 — M. Vick (ATL): 56 pass yards, 50 rush yards
2005: Patriots 31, Falcons 28 — C. Dillon (NE): 106 rush yards
2009: Patriots 26, Falcons 10 — F. Taylor (NE): 105 rush yards, TD
2013: Patriots 30, Falcons 23 — T. Brady (NE): 316 pass yards, 2 TD
Early reports show New England as a three-point favorite over Atlanta.
Super Bowl LI is scheduled for next Sunday (Feb. 5) at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. The same building where the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVIII 13 years ago.
Feature Photo: Zimbio.com