NFL Playoffs: Conference Title Games — 4 Winners, 4 Losers
Chris Hogan had a career day with 180 yards receiving.
If drama is your thing, then you probably came away disappointed on Sunday after watching the AFC and NFC title games. That, of course, presumes that you wound up even watching the games after halftime, because truth be told, both games were over early — early, as in "by halftime."
The NFC title game, a 44-21 Falcons wipeout of the Green Bay Packers in Atlanta, was basically the equivalent of a 6-0 set in tennis. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, for some reason, thought it would be a good idea to put his defense on the field first after winning the coin toss, and the first five drives of the game went like this:
1. ATL: 80 yards, TD (7-0)
2. GB: Missed FG
3. ATL: 39 yards, FG (10-0)
4. GB: Red zone fumble
5. ATL: 80 yards, TD (17-0)
It was 24-0 at the half, and 31-0 before Green Bay put the ball in the end zone. It was an outclassing on every level, up to and including the quarterback position, where Packers QB Aaron Rodgers had been playing the position in another stratosphere for the past two months. Falcons QB Matt Ryan showed precisely why he is going to win the MVP Award whenever it gets announced.
In the AFC, the Patriots’ 36-17 blowout of the Steelers took a little more time to marinate, but was only slightly less evident early on than in the NFC. The Patriots built a 17-6 lead in the second quarter, but in retrospect, this game was over when Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell left the game in the first quarter with a groin injury, especially when you consider the crucial sequence that torpedoed the Steelers’ chances to hang in with the Pats blow for blow — after a replay review overturned a touchdown that would have made the score, likely, 17-13, and put the ball at the New England one yard line, the Steelers went backwards, running DeAngelo Williams on each of the next two plays and had to settle for a field goal.
The 17-9 halftime deficit may as well have been 37-9, as Bill Belichick ran his record since 2001 to 101-1 when leading at halftime. That is not a typo. 101-1.
So now, here in Houston, we get the Patriots and the Falcons as our Super Bowl matchup in two weeks, probably not the combination that most fans (and certainly most ticket brokers, sorry Atlanta) drew up, but an incredibly compelling chess match, especially between Kyle Shanahan's play calling and Bill Belichick's game planning.
Let's look at some winners and losers from the weekend...
4. Chris Hogan and Julio Jones, twinsies! (sort of)
The two biggest individual afternoons came from players who could not be more opposite, even if you created them yourselves on MADDEN...
Julio Jones and Chris Hogan took different paths to Sunday stardom pic.twitter.com/xmgQuOUABM— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 23, 2017
Jones, in particular, is just an unfair human being to be asked to defend. If I had to clone one football player to defend planet Earth from invading aliens in hand-to-hand combat, it might be Julio Jones (now that J.J. Watt and Gronk both have jacked-up backs).
3. Matt Schaub
Sure, Matt Ryan completely usurped the spotlight from Aaron Rodgers on Sunday, and yes, Ryan finally gets inside the velvet rope of "good quarterbacks who have at least BEEN TO a Super Bowl," and absolutely, yes, it has to be fun having all of those weapons at his disposal. Undoubtedly, Sunday was a great day to be Matt Ryan. But how about MATT SCHAUB, Ryan's backup, getting to return to Houston on a Super Bowl team? THE SCHAUBBER! The Texans, in their history, have essentially had three starting quarterbacks anointed as such upon acquisition — David Carr in 2002, Schaub in 2007 and Brock Osweiler in 2016. I don't need to tell Houston fans that an Atlanta win means all three will be Super Bowl champions as backups for other franchises, do I?
2. Kyle Shanahan
Hey, speaking of Shanahan, it would appear as though the San Francisco 49ers are waiting for the playoffs to conclude before either announcing him as their next head coach or getting an opportunity to offer him their head coaching position. With every touchdown the Falcons scored on Sunday, all I could think was "Shanahan should be tacking on another 500 grand per year to his asking price." Personally, as big a dumpster fire as the Niners are, if I were Shanahan, I'd wait one more year for a better job to come open, a job like, say, the Colts! Speaking of which...
1. Colts fans
In news that is absolutely awful for Houston Texans fans, and, for Colts fans, came about two years too late, Colts owner Jim Irsay finally decided to cut ties with general manager Ryan Grigson. After five seasons of complete roster malpractice, much of which nearly got Andrew Luck murdered over the past two years, the Colts will (presumably) find someone much more able than Grigson was to evaluate talent and construct a roster around Luck. (Truth be told, the people or items that qualify as more able than Grigson would include an inflatable blow-up doll, a meth-addled drifter and any of the three Kardashian sisters.) Miraculously, Chuck Pagano remains on as head coach...for now. The most hilarious part of this story was the revelation that Pagano and Grigson had been visiting with a psychologist to help them communicate better, at the behest of their boss, Irsay. We are talking like marriage counseling. If the NFL Network is looking for compelling programming, it really missed its chance here — I would have made an appointment each week to watch the Grigson/Pagano counseling sessions on TV. The Colts deserve a longer post than just this paragraph at some point. Second-generation owners are the best.
4. Blitzing defenses
Here are the numbers on the two winning quarterbacks yesterday when the Packer and Steeler defenses decided to blitz them...
Matt Ryan: 9-14, 177 yards, 2 TD, 147.3 passer rating
Tom Brady 6-6, 108 yards, 1 TD, 158.3 passer rating
It's almost like Brady watched the NFC title game and said, "Okay, I can do that better." Remarkable. I would expect a lot of four-man rushes and dropping seven into coverage in a couple of weeks, which should make it fascinating to see what Josh McDaniels and Kyle Shanahan try to do to combat that.
3. Civilians staying at the same hotel as the Pats' opponent
In what apparently is an annual tradition, the Patriots' opponent had a fire alarm pulled at their hotel the night before a big game. This time, it was some rogue 25-year-old named Dennis Harrison who woke the entire Steelers hotel with a false alarm at 3 a.m. The NFL was, by and large, not surprised:
I see steelers alarm went off lol that's happened to us before too in NE— Chris Harris (@ChrisHarrisJr) January 22, 2017
Never played a game in NE where that did not happen. Every single time https://t.co/hMFlTagcsc— Alan Faneca (@afan66) January 22, 2017
Boy does this sound familiar... same thing happen to us the night before the 2004 divisional game. Titans vs. Patriots— Derrick Mason (@deemason85) January 22, 2017
Not surprised it happened to us when I played for the jets the night before our playoff game!! https://t.co/xJiD6MsPSN— DIGGZ32 (@JamesIhedigbo) January 22, 2017
We are one season away from a Patriots playoff opponent renting out an entire hotel and putting a security detail at the front entrance to prevent rogue alarm pullers.
2. Ticket brokers
That scream of terror you heard as the Falcons went up 17-0 on Sunday (again, the unofficial ending of that game) was not Packers fans everywhere. (NOTE: It's impossible to scream when you're guzzling your tenth beer with a wheel of cheese in your mouth.) It was from ticket brokers who were sitting on Super Bowl tickets with hopes of "Brady versus Rodgers" (or, at least, "Steelers versus Packers, II" as the consolation prize). As of Monday morning, the lowest price for a Super Bowl ticket on Seatgeek was still in the $4,000 range. I'd be shocked if that didn't drop by about 30 or 40 percent minimum by the time kickoff rolls around. Sorry, Atlanta, but it's hard for the average Super Bowl-goer to get fired up about a team that you, as a city, don't even get fired up about unless it's winning double-digit games.
1. Anyone else trying to get a drink in Robert Kraft's suite (apparently)
For his part, though, Patriots owner Robert Kraft seems very excited to get to Houston (and possibly visit our many underrated breweries and distilleries)...
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.
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