Who doesn't love a good old-fashioned battle between good and evil?
Matt Ryan could be the most likable player in the league ... in addition to the Most Valuable? (Yes, I placed my AP vote for Derek Carr, but I fully understand the sentiment for Ryan and had the Falcons QB as my MVP runner-up and Offensive Player of the Year. It was a tough choice. Bottom line: Ryan's certainly deserving of the hardware if he does indeed receive it.) In Atlanta's Georgia Dome swan song -- a 44-21 beatdown of Green Bay -- Ryan treated the Packers like practice-squad players who would never make the league, piling up 392 yards and four touchdowns through the air -- and adding a 14-yard rushing score for good measure.
Ryan methodically scrolls through his reads and picks apart opposing defenses. He's accurate, he's tough, he's clutch. Everything is clicking in Year 2 under play-calling mastermind Kyle Shanahan. If you don't appreciate this, then you don't appreciate football. Not liking Matt Ryan right now is akin to not liking pizza.
Of course, the Falcons aren't the NFL's most potent offense without Ryan getting a little help from his friends. And that starts with the freak in the No. 11 jersey. Julio Jones is a force of nature. How many "wow" plays can one man make in a Championship Sunday? Like another legend of Atlanta sports lore, he's a human highlight reel. After posting his third consecutive regular season with at least 1,400 receiving yards, Jones went bonkers on Sunday, catching nine balls for 180 yards and two touchdowns. The only thing that can stop Julio Jones is his own body.
And let's give a little credit to the folks in the front office for putting the finishing touches on this explosive unit last offseason. I loved when Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli signed a pair of pro's pros in Mohamed Sanu and Alex Mack. Sanu, straight up, does everything right. Mack has been invaluable as a center, providing heady leadership up front and spectacular blocking in both the run and pass games.
Defense, of course, is the true discipline of second-year head coach Dan Quinn. And while this unit has been anything but dominant over the course of the season, it has shown immense improvement down the stretch. Just look at these numbers:
» Falcons D, last six games (including playoffs): 19.3 points, 339.2 yards and 2.2 takeaways per game.
Part of this, I believe, is the youngsters really finding their bearings at the NFL level. Once again, Dimitroff and Pioli deserve credit for their offseason work. Rookies Keanu Neal (first-round pick), Deion Jones (second-rounder) and De'Vondre Campbell (fourth-rounder) have added speed, athleticism and thump to the starting lineup.
Meanwhile, in Year 2, Vic Beasley busted out to lead the NFL in sacks (15.5). With his explosive first step and quickness off the edge, Beasley is one of the most fun pass rushers to watch in the game. And another second-year man, cornerback Jalen Collins, certainly made his mark on Sunday's game, forcing (and recovering) a fumble at a crucial juncture and providing sticky pass defense.
All this youth appears to be rubbing off on classy and savvy owner Arthur Blank, who's dancing his way to the Super Bowl.
These Falcons are so talented and fun. If you watched them all year, you already knew that. And knew they were worthy of this.
As a SiriusXM Radio host, I field a whole bunch of calls filled with Patriots hate. I need oven mitts to handle these venomous hot takes. These folks are like the fools who think UConn is bad for women's hoops, who believe Coach K's Dukie domination is indecent, who live to hate the Yankees, who think the Spurs are boring.
Let's be honest: If you loathe the Patriots, you're fueled by jealousy. New England is better than your team. You know it. It gnaws at you.
I find it awesome.
In a league brilliantly set up for competitive balance, the Pats are 30 steps ahead.
Don't minimize their absurd run in recent years. Eight straight division titles and six straight conference title games? Are you kidding me?! That's unprecedented stuff -- the kind of dominance that evokes envy.
There's no mystery to New England's reign: Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are the best ever. Belichick's the best coach in NFL history. Brady's the best quarterback the game's ever seen. That's a winning combo, eh? Belichick and Brady are now making their seventh Super Bowl appearance together -- easily the most for any coach-QB tandem -- and are currently tied with Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw for the most wins ever in the big game.
Of course, you will get the clowns in the media and the biased fans who erroneously claim that all of New England's success stems from "Spygate" and "Deflategate." You can deflate that notion right now. It's garbage.
Did you see what Brady did to the Steelers in Sunday's 36-17 laugher? 32 of 42 for 384 yards and three touchdowns. That's a career high in terms of postseason passing yards for Brady -- no small feat, considering that was his 33rd playoff game. The guy is 39 years old and he's playing some of the best football of his career. In 14 games this season (including two postseason contests), Brady has thrown 33 touchdown passes against four interceptions. Oh, and he's done so without Rob Gronkowski for most of the campaign.
When Tom Brady's under center, the offense is gonna be potent -- regardless of who else is involved. We all know that. But New England's defense hasn't been getting the attention it deserves.
Despite minimal fanfare, the Pats led the NFL in scoring defense this season, giving up just 15.6 points per game. I chuckled at the media elite trying to tell me that the unit hasn't played anyone and thus would have serious trouble against Pittsburgh. You play who is on your schedule -- including future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday. And for the 13th time in the last 16 games, New England held its opponent below 20 points. Devin McCourty -- a brilliant, ballhawking safety -- said on my SiriusXM Radio show last week that the length, versatility and intelligence of New England's defensive backs would be key. That secondary answered the bell on Sunday. Malcolm Butler is a bona fide star. (Antonio Brown managed seven catches for 77 yards, but his true impact was certainly limited.) And the Patriots' defensive front -- which includes highly underrated guys like Alan Branch -- held Pittsburgh to 54 yards on 20 rushes. Granted, Le'Veon Bell hurt his groin, but DeAngelo Williams couldn't get anything going either.
This defense has a simple mentality: Get the ball back to Brady ... so the man can continue his ultimate revenge tour.
I love the Patriots and what future Hall of Famer Bob Kraft has built: an absurdly dominant sports dynasty. But many folks despise them (for that very reason). Like the great philosopher Taylor Swift once said, "The haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate ..." And that just makes it fun -- especially when we have a fun newcomer in Atlanta entering the arena, aiming to knock off Goliath.
What the fans get in Super Bowl LI is a lightning-rod franchise vs. a lightning-strike offense, the league's preeminent power vs. a charming challenger to the throne. I can't wait.