Until Sunday, the playoffs were remarkably devoid of drama, with the first six games won by the home teams, all by at least 13 points. That, though, seems fitting for this season, when what counted for intrigue was how the Dallas Cowboys would formalize the obvious ascension of Dak Prescott over Tony Romo and at which point Aaron Rodgers would ignite.
Nowhere has the routine been as assured as in New England, where the Patriots' advancement to the conference championship game seemed a foregone conclusion since Week 3, when they managed to win a game -- in shutout fashion, no less -- with their third-string quarterback. That they struggled to an 18-point victory -- seriously -- in the Divisional Round against the Houston Texans likely only guarantees that the Pats will emerge from Bill Belichick's doghouse this Sunday as the razor-sharp outfit we are used to seeing. Whatever the outcome Sunday, it is worth pausing to marvel at how automatic New England's jaw-dropping excellence has become. In the 15 seasons that Tom Brady has played (excluding 2008, when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener), the Patriots have advanced to the final four 11 times.
Finally, in Dallas, we got the playoff game we deserved, with the Cowboys holding on by their fingertips while Aaron Rodgers launched one improbable rocket after another. It felt very much like a conference championship game filled with momentum shifts, big plays, stars exerting their will and, finally, a game-winning 51-yard field goal as time expired. It was an instant classic, further burnishing the Rodgers legend, and it set up a rematch of a Week 8 thriller.
With the conference championship games set, let's take a look at the matchups that will give us Super Bowl LI.
If you are a fan of defense, a defensive coordinator or a former linebacker from back in your pee wee days, it might be best to avoid this game. Everybody else in America should be delighted, though. No two quarterbacks in the NFL -- and that includes Brady -- are performing at the level of Rodgers and Matt Ryan this season. They were one and two in passing touchdowns during the regular season, with 40 and 38, respectively.
When these teams met in Week 8, Ryan and Rodgers combined for seven touchdown passes, 534 yards and no interceptions. Do you remember when the question was if something was wrong with Rodgers? This was the first game of the season when he looked fully like himself. The Falcons prevailed in that game, 33-32, when Ryan threw the winning touchdown pass with 31 seconds left. It was the start of the Packers' four-game losing streak that plunged them into the hole from which they had to "run the table"to make the playoffs. For the Falcons, though, it was the game that established them as a legitimate contender, finally burying the idea that Atlanta was too soft to hold on against the league's toughest teams. The Falcons worked in the offseason with a group of Navy Seals about how to get one percent better -- as the NFC's second seed, they are much more than that.
The Packers are, obviously, a much-improved team from then. They have won eight games in a row, Rodgers has thrown just one interception since Nov. 20 and their shootout win over the Cowboys came without the services of Jordy Nelson. There is the chance Nelson, who has multiple cracked ribs, could return for this game, although it is clear that Rodgers does not fear rifling his passes to others.
But the Falcons are better, too. They have the league's top scoring offense and they were able to outmuscle the Seahawks, displaying a physical brand of football that belies their image as a finesse team. Their tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 25 rushes for 102 yards. Perhaps even more surprising was the defense, which had two takeaways and three sacks against the Seahawks. Vic Beasley racked up a league-high 15.5 sacks during the regular season, and the unit as a whole is peaking: In the last five games, the Falcons have allowed just 19 points per. The task of containing Rodgers, though, was made more difficult with the season-ending biceps tear suffered by defensive end Adrian Clayborn on Saturday. The challenge, as the Cowboys can attest, is that Rodgers is even more dangerous out of the pocket.
Both of these defenses rank in the bottom third in terms of points allowed. But really, who wants to see defense in this game anyway? With the Patriots dominating the AFC, the NFC felt like the more wide-open conference all season. It seems appropriate that it likely will be decided by a shootout.
The past is not prologue in this rematch. When the Patriots beat the Steelers in Week 7, Ben Roethlisberger was out, Rob Gronkowski was in and one of the key takeaways was that, if the Steelers had been whole, the outcome might have been different. Even with Landry Jones playing, the Steelers were able to move the ball -- and that was before they had fully shape-shifted into the run-first Le'Veon Bell show they are now.
Much will be made about a showdown between Roethlisberger and Tom Brady, two future Hall of Famers. But do not take your eyes off the running backs, Bell and LeGarrette Blount (who once quit on the Steelers, but who powered the Patriots' win over them at the midpoint of the year with 127 yards and two touchdowns). Bell had 170 rushing yards against Kansas City, eclipsing the record he set last week for most rushing yards by a Steelers player in a postseason game. In his last eight games, including the playoffs, Bell has averaged 146.5 yards rushing -- the Steelers have won all eight games.
The Steelers do not have a great history against the Patriots in the Belichick-Brady era -- they have lost nine of their last 12 vs. New England. But Pittsburgh had 30 sacks in the second half of the season, and if anything can unravel Brady, it is a strong pass rush (Houston's was impressive). Still, the biggest question might be how the Pats' D stacks up against the Steelers' attack.
The Patriots have the best scoring defense in the league, and have yielded just 14.8 points per game since the midpoint of the season. But its opponents down the stretch were less than stellar -- the Rams, 49ers, Jets (twice!) among them. And the Texans were one of the most offensively-challenged teams to make the Divisional Round in memory. So, is that scoring defense an illusion, or for real? And can an offense that struggled to score against the Chiefs poke holes -- on the road -- in the Patriots?