Before moving on to the Super Bowl, we want to recap the Conference Championships. Both home teams played lights out. For all the talk of parity in the NFL this season, Super Bowl 51 is going to come down two teams that dominated their respective divisions during the regular season.
Check out our 2017 Conference Championships Recap below.
NFL 2017 Conference Championships Recap
Green Bay Packers 21, Atlanta Falcons 44
For the second straight season, a team from the much-maligned NFC South has jaunted into the Super Bowl. All four teams that play in the NFC South:
Atlanta, Carolina, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay, have made it to the Super Bowl. Tampa Bay and New Orleans have won the Super Bowl.
Atlanta played one of its best games of the season to return to the Lombardi Trophy game. Although most casual players, over 60%, had bet down the Packers to +4 favorites going into the weekend, the cooler pro player heads prevailed. By the time they kicked the game off, Atlanta was a solid -6 favorite.
A lot of the money on Atlanta came in after word was released that Green Bay star QB Aaron Rodgers was suffering from the flu. Maybe, Aaron was. Maybe, Aaron wasn’t. Although there’s no doubt that Rodgers wasn’t Michael Jordan in his famous flu-game over the Utah Jazz in the 1997 NBA Finals, the reasons why Green Bay lost to Atlanta has a lot more to do with game-planning than anything else.
Yes, Atlanta’s defense is much improved. Yes, the Falcons offense, led by soon to be MVP QB Matt Ryan, is the best in the NFC. Yes, Atlanta got to battle the Packers at home in the Dome.
But, the real reason Green Bay lost is the same reason the Packers were in danger of not even making the playoffs this season. The Packers had no rushing attack. The fix, switching WR Ty Montgomery to RB, had worked brilliantly. But, Montgomery got hurt early in the game. Throw in a couple of turnovers, and suddenly the Packers were done.
Without a rushing attack, Atlanta’s much better defensive line can pressure an opposing quarterback all day long. That’s what the Falcons’ did in the NFC Championship. They only sacked Aaron Rodgers twice. But, they forced him out of the pocket so many times, they put a hand in his face on multiple occasions, that they flat out intimidated the usually cool Rodgers into making bad throw after bad throw. Rodgers ended up throwing an interception. That doesn’t tell the whole story.
Green had no answer for the Falcons’ D until the fourth quarter. The game was well out of reach by then.
On offense, led by Matty Ice, Atlanta turned in a sterling performance. Even with speedster Taylor Gabriel not getting into the action, Ryan has a plethora of weapons. He highlighted all of them this past Sunday. Ryan completed a terrific 27 out of 38 for 392 yards. He threw 4 TD passes.
Green Bay didn’t seem to try to stop Ryan’s biggest weapon, WR Julio Jones, who caught 9 of 12 targets for 180 yards and caught 2 TD passes. Ryan to Jones was, once again, the story of the game…just like it has been in most of the 2016-2017 NFL Season. Mohammed Sanu and Devonta Freeman also caught TD passes. In what had to have been a harbinger of things to come, the Falcons displayed their willingness to stick to the rush. Atlanta produced 101 rushing yards from 30 carries. Both Freeman and Tevin Coleman were effective with Coleman getting a rushing TD.
If there is one criticism of Atlanta’s performance in the NFC Championship, it’s the fact that they allowed Green Bay to score 3 TDs in the second half. As great as Atlanta’s defense was overall, the Packers were 3 for 3 in the red zone.
Pittsburgh Steelers 17, New England Patriots 36
Professional NFL handicappers gave more attention to the Pittsburgh Steelers than they did to the Green Bay Packers before kickoff. Green Bay ended up as a bigger dog than the opening against the spread betting line in the NFC Championship versus Atlanta than the Steelers did in the AFC Championship versus the Patriots.
The Pats opened as a -6 favorite. By the time they kicked it off in Foxboro, the Patriots had gone down to -5 favoritism in most sportsbooks. New England was a hot bet against on the moneyline per more many bettors. Why not? Pittsburgh’s defense had been terrific only a week before in dominating Kansas City’s offense. The Steelers’ D had held KC to 61 rushing yards. It had held Chiefs’ quarterback Alex Smith to only 172 passing yards.
Pittsburgh’s defense, the reasoning went, only needed to keep New England QB Tom Brady from dominating the game because Pittsburgh’s offense could score against New England’s defense.
At halftime, it appeared as if those bettors whom had backed the Steelers were right. The score was New England 17 and Pittsburgh 9 at halftime. Pitt had gone into New England’s red zone 3 times. The Steeler had walked away with 3 field goals. All the Steelers needed to do was punch the ball into the end zone once or twice to take charge of the game.
The Patriots were dead set on that not happening. The reason New England is the best team in the NFL has a lot to do with their ability to adjust at halftime. The Patriots might be one of the only teams in the NFL that makes wholesale adjustments at halftime with the lead. They did it in their Divisional Playoff win over Houston. They did it again in their win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
New England’s defense was brilliant in the second half. The D held the Steelers’ offense to 8 points. Those 8 points came via a 30-yard TD pass from Big Ben Roethlisberger to Cobi Hamilton. Big Ben threw a 2-point conversion to DeAngelo Williams, who played in place of hurt RB Le’Veon Bell. It happened with 3:36 left in the fourth quarter.
On offense, Tom Brady was terrific again. He lived up to his moniker, Terrific Tom, in the win over the Steelers. Brady threw for 384 yards. He threw 3 TD passes. Eerily, Brady to WR Chris Hogan produced the same numbers as Ryan to Jones. Hogan, like Julio in the NFC Championship, caught 9 of 12 targets for 180 receiving yards. Also like Julio, Hogan caught 2 TD passes.
On paper, it’s going to look like the Patriots didn’t rush the ball effectively. New England only garnered 57 rushing yards from 27 total carries. A closer look reveals that tank RB LeGarrette Blount, a former Steeler, rushed 16 times for 47 yards. He scored a rushing TD.
Blount was effective when coach Bill Belichick needed Blount to be effective. If the Steelers had adjusted on defense to cover Hogan and the rest of Brady’s receiving weapons, there’s no doubt that offensive coordinator Josh McDonald would have fed big LeGarrette earlier in this game.
That’s the thing about New England. The team isn’t afraid to mix up its game plan depending on the opponent. The ability to switch things up to win a football game could serve the Patriots well against Atlanta, a squad that, at least visually, appears to be able to go mano y mano versus the Patriots on the scoreboard.
Don’t forget to check out my full Super Bowl 51 Preview!