8.) Offense, offense, offense. Last year’s Conference Title Games and Super Bowl were defined by the Denver and Carolina defenses. It was a defense-heavy end of the season, with the Broncos and Panthers anhillating the Brady-led and Palmer-led offenses they faced, and then did the same to each other. That won’t happen in 2016. This season is an anomaly. The best defense, and more exactly, the best pass defenses, all missed the playoffs. The Patriots have the #1 scoring defense, but that’s a mirage built off of playing a truly pathetic lineup of offenses – by far the easiest opposing offenses in the NFL this year. The Packers and Falcons both have major holes at all levels. The Steelers arguably have the best defense playing on Sunday, and they themselves are probably on the edge of the Top-10. This will be an offensive end to the season. Strange, in a way. Scoring was down – very slightly, but still. More telling, total offense and passing offense dropped for the first time in years. On the whole, this wasn’t a great offensive season, but the best offenses are alive and will duke it out.
7.) James Harrison, Dwight Freeney and Julius Peppers: I don’t know if they are the three oldest defensive players in the league, but they are probably all in the Top-10. They’ve all seen better days (especially Freeney). But still, these are guys who dominated the previous decade of NFL football still playing big roles. Freeney is a bonus for the Falcons, but he had moments in the Divisional Round and can be key for a team that needs to get some rush on Rodgers. Peppers and Harrison are instrumental to their teams defenses and chances. Peppers is a modern marvel who is still within a standard deviation of how good he’s been ever since he left Carolina, but Harrison had a huge bounce-back season. The Steelers gave him his first second chance in 2007, so it just fits they’ve given him his second second chance.
6.) Le’Veon Bell: What Bell has done the last two games, rushing for 150+ each time while toting the rock 30+ times seems like overcompensating for him missing the playoffs the last two years. Bell was so good in 2014 but got hurt in the season finale (to be fair, it was not a meaningless game). Last year was more or less a write-off. Finally healthy, and he has been incredible. The Patriots rush defense is better than either Miami’s or Kansas City’s, and his patient style seems far less likely to work against the Patriots, but maybe it can. Keeping their drives long and having the ball for 35+ minutes will be key. It was the formula the Steelers used in their only recent win in the rivalry – their 25-17 win in 2011. The game was not as close as the score (the Steelers outgained the Pats 2-1 and held the ball for 40 minutes). That game was defined by Roethlisberger. This will have to be Bell.
5.) Experience vs. Innocence: The Falcons have a coach and a QB who have never won the Super Bowl. The Patriots, Steelers and Packers have coaches and QBs who have all won the Super Bowl, combining for 7 total for each. I can’t off-hand name the last time we had a Conference Title Game matchup where three of the four starting QBs had won the Super Bowl. For coaches, the last time was actually just two years ago (McCarthy, Carroll and Belichick), but that too is quite rare. Does experience matter? The Falcons as a whole barely have players that were around in 2012 when they lost the NFC Championship Game. I’m sure people will write about how the Falcons are the debutantes, how they don’t have the experience, how they’ve choked before. I don’t think it matters, but I’m sure I’ll be hearing about it a lot.
4.) Aaron Rodgers’ in the playoffs = Amazingness All Around. With his two wins in these playoffs, Rodgers is now 9-6 in the playoffs. That is pretty good (though had he lost the Wild Card game, he truly would have inherited his place as this generations Peyton Manning). What is better is out of those 15 games, the average level of enjoyment has been ridiculously high. He’s played now five just classic playoff games: both of his losses to Arizona, the loss to Seattle in the ’14 Title Game, last Sunday’s win, and the loss to San Francisco in the ’13 Wild Card Game. I would say there’s been three other very entertaining games: the Super Bowl win over Pittsburgh, the 26-21 divisional win over Dallas in 2014, and the 45-31 loss to San Francisco – Kaepernick’s shining moment. Out of the 15, I only truly count one awful game, a pointless 24-10 win over a Joe Webb led Vikings team in 2012. Aaron Rodgers has generally been a source of some breathtaking playoff football.
3.) Revenge Potential: One of the hidden joys of Peyton Manning’s Super Bowl run last year was that he finally got the chance to get one back at Roethlisberger and the Steelers. Pittsburgh’s 2005 Divisional Win was probably the most painful loss of Manning’s career, a shocking end to what had been the best team he had played on. 10 years later he got his chance. For both Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan, they get their shots at revenge. Roethlisberger’s incredible rookie season ended with a home Title Game loss to New England, a slightly embarrassing 41-27 loss that wasn’t as close as the score. For Ryan, the low point was a 48-21 thrashing that the Packers laid on them in the 2010 Divisional Round, the worst loss ever by a #1 seed in a Divisional Game. In Ben’s case, he was a rookie. The Steelers won the Super Bowl the very next season (and again three years after that), and to my knowledge Roethlisberger and Brady are the only two players from that game who are playing this weekend (Belichick, of course). For the Falcons, they haven’t won a Super Bowl. There are similarly few players remaining (Matt Ryan and Jordan Babineaux are the only two I can name off the top of my head), but they have a chance to right a terrible wrong.
2.) The Patriots: I’ll regret writing anything positive about that team, but my God, let’s just realize this is their 6th straight title game appearance. That’s bananas. The hater in me would point out they are 2-3 in the previous five, but still. The further hater in me would point out the hilarious string of divisional round opponents they’ve been lucky enough to draw, including the Texans twice, and a Tim Tebow led Broncos team, but still, six straight title games is just bonkers. I was somewhat surprised to learn that the team that were previously tied with New England for the record were the 1973-1977 Raiders, who actually won just one of the five title games (1976), but the teams they lost to are among the best ever, not one year wonder Super Bowl winners like Baltimore and Denver (or a Denver team who would then lose the Super Bowl 43-8). That all said, this is truly an incredible achievement. Sure, I would rather not have the final true football game of the season (non spectacle of a game that is the Super Bowl) is in Foxboro, which to date has still never provided a great playoff crowd, but decades from now, when hopefully the Patriots are mired in a 2003-2016 Browns-like slump, we can look back with less tinted glasses at just how incredible the Brady & Belichick Patriots were.
1.) Matt Ryan’s Moment: At this point, it seems very likely that Matt Ryan will win the MVP. He was by far and away the 1st team all pro at QB, and there has never been a QB MVP that was not been the 1st team All –Pro. That all said, Aaron Rodgers is easily the most hyped player coming into the NFC Championship Game, what with his brilliant play since the ‘run the table’ remarks. And while the Packers have run the table, guess who has the best passer rating in the NFL since Week 12 (the week that started the Packers win streak)? It is Matt Ryan. Matt Ryan was the best QB in the league in the beginning of the season, he was the best at the end of the season. He’s been the same record setting QB all year long. Three QBs playing on Sunday have won the Super Bowl. Matt Ryan has never made a Super Bowl. This is his time. This whole year has been. In 2011, it was Eli Manning. In 2012, it was Joe Flacco. 2016 has been the year of Matt Ryan in full, and if he does lead the Falcons to the Super Bowl, it will start by knocking off the team that is led by the person people think is playing the best at QB.