A performance for the ages
from Matt Ryan steamrolled the Atlanta Falcons past Green Bay- 44-21, and into just the second Super Bowl berth in franchise history on Sunday. Tom Brady nearly matched Ryan's great numbers as he made sure New England would visit the NFL title game for a ninth time, opposite the Falcons.
Brady, regarded by many as the best quarterback of all-time, was the QB for the Patriots’ most recent six Super Bowl appearances, four of them victories. Bill Belichick coached the team for each of those six appearances as well.
Both of yesterday's conference championship games were decided before the fourth quarter arrived, leaving little, if any drama. Neither of the winning sides turned the ball over while executing in a way that sets up two weeks of nightmarish planning for the respective defensive coordinators
Ryan carved up an injury-plagued Packers' secondary that simply had no way of making stops. The soon-to-be-named regular season NFL MVP threw for four touchdowns and ran for another. His scoring passes included a 2-yard shovel pass, flipped to Mohamed Sanu on the opening possession of the game, and a 73-yard dagger on the second play of the second half. That one featured Julio Jones, reassuring everyone he is again at the level of best receiver in the game. He broke two tackles, the second with a great stiff-arm to Damarious Randall, as he raced down the sideline to make it 31-0.
The Falcons scored a TD on their opening possession for the eighth straight game and did so in a way that illustrates why they are so difficult to defend. As he has all season, Ryan spread the ball around to multiple targets.
Tight end Austin Hooper converted a third down with a catch. Jones made a difficult grab of Ryan’s low pass to convert another third down. Wide receiver Sanu caught a 13-yard pass on third-and-12 with Jones out of the game. Fullback Patrick DiMarco’s 31-yard catch down to Green Bay’s 5-yard line was aided by Jones clearing out the coverage. Simply put, answers for every situation.
Ryan was the third pick in the 2008 draft. He is the first quarterback ever to produce at least three touchdown passes in four consecutive playoff games.
Green Bay had chances to make it a game, but shot itself in the foot, first with a missed 41-yard field goal by Mason Crosby (he had made an NFL record 23 straight in the postseason). With their second possession, trailing 10-0, the Packers used consecutive passes of 17 and 22 yards to Randall Cobb, and a third-down conversion to Jared Cook to get near the red zone again. Fullback, Aaron Ripkowski, then dragged along several Falcons defenders, but Jalen Collins stripped him of the ball and recovered the fumble in the end zone to extinguish another prime scoring chance for Green Bay.
Jones finished the contest with nine catches for 180 yards and twoTDs. His size and speed are unmatched in the NFL. Recently, he was bothered by toe and foot injuries causing him to miss practice time leading to Sunday's Game. But his presence at 100 percent opened so many options for the Falcons. It will be fascinating to see how New England tries to neutralize the great receiver from Alabama.
Brady meanwhile, continuing his Revenge Tour after sitting out the season's first four games because of the Deflate Gate suspension, played pitch and catch with an unlikely hero out of Monmouth College (who knew they even played football there) named Chris Hogan. As Brady so often does, he makes a virtual unknown a primary weapon.
While the fans in Foxborough sang along to one Jersey Guy, Bon Jovi, Hogan from Wyckoff, NJ, was busy compiling the same totals as Jones did for the Falcons. Nine catches, 180 yards, and 2 TDs.
Julian Edelman added eight receptions for 118 yards and a TD. It points out the brilliance of the New England system and front office. Hogan, undrafted out of college, had brief stints with San Francisco, the New York Giants, and Miami before he landed in Buffalo for three years as a role player. The Patriots signed him last offseason to a three-year contract. Now he is a vital weapon.
Edelman was taken in the 7th round of the 2009 draft. He has had a prolific run in Foxborough, topping 90 receptions in three of the last four seasons.
The Steelers were able to cut the lead to 10-6 on a DeAngelo Williams 5-yard TD run, but by that time their best weapon, running back, Le'Veon Bell, was done for the game with a groin injury. Without him, and the New England focus on taking away receiver Antonio Brown, it was never a game after halftime.
One thing that always stands out about New England is its mental fortitude and physicality matching anyone in the league.
"We won a lot of different ways under a lot of different circumstances," Brady said. "Mental toughness is what it is all about, and this team has got it. We'll see if we can write the perfect ending."
Belichick is known for taking away an opponents’ best weapon, but the Falcons’ dominance and health, combined with the Patriots’ Super Bowl history, hints that Super Bowl LI will be dramatic. Undoubtedly, the scheme will be in place to slow down Jones. With the likes of Malcolm Butler, Patrick Chung, and Logan Ryan, the legendary New England coach has the pieces to give it a terrific whirl.
Even if Jones may be slowed, Atlanta can counter with two outstanding running backs, Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman. Neither was needed much yesterday when nearly every passing attempt had Green Bay's coverage guys completely overmatched. That won't be the case in Houston on Feb. 5.
Most odds makers opened up New England as a 3-point favorite and an offensive shootout expected with the over/under at 58 1/2.