What does a sports league owe its fans in terms of compelling outcomes? Only two of the NFL's ten playoff games leading up to the Super Bowl this year ended with a one-score margin of victory, and one of those was a slog where the winning team didn't score a single touchdown. Needless to say, football fans are grumbling. We want games to play out like pro wrestling matches, where each team keeps delivering its finisher until one of them does something memorably exciting to capture victory, but this isn't scripted entertainment. There's no guarantee of a close contest, no matter how equally matched we think the teams might be.
The overall boringness of these playoffs is unfortunate, and yet it plays into one of the larger themes of the 2016 season. In past years, an unremarkable first three rounds of the playoffs would be a minor concern, but the NFL hasn't been vulnerable to ratings fears like it has in recent memory. The prime-time numbers have recovered since the election, and Super Bowl ratings will be high, sure, but the NFL needs, with a sort of urgency that has been absent in these recent boom years, to do well compared to previous years, with a game that can sustain interest over a long off-season and give the league some momentum going into next year.
Whether that actually happens is in the hands of the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons now.
One of the main story lines going into the Super Bowl is Tom Brady's quest for vengeance for his Deflategate suspension, whether the quarterback wants to discuss it yet or not. For what it's worth, he dodged a question during the postgame presser on Sunday. Undoubtedly there are fans, even ones without a direct rooting interest for the Pats, who would be glad to see a humbled Roger Goodell hand the Lombardi trophy over to Brady two weeks from now. Deflategate as a legal matter is over, but this is its true denouement.
The Falcons don't possess a significant national profile compared to some other NFL teams—which league defenders will surely point to as a factor if ratings are not great—but it has to be taken as a positive that one of the NFL's less historically successful franchises is in the championship. Brady may be playing fantastically for his age, but he's not going to be around forever, and other stars need to emerge to fill the vacuum once he departs. Matt Ryan is never going to reach his level of celebrity, but if this is an opportunity to build interest in the Falcons, that's the biggest positive I can see going into this game.
Bill Belichick Is Full of Shit
NFL access media loves to play up Belichick as a football monk unconcerned with the affairs of the world and singularly obsessed with the task at hand. Grumblelord is all too happy to help cultivate this image. Oh how reporters were so delighted when Belichick slightly misstated the names of popular social media sites. SnapFace! InstaChat! Tee hee hee, fucking kill me.
And so there was Belichick claiming to a reporter after the victory in the AFC Championship that he didn't know which team his Patriots would face at the Super Bowl. I can believe the Pats weren't sitting around and watching the NFC Championship while they prepared for their game with the Steelers. That their coach never bothered at any point to learn the score, or that it wasn't displayed inside the stadium during the game, well, I call bullshit on that. Belichick might be too old to enjoy the rampant pettiness of social media, but I know he still enjoys the old-fashioned version.
Other than Tom Brady's hulking sideline coat, the most fun Twitter had with blowout football games was a brilliant insight that Troy Aikman has the same face as Jay Z. I'll never not be able to see it, just as Aikman is just as likely to never hear a single Jay Z track in his life. Unless the rapper comes out of retirement again to work with Kenny Chesney. You never know.
Robert Alford Flops for the Ages
Defensive players don't often get to sell hits for penalties, so they haven't learned all the subtleties of the craft. OK, perhaps it's best not to generalize, but I can say with certainty that Falcons corner Robert Alford has not, based on this performance after a shoulder shove by Aaron Rodgers.
Fan of the Week
Since the cheesehead-slapping Falcons fan has already been highlighted elsewhere in this space, I'll just have to talk about Johnny Manziel showing up at the AFC Championship, thanks to a ticket hookup from former college teammate Martellus Bennett. Manziel is said to have a renewed commitment to sobriety, which is unquestionably good. If posting a few snaps of himself at the stadium is the most he's doing to draw attention to himself, there's no harm in that. It's certainly his right to brush back at mean jokes, though at the same time he has to realize he's done more than plenty to earn them. Whether Manziel will get another crack at the NFL remains to be seen, and it's fair to argue whether he even deserves one, though it's clear he hasn't given up on it.
Five Winners Who Covered Their Bloodline in Glory
1. Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons. One argument used to bolster the case for Matt Ryan for 2016 MVP is the way the quarterback excelled this season even when Jones was out of the lineup. And that's because having Julio Jones feels like cheating. If he or the Falcons really wanted, Jones could have eclipsed Michael Irvin's conference championship game record of 192 yards, but 180 and two touchdowns will do just fine.
2. Chris Hogan, New England Patriots. In two playoff games, the former lacrosse player has 275 receiving yards, including the 180 on Sunday, which is a decidedly higher clip than the 680 he compiled over 15 starts in the regular season. His two scores in the first half of the AFC Championship were largely the result of the Steelers losing him in coverage and being fooled by a flea flicker, and Hogan has showed a knack for coming down with impressive catches on 50-50 balls.
3. Tom Brady, New England Patriots. He's going to his seventh Super Bowl and he's bored as hell. Must be nice.
4. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons. Ryan was dogged early in his career for playoff failures, but the Atlanta offense was humming on Sunday. Now he's reached a Super Bowl, and in doing so, become the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for at least three touchdowns in four straight playoff games.
5. Mohamed Sanu, Atlanta Falcons. The former Bengals receiver was pivotal early in the win over the Packers, scoring the first touchdown of the NFC Championship and compiling 46 receiving yards over the first two drives. A former high school quarterback, Sanu had two touchdown passes as a member of the Bengals, and boasts a perfect career passer rating, albeit in five attempts. On Sunday, on the Falcons' second possession, Matt Ryan motioned out wide before Sanu took a shotgun snap and ran for a seven-yard gain in the red zone. It's a look the Falcons will presumably revisit in the Super Bowl. At the very least, it gives the Patriots something to dwell on.
Five Losers Bathing in the Hard Water of Infinite Shame
1. Ladarius Gunter. Someone had to be on the wrong end of those pretty Julio Jones plays, and the Packers corner absorbed nearly all of them. It was kind of teammate Damarious Randall to also accept a huge stiff-arm from Julio so Gunter wasn't the only one made to look awful on the receiver's 73-yard score in the third quarter.
2. Steelers Receivers Who Aren't Antonio Brown. The Patriots came into the game determined to make Ben Roethlisberger rely on targets other than his top receiver, and that's exactly what happened. With Martavis Bryant suspended, the Steelers' lack of a true No. 2 guy was their undoing, as drops cost the Steelers at least 119 yards on the day. AB has a respectable line of seven catches for 77 yards, though his longest on the day only went for 11.
3. Aaron Ripkowski. His first-half red zone fumble was a killer. Atlanta was up 10-0. The Packers had already missed a field goal. For a while, though, it still seemed like Green Bay could keep pace. Then Ripkowski got the dropsies, the Falcons scored another touchdown on the ensuing drive to make it 17-0, and the rout was on.
4. Mike Mitchell. Pittsburgh's safety has always been better known for his ability to dish out huge hits than having any sort of prowess in coverage, and the Pats were all too glad to take advantage of that. He bit hard on the run on the flea flicker, leaving Chris Hogan wide open for his second score of the first half. If only he was mic'd up, we might have heard his trademark shriek.
5. The NFL Playoffs. Other than that Packers-Cowboys game, let us never speak of it again. On to Super Bowl LI.
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