The Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots were the only two teams that didn’t disappoint during the 2017 NFL playoffs. Phrasing there is key. The flip side would be that a lot of teams impressed, but that doesn’t feel right, not when so many teams that won in blowouts went out and got blown out themselves.
It’s hard to remember a playoffs so devoid of exciting games. All but two games were decided by 13 points or more, for an average winning margin of 17.5 points. The best game was the Green Bay Packers’ epic divisional win against the Cowboys in Dallas. They followed it up by getting beat as thoroughly as any team in the playoffs, 44-21, by the Falcons in the NFC Championship.
The good news about an unexciting playoff is that there hasn’t been any obfuscating noise. The two teams heading to Houston are the teams that deserve to be there, by any measure and without controversy. There is nothing else to say. If the Falcons and Patriots execute like the did during their conference championship matchups, Super Bowl LI will be an incredible game. Maybe. Hopefully.
In truth, that’s unknowable. These playoffs looked like they were going to redeem what had been a fart-y regular season, but they’ve arguably been even worse.
If we’re going to be optimistic, there’s this: The Falcons and Patriots are playing great football. You don’t have to squint your eyes or make up hypotheticals like, “y’know, if 2011 Eli Manning shows up ... .” Both of these teams are top-down outstanding.
The Falcons are proven. They earned the No. 2 seed despite losing five games. They didn’t look like a Super Bowl contender the entire season, and the fact that they collapsed late and went 8-8 in 2015 was legitimate reason to pause when they lost four of seven games from Week 6 through Week 13. But when they lost, they made sure to lose close, and when they won, they often embarrassed opponents. They have now won six straight games by an average of 19.8 points.
The offense has been the NFL’s best all season, which a casual observer might have predicted with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Tevin Coleman, and Devonta Freeman coming back.
The evolution of the defense in recent weeks has elevated the Falcons into superlative territory. They have forced 13 turnover over their winning streak, more than two per game, and have five sacks in two playoff games. Four of the Falcons’ seven-highest rated players on Sunday played defense, according to Pro Football Focus.
It’s difficult to think of the Patriots as “proving” themselves when they’ve been annoyingly great for so many years. But they have needed to be (ugh) scrappy, (*heaves*) disciplined, and (did you guys see that horrible commercial with Humpty Dumpty dying and vomiting his guts all over himself? That’s how I feel typing this.) gritty to not only survive but thrive throughout a season in which they missed many of their best players for several solid chunks of time. On Sunday, they got nine receptions for 180 yards and two touchdown out of Chris Hogan, a man whose hair looks photoshopped.
The Patriots rolled through the season to a 14-2 record despite missing Tom Brady for the first four games of the season and supposedly being hamstrung by injuries. If they had a potential fatal flaw, it was the fact that their schedule was appallingly easy. They hadn’t faced a quarterback who was better than 12th in passer rating on the season, and perhaps the best quarterback they faced, Russell Wilson, handed them a loss at Gillette Stadium.
They answered that concern by stifling Ben Roethlisberger. Not only was his 83 passer rating relatively meager, but the Steelers’ biggest weapons never got loose. Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell have been superheroes for Pittsburgh, but Brown was held to 77 yards despite seven catches and Bell was sidelined after just six carries.
There is a lovely Good Guys vs. Bad Guys narrative here, too. Atlanta has just one sports championship across 168 combined seasons by its NFL, MLB, NBA, and (now defunct) NHL teams. The Patriots are going to their NFL record ninth Super Bowl, and seventh of the Brady-Belichick era. One team is clearly the plucky underdog in this scenario, and it’s here that I’d like to remind you that 9-3 and 21-7 are common football scores and also divisibly equivalent to 3-1 leads.
The NFL has fed us a lot of crap this season. Its officials and concussion protocol failed to start the season. It muzzled player expression in games that nobody wanted to watch. And now, the league is staging a wimpy denouement. The general idea of a playoff is to ultimately put the two best teams in the biggest game of the season, however, and it appears that the NFL may have gotten that right.
When the Falcons and the Patriots kick off in Houston, we should get a football game that we can appreciate for football’s sake. No, that doesn’t really make up for what this NFL season has been. But if you cover your ears and look straight ahead, you may see something worth getting excited about.