The Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots cruised to Super Bowl LI on the backs of elite-level quarterback play from MVP candidates Matt Ryan and Tom Brady.
Two of the most highly anticipated games of the year had debatably the best sets of quarterback matchups in recent memory. In the NFC, Ryan and the Falcons faced Aaron Rodgers and the red-hot Green Bay Packers, who had won eight games straight entering the matchup. In the AFC, future Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks were set to square up in Brady and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger.
The NFC Championship was the opener for Saturday’s games. The Falcons started the game with the ball and scored on a 13-play drive that went 80-yards and killed over six and a half minutes. The drive ended on a two-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. Atlanta would take a 7-0 lead early on in the game.
Green Bay took over on offense after a touchback resulting from the kickoff. Rodgers brought the Packers 52-yards down the field into field goal range on seven plays. They were unable to convert on third down, leaving it up to kicker Mason Crosby to put three points on the board, but he ultimately missed the attempt.
The Falcons began the drive in good field-position after the missed field goal attempt by Crosby. Ryan and the rest of the offense started with the ball on their 31-yard-line and went marched 59 yards on 12 plays, finishing off the drive with a Bryant field goal.
Atlanta stretched the lead to a 10-0 score, pressuring the Green Bay offense to put points up in a hurry. The Packers 64-yard drive looked like it was meant for the end zone, until a fumble by fullback Aaron Ripkowski on the one-yard line flushed their hopes down the drain.
The Falcons scored a touchdown off the ill-timed turnover, extending the game to a 17-0 lead. It would be more of the same domination by Atlanta in the second quarter, as Rodgers was pressured and intercepted. Atlanta wasted no time in scoring immediately on the drive there after. At the end of the half, it was 24-0. The Falcons jogged into their locker room knowing the second half would merely be a formality.
The final score of the game was 44-21 Falcons, with Green Bay scoring 14 garbage-time points. “Matty Ice” finished the game with 392 passing yards and four touchdowns on 27 of 38 passing, adding a rushing touchdown. His performance could have potentially solidified his MVP candidacy. All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones finished the game with 180 yards receiving and two touchdowns on nine receptions, leading the team in receiving.
Rodgers finished the game with three touchdowns and one interception, with 287 passing yards. He also led Green Bay in rushing with 46 yards. The lack of a running game, pressure on Green Bay’s offensive line and a weak secondary is why the Packers are heading home. The Falcons will be playing in their second Super Bowl in their team’s history, as they are yet to win one. Atlanta lost in their only appearance in the 1998 season to the Denver Broncos, 34-19.
In the AFC Championship game, a dormant rivalry was revived. Roethlisberger and Brady have met eight times in their careers before they met this season in the playoffs. Brady had gone 6-2, including winning the only playoff game in 2004 that the two have played in against each other, according to bleacherreport.com.
The Patriots started the game with the ball and kicked a field goal for the first three points of the game. After several changes in possession, New England got the ball back and scored on a 16-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chris Hogan. The touchdown pass by Brady would extend the lead to 10-0.
The Pittsburgh Steelers would score on the next drive, but at a large cost. Two-time Pro-Bowler Le’Veon Bell would leave the game with an apparent groin injury. Back-up DeAngelo Williams would be the benefactor, scoring a rushing touchdown on a five-yard run. Kicker Chris Boswell missed the extra point attempt for Pittsburgh, making it a 10-6 game.
New England eventually scored again midway through the second quarter on a 34-yard touchdown pass to Hogan for his second of the game. The Patriots would push it to a 17-6 game, but with less than two minutes to go in the first half Pittsburgh notched a field goal to bring the game within a touchdown and two-point conversion. The score at halftime was 17-9, and the Steelers were set to receive the ball to start the third quarter.
Pittsburgh squandered their attempt to close the gap, ending their drive with a punt. The Patriots scored several drives later on a one-yard touchdown run by running back LeGarrette Blount, making it a 27-9 ball game. Things were not going Pittsburgh’s way after Bell was taken out of the game; his absence was missed and it was visible on the field.
With 2:36 left on the clock in the third quarter, the Steelers had a limited amount of time to make up ground, and the first play of the next drive Pittsburgh wide receiver Eli Rodgers fumbled the ball and the Patriot’s Rob Ninkovich recovered the fumble. Julian Edelman would score a 10-yard receiving touchdown that ended up being the dagger to solidify the game.
Brady and the Patriots won by a final score of 36-17 over the Steelers. Through the air, Brady had passed for 384 yards and three touchdowns, completing 32 of 42 passes. Hogan finished with 180 yards and two touchdowns on nine receptions, eerily similar to Jones’ effort in Atlanta. Edelman finished with a respectable 118 yards and a touchdown on eight receptions, highlighting the receiving core of New England.
Super Bowl LI is now set. The New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons are set to face of in Houston, Texas., February 5 at NRG Stadium. Will Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick capture their fifth title together? Could Atlanta bring a title to a city that has not seen one in professional sports for 22 years? There are many storylines to follow in this year’s big game, and it should turn out to be quite the matchup.