[This article was written and adapted from my school paper. It should be an incredible weekend of football before we take a one-week break and prepare for the event that the late great Lamar Hunt helped bring to life and gave its name, The Super Bowl.]
As the cold and wind descend on the lower 48 states, it harkens back to the words of the late John Facenda of NFL Films and what he liked to call the “frozen tundra” that was the earlier era, ice-filled fields where icons of the NFL played the game. And so, it seems only fitting that the NFL season comes to a thrilling conclusion in the weeks ahead. It is football weather (even if one of the two games is being played inside).
Last year, 112.2 million people tuned in to watch the Broncos beat the Panthers 24-10 on the weight of Von Miller’s brilliant MVP performance. With the conference championships approaching, it is ripe moment for a synopsis of each game, a look at the key storylines and a prediction on the outcome. It is, in short, everything you need to know to sound like a pro.
The NFC championship pits the iconic Green Bay Packers against the comparatively upstart Atlanta Falcons. The Packers are one of the storied franchise in League history (with four Super Bowl victories, including the first Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs in 1967). They are led by future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers. He has been at an MVP-caliber level this year.
He carried the team to a 10-6 regular season. In the Wild Card game, he delivered big with a breathtaking (and signature) Hail Mary. In the Divisional Playoff, he orchestrated two masterful drives in the last four minutes against top-seeded Dallas. The final one was capped by a game-winning Mason Crosby field goal as time expired.
The Falcons, for their part, also had a solid regular season. They finished 11-5. And like Green Bay, they also have a stellar QB, Matt Ryan. He is assisted on the offensive side of the ball by stand out wide receiver, Julio Jones. In addition to Ryan and Jones, you also have two great running backs: Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
Amazingly, the Falcons scored an average of 33.8 points per game this year. They defeated Seattle 36-20 in the Divisional Playoff, shutting down one of the NFL’s best quarterback Russell Wilson.
Prediction: You should look for this game to be a classic shootout. As the saying goes, “…may the best (quarterback) win.” In the end, Rodgers delivers again for a 45-31 win by the Packers.
The AFC Championship features perennial threat and 4-time Super Bowl champion, the New England Patriots. They will match up against a high-powered Pittsburgh Steelers team that ended the 2016 regular season on a winning streak. The Patriots surprised many pundits early in the season by successfully navigating a 4-game Brady suspension. Instead of starting in a deep hole, they managed to play .500 ball at 2-2.
With Brady back in the saddle, the Patriots went on a tear. They ripped off four straight win and never looked back. Beyond the indomitable Brady, Martellus Bennett is a name to watch. Bennett has played a significant role this year due to an injured Rob Gronkowski. In the Divisional Playoff, the Patriots overcame a slow start against the Texans to end up trouncing them, 34-16.
The Steelers are a team with a storied franchise history. The Steelers have won the most Super Bowls of any team at six. They rely on an astute and hard-hitting defense. However, in 2016, they also bring an offense with major playmakers. “Big Ben”Roethlisberger offers the experience that every Superbowl contender needs. Le’veon Bell and Antonio Brown are incredible playmakers with the ability to change a game with one play. The Steelers waltzed through Miami in the Wild Card round. They needed a favorable holding call and late heroics from Roethlisberger to narrowly escape with an 18-16 win in Kansas City.
Prediction: The Patriots defense will be tested by Bell and Brown, but I predict that the Patriots will come out with a series of halftime adjustments and run away with the game. It is an 28-17 victory for the Patriots in what should be a fun game to watch.
Playoff football is a spectacle like no other and a welcome reprieve from the brutal January weather. It is football weather. And in the words of NFL Films’ John Facenda, “It is Pro Football. It starts with a whistle and ends with a gun.” Game on.