Conference Championship Reflection & Early Super Bowl Preview

First off, my apologies if you took my advice with the conference championship games this past Sunday. Even though the model I created and use had the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots winning and covering the spread, historical trends favored the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers. Green Bay and Pittsburgh came into their games riding a big winning streak after dealing with some adversity earlier in the season. Their defenses had been coming on lately as well (we were surprised that neither the Packers nor the Steelers blitzed all that much). They had experienced QBs and loads of offensive talent. Of course the same can be said about the teams that destroyed them on Sunday but we really did think the games would have been a whole closer than the actual results. We won't go Trump on you here though and cry over spilt milk. We simply misjudged how these games would be played and for that, we are sorry.

It should be no surprise that the two team competing in Super Bowl LI are the Falcons and Patriots. After all, they both lead the league in point differential and were quite consistent throughout the season. Both starting QBs led the league in QB rating and rarely did these teams stumble during the season. The Patriots did get shutout in 1 game (16-0 to Buffalo at home) but that was without Tom Brady. The other loss was by 7 to Seattle so for the most part, New England has been a nearly flawless team. The Falcons lost 5 games with the worst loss being by 9 in Philadelphia. All of the other losses were close and you can blame lapses in defense for those losses given how prolific the Falcons offense has been this year.

Before we make any predictions (we will be careful given how last weekend went), it would be wise to reflect on the games last weekend and what we think may happen in Super Bowl LI

  • NFC Championship Reflection

We knew this game would be a track meet. Atlanta had the first possession and scored a TD right away. No surprise there. Green Bay then moved the ball well with two very nice catches by Jordy Nelson. The Packers offense did stall before it can get into the redzone but that should have been OK since Mason Crosby is a very reliable kicker. Well, so we thought. The guy had been nearly perfect for this season and a 41 yarder indoors should not have been a problem. When the ball veered a bit right, that was probably a harbinger of bad things to come for the Packers.

Atlanta scored a FG on the next drive so at least Green Bay had a chance to correct itself by scoring a TD on its next drive. It certainly looked like that would happen when Aaron Ripkowski got the Packers into the red zone. Well, the ball was ripped out of Ripkowski's hand and Atlanta recovered the fumble in the endzone for a touchback. A couple of big plays to Julio Jones as well as some wheels Matt Ryan put on display (we didn't think he had such mobility in him), and Atlanta is now up 17-0 and it's still quite early in the 2nd quarter.

Afterwards Green Bay was simply pressing since it knew it didn't have the defense to stop Atlanta and unfortunately things got worse with so many dropped passes by the Packers receivers and constant pressure from the Falcons defense on Rodgers. It also didn't help that Jones dominated the Packers depleted secondary and all of a sudden, the Falcons are up 31-0 early in the 2nd half. If there were a turning point in this game, it would be Ripkowski's fumble. The Packers never recovered and the Falcons high flying offense capitalized on every mistake from Green Bay and pretty much played a flawless game.

The Falcons also never let the foot off the pedal. Matt Ryan was amazing and pretty much stayed clean in the pocket. He will kill you if you don't pressure him. Essentially the Falcons were determined to not choke like they had in previous postseasons. The defense played surprisingly well. It's a young and very fast group that seems to be coming together at the right time. We never felt they were truly challenged at the end of the season given the weak competition they played but they clearly rose to the occasion against a red hot Packers team in perhaps the biggest game of their lives. Congrats to Atlanta on making its 2nd trip to the Super Bowl and hopefully they will finally win it!

  • AFC Championship Reflection

Just like the NFC Championship game, this one got out of hand pretty quickly and it was the home team that was victorious again. In all fairness though, the whole complexion of this game changed dramatically when Le'Veon Bell left the game early with a groin injury and never returned. Back up RB DeAngelo Williams did play well but he is not the threat that Bell is in the passing game and he doesn't run with the same style that Bell does (waiting for holes to open and then hitting it hard for big gains).

Interestingly, a missed kick by Pittsburgh, just like Crosby's missed FG for Green Bay, was another omen that it was not meant to be for the Steelers. The Steelers found themselves down 10-0 early (just like the other game that day!) but got a TD to pull closer. However, Chris Boswell missed the PAT which is odd since he hadn't missed a PAT all season and in fact was the hero last week in Kansas City with 6 FGs (an NFL playoff record and done in inclement weather!).

Still, the game was still within reach for the Steelers being down by just 1 score at halftime but after more miscues at the start of the 2nd half, Tom Brady made the Steelers pay by hitting Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman repeatedly for big gains and of course finishing off his drives with TDs. As soon as you knew it, the Steelers were down 33-9 midway through the 3rd quarter and the game was pretty much over. Committing two turnovers didn't help to New England's zero turnovers and dropping passes that could have led to 100+ more yards also doomed the Steelers. We were also perplexed that Pittsburgh didn't bring the pressure to Brady in the form of blitzes. Like Ryan, he stayed clean in the pocket for most of the game.

One guy that just came out of nowhere for New England was WR Chris Hogan. WOW! The guy had at most 7 targets in a game all season but busts out with 12 targets, 9 receptions, 180 yards, and 2 TDs. Clearly he chose the right time to have the best game of his life. It seems that New England can take an ordinary Joe and make him into a superstar. This is the unpredictability of the New England offense that can be so frustrating to opposing defenses. All you know is that Tom Brady will be great but who he will lock onto is really anyone's guess. That is the genius of Bill Belichick.

As we have become accustomed to so often in the NFL postseason, we get a Super Bowl with New England in it. That has been the case 7 times in the last 16 seasons and it could have been more had the Patriots not lost in the AFC Championship game 4 other times (three of which were to Peyton Manning!). We are witnessing one of the most successful NFL dynasties that is on par with the championship Browns teams of the 50s, Packers of the 60s, Steelers of the 70s, 49ers of the 80s, and Cowboys of the 90s.

  • Super Bowl LI Preview

Given how lackluster this NFL postseason has been, we have hope that the Super Bowl will make up for it. We have the highest predicted point total from Vegas in Super Bowl history so let's hope this game lives up to the hype. Both teams are healthy and have been lighting up the scoreboard lately. The Patriots haven't scored less than 30 points since the week before Christmas and that was a road game in Denver against one of the best defenses in the league. The last time the Falcons didn't reach 30 points was early December and that was a 29-28 loss at home to KC. As good as the New England defense has been, they haven't been tested like the way the Falcons offense will on Feb. 5. Expect a high scoring game, at least we hope!

One thing about the Atlanta offense that kind of goes unnoticed is its running game. Even though neither Devonta Freeman or Tevin Coleman rank as top 5 fantasy RBs, the combination of the two would actually rate as one of the best RBs in NFL history. Rarely would both be on the field at the same time since Freeman played about 55 - 60% of the snaps and Coleman 40 - 45%. That way each guy was quite fresh when he saw the field. The production they both provided would be on par with the record breaking seasons Marshall Faulk, Shaun Alexander, Terrell Davis, LaDainian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson, Priest Holmes, Eric Dickerson, Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, and Chris Johnson all had. Just add it all up for Freeman and Coleman: 345 carries, 1599 rushing yards, 19 rushing TDs, 85 receptions, 883 receiving yards, and 5 receiving TDs. The great RBs listed above would play close to 100% of their team's snaps and the combination of Freeman and Coleman was also about 100% of the Falcons snaps. Ryan and Jones did have impressive years but the run game for Atlanta was just as impressive if not more so.

Another thing that not many people have talked about is how both New England and Atlanta led the NFL in point differential (points scored minus points allowed) which of course is the strongest indicator of success. Sounds silly to say that since you win if you score more points than your opponent but Houston did win its division and made it to the divisional round of the playoffs with a -49 point differential. On the other hand, Arizona had a +56 point differential (good for the 4th highest in the NFC) but did not make the postseason or even finish with a winning record. Needless to say, we are getting the two best teams the NFL has to offer for Super Bowl LI. Last year's Super Bowl teams rated high in point differential with Carolina leading the league in that category. The two Super Bowls before that one also featured the top two teams in point differential.

So, who wins this game? We have talked about how both of these teams have been consistently strong all year with Atlanta doing it with mainly offense and New England with balance. In fact, no team scored more points than Atlanta this year and no team allowed fewer points than New England. Clearly something will have to give but we suspect this game to be a shootout which New England can easily adjust to.

Here are some things to consider about each team.

Strengths of Atlanta

  • Run game
  • Julio Jones
  • Young, fast defense
  • Innovative coaching
  • Matt Ryan is pretty good too!

Weaknesses of Atlanta

  • Inexperience
  • Defense too young and mistake prone

Strengths of New England

  • Arguably the greatest QB and head coach combination in the Super Bowl era
  • Strong defense
  • Normal guys who just make amazing plays

Weaknesses of New England

  • Hard to find one but sometimes the run game is not all that consistent

As with most championships, you tend to win with defense so the team that can disrupt the other team's offense the more frequently should win. Both teams have very disciplined offenses that can capitalize on the other team's mistakes. Will it be Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn and his young and fast defense who is now coaching in his 3rd Super Bowl in the last 4 years? Will it be the NFL's resident genius and his guys that will hoist a 5th Lombardi Trophy? Let the analysis begin and predictions will follow sometime next week.