If you like close football games, then the conference championship round of the 2016 NFL playoffs wasn’t for you.
The Falcons routed the Packers 44-21 in the NFC championship game at Atlanta and the Patriots pounded the Steelers 36-17 in the AFC championship game at New England.
The Falcons and Patriots could make up for the boredom with a shootout Super Bowl in two weeks at Houston.
There wasn’t a lot of suspense Sunday, but there were a few surprises.
Chris Hogan’s career day
Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan entered Sunday’s game with at least four catches in three straight games.
He had that many in the first quarter on Sunday and matched his career high in a game with seven receptions in the first half. Hogan ended up with nine receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns, all career highs. His 180 yards was a Patriots single-game postseason record.
What made Hogan’s performance even harder to believe was the fact that the Steelers left him uncovered so many times. On his 16-yard touchdown catch that increased the Patriots’ lead to 10-0 in the first quarter, the closest Steeler to Hogan in the end zone might as well have been in Providence.
Earlier in that drive, the Patriots completely changed their formation before the snap, and Tom Brady threw a 26-yard pass to Hogan that moved the ball to the Steelers’ 31.
Hogan’s other touchdown catch went for 34 yards in the second quarter, giving the Patriots a 17-6 lead.
Patriots repeating history against Steelers
The Steelers’ inability to beat Tom Brady in New England was a popular storyline going into the AFC championship game.
They’re now 2-10 against him, 0-5 at Gillette Stadium.
Not only did the Steelers lose to Brady again, but the way the Patriots won was eerily similar to some of Brady’s wins over the Steelers in the past.
Certain elements of Patriots wins over the Steelers have become as predictable as Kenny dying in “South Park” episodes.
On Brady’s second touchdown pass, a 34-yard connection to Chris Hogan, Brady handed the ball off to Dion Lewis and Lewis flipped the ball back to him on a flea-flicker. Brady got Steelers safety Mike Mitchell to bite, and Hogan zoomed past him for the touchdown and a 17-6 Patriots lead in the second quarter.
That play carried on a tradition of Brady fooling Steelers safeties in big games. In the 2004 AFC championship game at Pittsburgh, he got Troy Polamalu to clamp down on underneath routes while Deion Branch broke free for a 60-yard touchdown catch and a 10-0 Patriots lead. New England won that game 41-27 and went on to win its third Super Bowl.
In a 2007 regular-season game at Gillette Stadium, Brady twice burned safety Anthony Smith for touchdowns in a 34-13 Patriots win. Smith was targeted because that week he guaranteed a win over the unbeaten Patriots.
Late in the third quarter on Sunday, LeGarrette Blount gained 18 yards on a run, dragging at least a half-dozen Steelers defenders with him to the 1-yard line. Blount took it in for a touchdown and a 27-9 Patriots lead on the next play.
Blount’s 18-yard gain was reminiscent of a 10-yard run by Laurence Maroney early in that 2007 game. Maroney pushed a gang of Steelers defenders and set the tone for the game.
Sunday’s victory also featured a goal-line stand by the Patriots. Late in the second quarter, Ben Roethlisberger’s 19-yard touchdown pass to Jesse James was reversed, and the Steelers had a first-and-goal at the half-yard line. But DeAngelo Williams, replacing an injured Le’Veon Bell, lost one yard. Then he lost three yards. Then Roethlisberger threw an incomplete pass to Eli Rogers and the Steelers settled for a field goal to make the score 17-9 at halftime.
In the 2007 game, the Steelers trailed 31-13 in the fourth quarter and had a third-and-goal from the 1. A pass to Santonio Holmes fell incomplete and Hines Ward was stopped on an end around, and the Patriots cruised from there.
Nine years later, Steelers fans can once again say “Oh my God, they killed the Steelers’ season.”
Chris Boswell missing an extra point
Apparently Chris Boswell forgot how to kick extra points.
He didn’t have to attempt any last week because the Steelers didn’t score any touchdowns. He made six field goals and scored all the Steelers’ points in their 18-16 divisional-round win over the Chiefs.
At least the Steelers scored touchdowns on Sunday, but Boswell missed the first extra point that he tried in two weeks. DeAngelo Williams ran for a 5-yard touchdown to narrow the Steelers’ deficit to 10-6 early in the second quarter, and Boswell’s kick was wide left.
Boswell went 36-for-36 on extra points in the regular season, but missed two in the playoffs.
Steelers’ early play-calling
The Steelers can’t point to any one play as the reason they lost to the Patriots. One thing they needed to do, however, was get off to a fast start. That didn’t happen because they failed to make some plays in the game’s opening minutes.
They trailed 3-0 on their first possession when they faced third-and-1 from their own 31-yard line. Ben Roethlisberger attempted a deep pass to Sammie Coates that was incomplete.
Not only was it a curious decision to throw the ball in that situation, it was puzzling that Coates was the target. The receiver caught 21 passes this season, but only two since Week 6 because he was hampered by a hand injury. Coates hadn’t even been targeted since Week 15 in Cincinnati, and even then he caught just one of the four passes thrown his way.
A second-year player, Coates showed a lot of promise early in the season before he hurt his hand. He might be a go-to guy in the future, but he wasn’t the guy to go to on Sunday.
Falcons’ lopsided win
Sure, the Falcons were favored to beat the Packers at Atlanta, but by less than a touchdown.
The Falcons won by a lot more than that. During their eight-game winning streak going into the game, the Packers had never even trailed by double digits.
Matt Ryan completed 27 of 38 passes for 392 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Two of those touchdown passes went to Julio Jones, who caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns. That wasn’t too far off from Jones’ 11-catch, 182-yard, two-touchdown performance the last time the Falcons were in the NFC championship game in 2012.
The Falcons lost to the 49ers in that game. They ensured the result would be different Sunday by taking a 24-0 halftime lead. The Falcons also were the last team to hold the Packers scoreless in the first half of a postseason game. It happened in 2002 when they beat them 27-7 in a wild-card game at Green Bay.
Atlanta amassed 493 yards of offense and converted 10 of 13 third downs in reaching its second Super Bowl in franchise history and first since 1998. It took a few surprising developments for the Falcons to get off to such a fast start.
Play calls on Falcons’ opening touchdown drive
The Falcons scored a touchdown on their opening drive for the eighth straight game, according to ESPN Stats & Info. So it wasn’t all that surprising they did it Sunday against the Packers.
What was surprising was the way they set up the touchdown and the way they scored it.
Fullback Patrick DiMarco, who caught seven passes this year and never has had a reception longer than 19 yards in his career, picked up 31 yards on a catch-and-run to bring the ball to the Packers’ 5-yard line.
Then on third-and-goal from the 2, Matt Ryan looked like he had a lane to try to take the ball in himself. But he would save the rushing touchdown for the second quarter. This time, he threw a shovel pass that Mohamed Sanu hauled in for a 7-0 Falcons lead on the game’s opening drive.
Aaron Ripkowski fumble
The first of the Packers’ two turnovers (the Falcons had none) looked like it would be one kind of surprise, then it quickly turned into another.
Fullback Aaron Ripkowski seemed to be an unlikely candidate to score the Packers’ first touchdown, but with his team trailing 10-0, the 6’1″, 255-pounder rambled for 12 yards to the Falcons’ 11-yard line early in the second quarter.
It would have been mildly surprising if Ripkowski took it to the house. But the surprise, as it turned out, is what happened after that.
Cornerback Jalen Collins ripped the ball from Ripkowski, and the ball fell forward. Collins recovered the fumble for a touchback. The Falcons turned around and increased their lead to 17-0.
It was the second time in the first half the Packers left points on the field, the first being when Mason Crosby missed a 41-yard field goal on their first possession. Those mistakes allowed the Falcons to take control of the game.
Matt Ryan rushing touchdown
It’s not like Matt Ryan hasn’t run for a touchdown in his career. He’s done it five times. But the last time he did it, he was a spry 27-year-old in 2012. Now 31 and an MVP candidate, Ryan wasn’t afraid to roll up this sleeves and put his body on the line, running for a touchdown and a 17-0 lead over the Packers midway through the second quarter.
It was Ryan’s first rushing touchdown since Week 1 of the 2012 season at Kansas City, according to NFL Research.
The desire he showed on that play shows just how much Ryan wants to do something about being the only quarterback still in the playoffs without a ring.