The hope every year is for an entertaining, competitive Super Bowl. But we’re really desperate for one after this postseason stew of stinkers.
Only two of the 10 playoff games were close – Green Bay’s 34-31 thriller over Dallas and Pittsburgh’s 18-16 nail-biter against Kansas City. Every other contest was settled by at least 13 points.
Six of the matchups were decided by 18 points or more, including Sunday’s conference championships when Atlanta and New England advanced by 23 and 19, respectively, against the Packers and Steelers.
For whatever reason, the NFL’s veneer dulled and its invincibility cracked this season. Theories for the decline in TV ratings are plentiful and diverse, encompassing everything from politics and culture to supply and demand. Don’t forget the question of quantity versus quality. Game officials didn’t help, either, calling too many iffy penalties while blowing obvious ones.
Pro football appears to be wounded but it remains the king. According to Nielsen, the Packers-Cowboys tilt Jan. 15 was the most-watched NFL divisional playoff game ever and the most-watched telecast of any kind since last year’s Super Bowl. It drew more viewers – 48.5 million – than Game 7 of the Cubs-Indians World Series (40 million).
If Dallas had advanced to face New England in the Super Bowl, the game likely would have broken records and possibly the machines that measure ratings, too. America’s Team versus America’s Most Wanted. That was a dream matchup for NFL suits and advertising partners, but a nightmare for the horde that detests both franchises.
Fans who have no love for the Patriots or NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could find themselves conflicted. Images of a fake-smiling Goodell handing the Lombardi Trophy to New England’s Big Three – owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady – would be worth the price of 51 Super Bowl tickets. Considering the way they were hosed in Deflategate, Kraft, Belichick and Brady have every right to taunt Goodell mercilessly while forming a dance circle around him.
That storyline threatens to make Atlanta a high-powered afterthought.
Goodell has ducked the Patriots all season and through the playoffs. He attended postseason contests in Seattle, Kansas and Atlanta, the last city on back-to-back weekend. Sunday marked the final game at the Georgia Dome, giving him a semblance of cover. But there’s nothing left to protect him from the wrath of New England fans.
“Where is he? It’s like Waldo right now,” tight end Martellus Bennett told reporters Sunday after Goodell chants filled Gillette Stadium and Patriots radio announcer elicited an enormous cheer when his “Where is Roger?” appeared on the video screen. “He doesn’t want to come here,” Bennett said. “He doesn’t know where he’s at.”
Belichick and Brady don’t need an extra shot of motivation to reach the victory stand Feb. 5. Not only are they cyborgs in that regard, history is at stake as well. They’re currently tied with Pittsburgh’s Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw and attempting to become the first coach-quarterback duo with five Super Bowl wins.
This matchup might even give them a touch of déjà vu.
The Patriots are facing MVP candidate Matt Ryan, the red-hot quarterback who triggers the NFL’s highest-scoring scoring offense. His top target is wideout Julio Jones, who led the league in receiving yards per game. The Falcons are No. 2 in overall yards, No. 2 in passing touchdowns and No. 5 in rushing.
After posting a combined 80 points and 915 yards in the postseason, Atlanta appears unstoppable … sort of like the first Super Bowl opponent in the Belichick-Brady Era.
The Falcons aren’t quite there, but they’re doing a halfway decent imitation of the 2001 St. Louis Rams. Led by MVP quarterback Kurt Warner and Hall of Fame halfback Marshall Faulk, the Rams were No. 1 in scoring, total yards and passing yards, and boasted the fifth-best rushing attack.
New England was a 14-point underdog against the Rams but held the vaunted “Greatest Show on Turf” to a mere 17 points. And this was before Brady and Belichick built the mystique that helps make them slight favorites in Super Bowl 51. For that matter, the nation barely knew Tom Brady from Greg Brady; nine-year veteran Drew Bledsoe was the Patriots’ starting QB when the season began.
Fifteen years later, with their Hall of Fame credentials in cement, Brady and Belichick will be cooler and calmer than ever. As formidable as the Falcons are operating Kyle Shanahan’s offense, picking against New England in this situation is exceedingly difficult.
The Patriots’ edge in experience and Belichick’s status as a certified defensive genius are a lot to overcome. No matter the outcome, though, the league could use a good, old-fashioned shootout to rinse away the taste of bad football this postseason.
An entertaining, competitive game. It’s the least we can ask for.
As for Goodell, that’s probably a distant second on his wish list.