NFL Conference Championships are next
Before we get to the games from this past weekend, lets look at what has become proof the NFL, both its owners and commissioner, do not give a rat’s behind about the fans. Case in point, the San Diego, uh, make that Los Angeles Chargers.
The Chargers started out playing nice, asking the people of San Diego to foot the bill for a new stadium. After all, the Padres have nice new digs on the water, why shouldn’t the Chargers? When that failed, they upped the pressure, threatening to move while saying they really don’t want to move (Kind of like a spouse telling their mate they want them to be better looking or they will find someone new even though they don’t want to). The league offered to kick in a good sum of money if the citizens did their part. When they voted overwhelmingly in November against a proposal to fund the remaining portion of cost to build a new stadium, the Spanos family was forced to think long (about 5 seconds) and hard (they spent more time and money on a new team graphic and didn’t get it right) before telling the people of San Diego they were heading north for Los Angeles.
If you are a San Diego Charger fan, your heart was broken last week. If you are a tax-paying citizen sick and tired of professional sports franchises holding a gun to your head, you are happy. You are now done with the massive headache and money-making schemes of the NFL. Guess what? You will never have to flip the bill to host and secure another Super Bowl. You won’t have to bitch about the teams grip on mediocrity. And you won’t have to pay another dime in taxes to build a new state of the art stadium that will need to be replaced in another 20 years when it falls behind what the other NFL cities get stuck building.
If you don’t believe me, look at Atlanta. Their stadium was opened about the same time my youngest child was born and it needs replacing already (the stadium, not my kid) if it wants to host future Super Bowls and major college bowl games. It’s not even 30 years old and it is already over the hill. No wonder teens think 30 is ancient. They probably think the L.A. Coliseum is at least 100 years old.
If you are under the age of 50 and up to your ears in paying taxes, why would you ever vote to fund the construction of a new stadium? If you did so today, you’d be asked to do it again in the year 2040, and depending on your age now, again in 2065. If you live in a city with both a pro football and baseball team, you can double that number and cost. Add a hockey and or basketball franchise and you end up getting reamed just to be able to say your city is a pro sports mecca. No it isn’t, your city is just full of idiots.
So now the Spanos family will pack up and play in the confines of Stub Hub stadium, all 27,000 seats while they wait for the finishing touches to be placed on Los Angeles’ latest fiasco. Spanos will make up for the drop off in available seating by doubling the ticket prices, jacking up the cost of parking and concessions, and if he can, installing pay toilets.
At this point, the Chargers are so hated by the locals, they couldn’t fill up Balboa Stadium. Now they get to compete for all the fair weather fans in the L.A. Market.
Sure, the Spanos family will get rich(er) from all of this, but they will be left scratching their heads wondering why Los Angeles does not embrace them and why San Diegans won’t travel north to watch them play. It’s simple: people tend to dislike crooks. They especially hate the ones who are filthy rich, but who cry poor and want to be bailed out by the hard workingmen and women who have supported them for years. Good riddance Chargers!
Atlanta 36 – Seattle 20
Atlanta showed why they will be a real threat in next week’s NFC Championship game. After a slow first quarter, Atlanta’s high-powered offense ran off 36 points and abused the depleted Seattle Seahawk secondary in the process. Quarterback Matt Ryan tossed three touchdowns and threw for 338 yards.
It simply was not a good day for Seattle, whose best player turned out to be ex-Falcon Devin Hester who the Seahawks signed for the playoffs. Hester made good use of the kickoffs sent his way by chalking up 195 return yards. Unfortunately for Seattle, they didn’t get that kind of spark from the rest of the team.
Atlanta is one of those teams that is loaded on offense and brings with it a young and aggressive defense. It should continue to serve them well. Should they fall behind early like they did this past weekend, they won’t panic knowing that Matt Ryan and company can score points as fast as any team left in the playoffs.
Seattle will go home for the winter knowing that despite winning the NFC West, they have a lot of work to do to return to the upper echelon in the NFL. Their poor offensive line play has been masked by the benefit of playing in the worst division in the NFL. However, they cannot continue to think they can challenge for another division title much less another Super Bowl unless they make serious upgrades up front. They will also have to begin addressing their secondary before it gets much longer in the tooth. They have work to do this off-season.
New England 34 – Houston 16
How do you beat New England when they host an NFL playoff game? Most coaches would say if you can get Tom Brady to toss two interceptions while completing less than 50 percent of his throws it’s a good start. Then if you can maybe keep an ill LeGarrett Blount on the bench that will help. Maybe toss in one more turn over and then you should be able to win.
Such was the case for the Houston Texans on Saturday. Unfortunately, they are led by Brock Osweiler who managed to throw three interceptions of his own, killing any chance of pulling off a major upset.
The Patriots got three touchdowns out of Dion Lewis, including a 98-yard kickoff return, as he provided a much needed spark to a Patriot team that is so use to playing well they may have been better off not having a bye week. Those things just upset their rhythm. However, now that they have disposed of the Texans, who showed why they had no business being in the playoffs, look for New England to get back to business as usual.
As for Houston, in case they don’t know it, they have a problem. Osweiler has shown why John Elway was smart to let him walk away from Denver. He is nothing more than a mediocre quarterback which for now might be enough to win the starting job in Houston and take the putrid AFC South, but it won’t get you anything more than a much deserved butt kicking in the playoffs.
Do they eat his contract and find some other veteran retread in the off -season (How often does that work)? Do they tap into their defense and trade someone to move up in the draft (Have you seen this year’s QB selection? Nothing much there.)? Or do they bring in a quarterback guru to “fix” Osweiler (I don’t think they can solve what is between his ears.)?
Green Bay 34 – Dallas 31
There is no doubt this game lived up to its billing. The top seed Dallas Cowboys saw their magical season come to an end when Mason Crosby kicked a 51-yard field as time expired, ending a great Cowboy comeback in the fourth quarter and giving the Packers their eighth straight victory.
This win will be short lived for the Packers as they are now off to Atlanta to play the high scoring Falcons for the NFC title next week. However, for Dallas, this loss will feel like a death. They seemed ready to ascend to the top of the NFL led by two rookies.
When Green Bay took a late 31-28 lead on a 56-yard field goal, Dallas was left with little time to respond. However, Dak Prescott, who completed 24 of 38 passes for 302 yards and three touchdowns in his first ever NFL playoff game, guided the Cowboys to an equalizing 52-yard field goal that must have left everyone watching thinking the game was headed to over time.
Packer quarterback Aaron Rogers cemented his greatness, however, by tossing a 36-yard strike to Jared Cook (it was a spectacular catch) on 3rd and 20, placing Green Bay within range of a final field goal attempt. When Crosby sent the kick through the uprights, he capped off what might be considered the greatest divisional round playoff game ever. He actually did it twice because Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett called a timeout just before the ball was snapped the first time. Crosby nailed both.
The question now is just how many points will it take to win next week’s conference title? Both Green Bay and Atlanta seem to have offenses capable of scoring at will. No lead, including a 15-point fourth quarter lead, will be safe. If Matt Ryan and Aaron Rogers both play like they did this weekend, the title game should also be one for the ages.
And what’s next for Dallas? They seem set for a bright future, but this off season could be very interesting.
How well do Dak Prescott and Ezekial Elliott handle fame when they are on their own time? Elliott still has an alleged domestic violence incident hanging over his head? Will he be suspended by the league? Will he work hard to stay out of trouble and keep improving, or will he be like many other great first year backs who get complacent and report to camp next summer over weight and out of shape?
Then there is Dak Prescott, the rookie QB who seems to lack any nerves. Will he continue to grow and improve at his game? What happens when all the other teams have an entire off-season to break down every one of his snaps and find his weaknesses, allowing them to defend him better next year? Will he have Tony Romo backing him up or will Dallas trade Romo and hand the job outright to Prescott?
For now, none of that matters to Dallas players or fans. They will need time to digest the fact that what looked like one of the best Cowboy teams ever is going home early. They may still see themselves as America’s team, but on Sunday, they took a back seat to a Packer team that looks to take more than that title this year.
Pittsburgh 18 – Kansas City 16
The Pittsburgh Steelers became the first playoff team since the 2006 Indianapolis Colts to win a playoff game without scoring a touchdown, thanks to six field goals and a tough defense. However, to think the offense did not do its share of the workload would be wrong. Le’Veon Bell broke the Steeler record he set last week by running for 170 yards on 30 carries. Antonio Brown had six receptions for 108 yards and Ben Rothlisberger completed 20 of 31 passes for 224 yards. His skill at running a no huddle offense allowed Pittsburgh to control the ball and the clock for much of the game.
The Chiefs have to be kicking themselves. After scoring a late touchdown and converting a two-point conversion to tie the game, they were penalized for holding. Having to try for two points again, they came up short and never got the ball back. With the loss, the Chiefs will be left to question “what if ” for the off-season.
For Pittsburgh, they ride a nine game winning streak into next week’s AFC title game against New England and unless Mother Nature decides to intervene with some wicked weather, the game should be a classic. These two teams have plenty of history, great quarterbacks, and a familiarity with each other that should make this a bloodbath.
While both of these teams are known for their offense, it is their familiarity with each other that will make defense the focal point. How do you pressure a quarterback who knows how to get rid of the ball quick and find the smallest hole to exploit? Can the defensive front stay fresh without getting a break while facing a no huddle offense? How much do you commit to stopping the run or dink and dunk passing without giving up the deep ball? Can your corners play one-on-one against some of the best receivers in the league or will you need to give them the support of safeties? These are just some of the questions both defenses will have to answer while America watches from the comfort of their homes.
John Madden used to always say the conference championship games were the best games of the year because teams are so close to getting to the Super Bowl they lay it all out there. Going back to the first two Super Bowls, we saw classic title games between Green Bay and Dallas with the Packers winning both, 34-27 and 21-17. The Super Bowl was anticlimactic both times. Had Dallas won those games, the Super Bowl trophy would be called the Landry Trophy and not the Lombardi Trophy and Dallas might be deserving of the name “America’s Team.”
Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and New England could all claim to be America’s team with all the Super Bowl titles and playoff history they have, while Atlanta seeks to win their first. Neither team will have an easy path, but do not underestimate the importance of not having to travel to play. The home team has a decided advantage, however, it is a short lived one and as long as either of the two road teams, Green Bay and Pittsburgh, remain close, they will play with the confidence that comes to teams that have not lost in over two months.
Turnovers, penalties, dropped passes, and blown coverages will all be critical, but so will having a thick skin, short memory, and the ability to focus on what is in front of you rather than what has already happened. Both Pittsburgh and Green Bay would seem to have an advantage here, but don’t underestimate the home teams. The Falcons had to overcome their own rough patch of games mid season, and you don’t win with the frequency that New England does without possessing the ability to get past adversity.
I believe the conference title games are ultimately decided by quarterbacks, more so than any other game. With that in mind, I am picking Green Bay to beat Atlanta and New England to beat Pittsburgh in two very close games. The winning margins will be by 5 points or less and it is not out of line to think both Atlanta and Pittsburgh will win.
One thing is for sure: when these games are over, NFL fans will forget how dull and boring the regular season has been while getting a much needed extra week to gear up for Super Bowl week.
All photos are screen shots from YouTube unless otherwise noted.
Top photo: Mason Crosby of the Packers kicking the game-winning field goal in their game against the Cowboys.
James Moore is a life long resident of California and retired school teacher with 30 years in public education. Jim earned his BA in History from CSU Chico in 1981 and his MA in Education from Azusa Pacific University in 1994. He is the author of Teaching The Teacher: Lessons Learned From Teaching and currently runs his own personal training business, In Home Jim, in Hemet, CA. Jim’s writings are often the end result of his thoughts mulled over while riding his bike for hours on end.