There should be no such thing as a bad NFL playoffs. In the same way that there are no bad jokes about The Young Pope, a playoff game almost always brings the goods. Incredibly, though, that hasn’t been the case this year. Despite great quarterbacks and high-profile teams advancing, there’s been almost no drama. Outside of a classic Packers-Cowboys game in the divisional round, the most exciting thing that happened all playoffs was Antonio Brown filming a Facebook Live video and knocking your aunt’s political posts off your newsfeed. Only two games (one of which was the awful Steelers-Chiefs game) have been decided by a score or less — there were seven such games last postseason. The last time the NFL had so few one-score playoff games was in the 2005 season, a stretch so dull that “Jerome Bettis is from Detroit!” became a hilariously overplayed story line. Thank God Julio Jones isn’t playing the Super Bowl in Foley, Alabama. The last time both conference title games were decided by 19 points or more was 1978. Eight of 10 playoff games were down in TV ratings from last year. This is bad.
So how did we get here? The short answer is plain bad luck. Great games are the product of great teams. And these ain’t that. In order to get dramatic games, great quarterbacks usually need to score quickly, and good defenses need to keep things close. Last season, 11 of the top 12 scoring defenses in the NFL made the playoffs. That number dropped to seven this year; remarkably, only three playoff games were played between top-12 defenses in the league. The more points go up on the board, the higher the likelihood of a blowout, and good defenses prevent blowouts. The Seahawks’ 10–9 victory over the Vikings last January didn’t feature many fireworks, but at least we got the dramatic missed field goal that ruined Blair Walsh’s career.
2016 was an imperfect season, and most teams had fatal flaws that ruined their chances of embarking on epic playoff runs. The Panthers secondary was so bad that Carolina dropped out of contention by mid-October. The Broncos lost Peyton Manning and saw their offense fail to score more than 10 points in three straight December games en route to getting eliminated. The Giants made the playoffs but had only one good offensive player (Odell Beckham Jr.), while the Cardinals suffered from Carson Palmer taking a step back, Chandler Catanzaro missing a quarter of his field goal attempts, and the defense failing to be nearly as good as it should have been. Andrew Luck, one of the game’s most talented passers, was surrounded (again!) by almost no talent in Indianapolis, leading to a terrible team and a rumor that the Colts tried to hire Manning and Jon Gruden. The Raiders, one of the young, exciting contenders who vaulted into football’s elite this fall, had everything crash down when Derek Carr, one of the league’s most thrilling players to watch, broke his leg and was replaced by Connor Cook. Hell, even the Steelers, blown out by the Patriots in the AFC championship game, never reached the offensive heights they should have. That’s due to a variety of factors, not the least of which was Ben Roethlisberger’s inconsistency.
This created a playoffs full of incomplete teams at best and unwatchable teams at worst. Brock Osweiler and the Texans made the playoffs. The Dolphins, with a roster that didn’t seem playoff-ready, made the postseason with Matt Moore replacing the injured Ryan Tannehill at quarterback. By the time the playoffs started, they had only a fraction of their usual star power. Think Saved by the Bell: The College Years.
But here’s the good news: There’s a game that is coming to save us, and it’s the Super Bowl. There are two teams left. Both are good. In fact, Patriots-Falcons has all the marks of a classic.
Why This Game Will Be Different
The generally established formula for great games is a ton of points and a small margin of victory. In this game, the points should be plentiful; the Falcons have one of the top 10 scoring offenses in NFL history, and the Patriots have the best quarterback of all time. A tight margin of victory is less certain, but there are encouraging signs: It’s football’s highest-scoring offense facing a New England team that gave up the fewest points in the league. Dig a little deeper and it seems as if this game was perfectly engineered by the NFL.
The most obvious way to beat the Patriots is to disrupt Tom Brady, and the best way to do that is with a four-man pass rush. This was how the Giants won both of their Super Bowl matchups against the Pats. The Falcons defense is not good: It ranked 27th in points allowed (25.4 per game) during the regular season and, on the surface, it appears the Patriots should be able to pick Atlanta apart. But its few bright spots line up with what it typically takes to screw with Brady. A four-man rush is crucial, since it forces Brady to hurry his decision-making and keeps enough players back in coverage to guard New England’s stable of playmakers, which includes Julian Edelman and new playoff star Chris Hogan. The Falcons, despite having a subpar defense, are oddly equipped in this regard. Atlanta allows an average of just 6.4 yards per pass attempt when rushing four, third best in the NFL. If Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Ra’Shede Hageman, and Jonathan Babineaux can reliably get in Brady’s face, this game will be close. Beasley, who had an NFL-leading 15.5 sacks and six forced fumbles during the regular season, should pose the biggest pass-rushing threat.
The Patriots lead the NFL in yards per attempt (8.3) when they put three wide receivers on the field, almost half a yard better than anyone else. The Falcons, who, again, don’t have a very strong defense, do an above-average job of slowing these spread-out concepts. They’re ninth in the NFL when defending three wideouts. This all lends to the notion that while the Falcons defense isn’t dominant, it shouldn’t totally flop in Houston.
The Patriots defense is better than Atlanta’s is, but, given the prowess of a historically good Falcons offense, even the Pats probably won’t be able to contain the entirety of coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s high-powered machine. Still, New England’s talents align with stopping its Super Bowl foe. The Falcons lead the NFL in yards after the catch (6.37); the Pats lead in limiting yards after the catch (4.02 per reception). This likely means that Julio Jones will not literally throw defenders to the ground during a 73-yard touchdown, as he did on Sunday. (We think.) If this game is going to stay close — and I believe it will — it’ll be because neither of these teams will be able to flex its greatest strengths.
The Patriots’ plan for Jones will be a joy for football nerds. Bill Belichick has one rule above all else: Take away his opponent’s top weapon. Against Pittsburgh on Sunday, that meant shutting down Antonio Brown, who was constantly double-teamed by cornerback Malcolm Butler and a safety, and finished with 77 receiving yards — this, after Brown torched the Chiefs and Dolphins in previous postseason games for 100-plus yards. There is no intrigue about who the Falcons’ biggest weapon is, but there is intrigue as to how the Pats will try to stop him. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jones is virtually impervious to any sort of defense. Belichick could blanket him with Butler, a safety, the Boston Celtics, and pal Bon Jovi; he’d still probably rack up eight catches for 140 yards.
Jones gained 108 yards against the Patriots in their lone meeting in 2013. This is great, but the Pats had their fair share of victories on that afternoon. Jones has caught five passes or more in a game 55 times. Only twice in those games has he recorded a lower catch rate than he did against the Patriots, when he caught six balls on 13 targets and New England won 30–23. Jones taking on this defense will be the most pivotal player-specific matchup in the Super Bowl. If the Pats execute it correctly, they could keep the Falcons in check. Belichick will be happy to see Taylor Gabriel and Tevin Coleman get touches instead. He’s living on a prayer.
After All, We’re Due
One thing to remember about the Patriots and Super Bowls: Whether the heavy favorite or the heavy underdog, they find a way to make the game close. Each of Brady and Belichick’s six prior Super Bowl appearances was decided by three or four points. In this game, they enter as three-point favorites, according to Vegas sportsbooks. The Patriots won a title when they were 14-point underdogs. They lost when they were 12.5-point favorites. For reasons cosmic or otherwise, these games tend to get close.
The history of Super Bowls capping lackluster playoffs is not good. In 2000, like this season, there were only two one-possession games (both in the wild-card round) before the Super Bowl. Baltimore routed the Giants 34–7 to win the championship, an all-timer of a snoozer. There was a similar outcome after the 2005 season, when Pittsburgh knocked off Seattle 21–10 in a game you forgot happened until just now. It’s been almost a decade since we had two bad Super Bowls in a row (a season after the Steelers-Seahawks game, the Colts beat the Bears 29–17). After last year’s Denver-Carolina borefest, that’s in play if this game doesn’t save us.
We’ve suffered through a dismally boring playoffs. But with Brady, Jones, and Matt Ryan taking the field in two weeks, it seems likely that we’ll get some sort of payoff. And if not: Lady Gaga!
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the Patriots won a Super Bowl when they were 12.5-point underdogs; they won when they were 12.5-point favorites.