What Have We Learned From Championship Sunday to Super Bowl Week of the 2017 NFL Playoffs

Demarus Dye| BKD TV Insiders

Robert Kraft, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, right, passes the AFC Championship trophy to quarterback Tom Brady after winning the AFC championship NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. At left is team owner Robert Kraft. The Patriots defeated the the Steelers 36-17 to advance to the Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Here is What Have We Learned from Championship Sunday of the 2017 NFL Playoffs, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.

Ups

  • Belichick, Brady help Patriots to record 9th Super Bowl trip– Bill Belichick has done something neither Chuck Noll, Tom Landry nor Bill Walsh ever managed. Same for Tom Brady, besting the likes of Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach and Joe Montana.Together, Belichick and Brady have put themselves into a record seven Super Bowls. And they made the New England Patriots the NFL’s first franchise to play in nine Super Bowls with a 36-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night in the AFC championship game.That victory helped the Patriots break from the NFL’s pack of royalty, the teams who seemingly take turns making the league’s championship games into their personal finish lines.

    Now the Steelers, Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos — all tied with eight Super Bowl appearances apiece — must wait another year before trying to give the Patriots company. For now, the Patriots will be busy packing for Houston and their latest Super Bowl on Feb. 5 against the Atlanta Falcons and a chance at making more history.

    Here’s a look at the franchises that have played in — and won — the most Super Bowls:

    BELICHICK WAY

    The Patriots had two Super Bowl berths to their credit before Belichick took over, but then he rewrote record books for the team and the league. Belichick and Brady already had the most visits for a coach-quarterback duo before beating the Steelers. Belichick now stands alone as a coach with his seven Super Bowl berths, breaking a tie with Don Shula (six). Belichick and Brady are 4-2 in the Super Bowl, helping New England reach .500 in its eight trips. A win in Houston would tie the Pats with San Francisco and Dallas for second all-time with five wins.

    HERE WE GO

    The Steelers have the most wins in the big game and are 6-2 in their visits. Noll and Bradshaw made the Steelers the first franchise to win four Super Bowl titles — in the span of six years starting in 1975. Ben Roethlisberger then helped coach Bill Cowher win a Super Bowl ring by beating Seattle in 2006.

    Big Ben later teamed up with coach Mike Tomlin to beat Arizona for the Steelers’ sixth Super Bowl championship in 2009, and they missed out on the franchise’s seventh by losing to Green Bay in 2011.

    COWBOY UP

    Thanks to Landry, the Cowboys made a habit of heading to Super Bowls with five trips starting in 1971. Landry and Staubach went together four times, winning titles in 1972 and again in 1978. America’s Team didn’t get back until new owner Jerry Jones and coach Jimmy Johnson returned the Cowboys to championship status with back-to-back Super Bowl wins in 1993 and 1994. After a split, Jones brought in Barry Switzer, and he coached Troy Aikman and the Cowboys back to Super Bowl champs in 1996. Dallas is 5-3 in the big game.

    BRONCOS AND ELWAY

    Denver’s Super Bowl history didn’t start with John Elway. Craig Morton gets credit for the Broncos’ first Super Bowl visit, when Dallas stifled the Orange Crush in 1978. But Elway took the Broncos back three times in four years starting in 1987 and finally helped Denver win back-to-back titles in 1998 and 1999. When hired as general manager and boss of the Broncos, Elway lured Peyton Manning to Denver getting the Broncos two more Super Bowl berths, including last year’s 24-10 win in Super Bowl 50. The Broncos are 3-5 overall in the Super Bowl, and Elway is 3-4 combined as quarterback and GM.

    MONTANA TIME

    The 49ers have six Super Bowl berths and are 5-1 in the game thanks to Montana winning the first four. Steve Young added a title in his only trip, and Colin Kaepernick took home the franchise’s first loss in 2013.

    QUALITY OVER QUANTITY

    The Green Bay Packers, winners of the first two Super Bowls, and the New York Giants have done well in their berths, each getting four Lombardi Trophies in five visits.

    PAINFUL COMPANY

    Denver also has the NFL mark for most Super Bowls lost. At least the Broncos have three trophies. The Minnesota Vikings were the first NFL team to play in — and lose — four Super Bowls, all within the first 11 years. The Buffalo Bills have the longest skid in this game, losing four straight between 1991 and 1994.

  • Falcons head to Super Bowl– While the raucous beats of “Welcome To Atlanta” blared through the Georgia Dome, the Falcons partied like it was 1999.How appropriate.

    That was the last time they made it to the Super Bowl.

    Matt Ryan and Julio Jones teamed up for another dynamic performance, leading the Falcons to the big game for only the second time in franchise history with a 44-21 rout of the Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship game Sunday.

    The Falcons led 24-0 at halftime and tacked on another touchdown early in the second half, essentially turning the dome into the world’s largest dance club for the rest of its final game, the deafening crowd relishing a shot at only the second major sports championship in Atlanta’s history.

    “I’m sure the city won’t sleep tonight, including myself,” said Jonathan Babineaux, the team’s longest-tenured player.

    The Falcons (13-5) advanced to the Feb. 5 title game in Houston, where they will face Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. They blew out Pittsburgh 36-17 for the AFC championship , earning their record ninth trip to the Super Bowl.

    The Patriots opened as a 3-point favorite over the neophyte Falcons, whose only other Super Bowl appearance came 18 years ago. They lost to Denver in John Elway’s final game.

    Ryan threw for 392 yards and four touchdowns, not to mention his first rushing score since 2012 on a 14-yard run in which he pump-faked a defender and tumbled into the end zone.

    “We’ve worked hard to get to this point,” Ryan said. “But the challenge is still in front of us.”

    In an interesting twist, the Falcons’ last victory over the Patriots was a resounding 41-10 triumph in 1998, a game that signaled the emergence of the Super Bowl-bound “Dirty Birds.”

    Since then, New England has won four straight over the Falcons, most recently in 2013.

    The Patriots will have their hands full with Jones, who hauled in nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns despite sitting out most of the week of practice with a lingering toe injury.

    He had a 5-yard catch for a touchdown with just 3 seconds left in the first half, giving the Falcons a commanding 24-0 lead.

    But Jones showed all his talents on Atlanta’s second offensive snap of the second half . He shook off LaDarius Gunter’s attempt to grab him on a cut toward the sideline, hauled in the pass from Ryan, broke Gunter’s diving attempt at tackle, and defiantly knocked away Damarious Randall’s with a brutal stiff-arm for a 73-yard touchdown that finished off the Packers (12-7).

  • AFC Beat the NFC in the Pro Bowl in Orlando– The Pro Bowl has long been more about showmanship than competition. Clearly, that memo missed Lorenzo Alexander.The Buffalo Bills linebacker could have just sat on a late interception for the win, but instead opted to return the ball 20 yards and then lateralled it to Aqib Talib, who came within 13 yards of the end zone in the AFC’s 20-13 win over the NFC in the NFL’s all-star game Sunday night.

    “I was serious about that last drive,” Alexander said. “You’re playing fast, playing hard, having a good time, but we wanted to win. We took it very serious.”

    That much was obviously on the final drive when Alexander, selected the game’s defensive MVP, got tight end Jimmy Graham on a hard hit over the middle as the NFC drove the ball down field for what could have been the rallying game-winning drive. A couple of plays later, the ball went off Graham’s hands and right to Alexander, sealing the game.

    But even on that play, the increased competitive spirit was obvious when quarterback Kirk Cousins stuck with the play after throwing the interception and knocked the ball out of Talib’s hands on a jarring hit to save the touchdown.

    While many of the 60,834 had already left Camping World Stadium , those who stuck around saw a thrilling end.

    “It was fun and it was competitive,” Alexander said. “It got a little chippy there late in the game, but that’s part of it when you have competitive people.”

    In the recent past, the Pro Bowl hadn’t produced a competitive environment. But perhaps the return of the traditional AFC vs. NFC matchup combined with playing in front a larger crowd than when the game was played in Hawaii, amped up the intensity just a bit.

    The winners took home $61,000, while the NFC team members settled for $30,000.

    “This game was definitely more competitive than last time I played in it. I can say that,” Talib said. “Guys played a lot harder this year.”

    The Pro Bowl had been played the last three years with a format in which teams were drafted among the players by designated captains.

    In a first half defined by big plays and key interceptions, the AFC was able to come up with one more play to take a 14-7 lead into halftime and a 20-7 edge early in the fourth quarter.

    The NFC should have had 17 points in the first half, but a decision to not a kick a chip-shot field goal and an interception in the end zone denied the squad of points during the first two quarters.

    Andy Dalton’s 23-yard touchdown pass to Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce, named the game’s offensive MVP with three catches for 36 yards, put the AFC ahead 14-7 with 1:40 remaining in the second quarter. The touchdown was set up by a 36-yard punt return by the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill to the NFC 38.

    “I thought the level of play was really good. It was really competitive,” said Dalton, the Cincinnati quarterback who completed 10 of 12 passes for 100 yards and one touchdown. “It came down right to the end. You can’t ask for much more than that in any football game.”

    It was a relatively low-scoring game that was defined by big defensive stops, which included a goal-line stand when Zach Brown stuffed Dallas rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott at the 1-yard line in the first quarter.

    The play seemed to set the tone as both defenses gave up little against the run and put pressure on all of the quarterbacks, which has not always been the case in the Pro Bowl.

    “We were having fun, but we were definitely out there competing, definitely playing to win,” said Cousins, who led the NFC on the two fourth-quarter drives that ended with field goals but could not get the ball into the end zone. “Everybody was giving their all on both sides of the ball at the end. It made for an exciting finish.”

    New Orleans’ Drew Brees completed 10 of 19 passes for 112 yards and one touchdown to Seattle’s Doug Baldwin to lead the NFC. Kansas City’s Alex Smith, the starter for the AFC, completed six of eight passes for 74 yards, including a 26-yard TD toss to Tennessee’s Delanie Walker early in the second quarter .

Middle

  • Both NFL conference championships reach more than 45 million– Lopsided contests to determine Super Bowl participants didn’t prevent each of the NFL conference championship games from reaching more than 45 million television viewers on Sunday.The Nielsen company said that 47.95 million people watched the New England Patriots beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC conference game. Earlier in the day, the Atlanta Falcons’ victory over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC contest was seen by 46.28 million viewers.

    Neither game was particularly competitive; the Falcons had a 24-0 lead at halftime. Still, that game’s audience was bigger than last year’s NFC game (45.7 million), perhaps because the Packers are one of the league’s marquee teams.

    The Patriots and Steelers have more Super Bowl appearances than any other AFC teams. But with New England dominating, the game had a smaller audience than the 2016 game between New England and Denver, which drew 53.3 million viewers, Nielsen said.

    The football boosted CBS to an easy win in prime time, averaging 13.3 million viewers for the week. NBC had 4.6 million, ABC had 4.1 million, Fox had 3 million, Univision had 2 million, Telemundo had 1.6 million, ION Television had 1.3 million and the CW had 920,000.

    On inauguration week, Fox News Channel dominated the cable ratings, averaging 3.8 million viewers in prime-time. CNN had 1.73 million, HGTV had 1.62 million, USA had 1.56 million and TBS had 1.41 million.

    NBC’s “Nightly News” topped the evening newscasts with an average of 9.4 million viewers. ABC’s “World News Tonight” was second with 9.1 million and the “CBS Evening News” had 7.5 million viewers.

    For the week of Jan. 16-22, the top 10 prime-time shows, their networks and viewerships: AFC Championship: Pittsburgh at New England, CBS, 47.95 million; “Championship Post-Game,” CBS, 22.66 million; “NCIS,” CBS, 15.5 million; “The Big Bang Theory,” CBS, 15.16 million; “Hunted,” CBS, 11.85 million; “Bull,” CBS, 11.11 million; “Blue Bloods,” CBS, 9.77 million; “This is Us,” NBC, 9.59 million; “NCIS: New Orleans,” CBS, 9.33 million; “Kevin Can Wait,” CBS, 8.67 million.

Downs

  • Packers look for next step after another NFC title game loss– With Aaron Rodgers in his prime, the Green Bay Packers should always be a contender to get to the Super Bowl.They just have to figure out how to win one more contest after coming up short in the NFC title game for the second time in three seasons.

    The offseason started Monday at subdued Lambeau Field. Players packed duffel bags and cleaned out lockers a day after the 44-21 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

    By no means is Rodgers showing signs of decline after turning 33 in December. Not after leading the league with 40 touchdown passes. Not after backing up his “run the table” statement with brilliant play during an eight-game winning streak.

    At the same time, the thinking around much the NFL when the Packers won the Super Bowl in the 2010 season was that a new era of championships was dawning in Titletown, with Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy leading the way .

    “I still feel pretty young, I think I have a number of years left in me (where) I can play at a high level,” Rodgers said after the game Sunday. “We’ve just got to make sure we’re going all-in every year to win. And I think we can take a big step this offseason.”

    There are several key personnel decisions to be made for a franchise that usually abides by a “draft and develop” philosophy.

    Green Bay, which finished the regular season ranked 31st in pass defense, could use help at cornerback after veteran Sam Shields’ season-ending concussion in Week 1 forced younger players to assume more responsibility.

    On offense, running back Eddie Lacy goes into the offseason looking for a contract after playing just five games because of an ankle injury. Pro Bowl guard T.J. Lang, a locker room leader whose contract also is expiring, is hoping to return.

    But Monday was about cleaning up. Disappointed players quietly packed up belongings and waited to have wrap-up meetings with coaches.

    A trying season full of injuries, including the low point of a 4-6 record, had come to an end with an eighth straight postseason appearance and another shot to get to the Super Bowl.

    “I know it’s not really what people want to hear right now after a disappointing loss, but I think everybody’s really proud of what we were able to do this year and proud of the way that the guys just stuck together,” Lang said.

    As long as Rodgers is at quarterback, the Packers should always be an NFC favorite. Left tackle David Bakhtiari just doesn’t agree with the notion that Green Bay might have a “window” of winning with Rodgers.

    “So if he’s the standard, I’m completely fine with whatever window we have,” Bakhtiari said. “I think it’s stupid when people talk about a ‘window.’ I think it’s dumb.”

 

  • Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson pulls out of Raiders-Vegas stadium deal- Billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson pulled out of a deal Monday to build a $1.9 billion domed stadium for the Oakland Raiders in Las Vegas.The move comes on the heels of a team proposal to pay $1 a year in rent and operate the stadium, and it deprives the project of a chief financial backer as officials seek to bring professional football to Las Vegas for the first time.

    Adelson played an instrumental role in the effort to lure the Raiders, which eventually grew into a $750 million commitment of taxpayer money to the deal.

    He and his family had pledged $650 million — an amount the team will have to seek from other sources. The Raiders have promised $500 million.

    Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval’s office said the lease agreement submitted last week would have the Raiders shoulder $1.15 billion of the cost of the stadium, and accept operation responsibilities and risk.

    In a statement, the Raiders acknowledged Adelson’s involvement in the project over the past year and promised to make good on owner Mark Davis’ vow to move to Las Vegas.

    Adelson’s withdrawal means the Raiders will go forward with a decision pending from NFL owners who must approve the move.

    It also means the team won’t have to ask team owners to waive a rule prohibiting casino operators from having ownership roles in teams.

    Team officials said previously they were enlisting investment bank Goldman Sachs for the project.

    The lease proposal would have the Raiders operate the 65,000-seat stadium that would be built at a site yet to be decided, probably just off the Las Vegas Strip.

    In Adelson’s terse statement, the chief executive of Las Vegas Sands Corp. declared that he had been shut out of talks that led to the lease document presented to the Clark County Stadium Authority.

    “We were not only excluded from the proposed agreement,” Adelson said, “we weren’t even aware of its existence.”

    Sands owns the Venetian and Palazzo resorts and a convention center on the Las Vegas Strip, and several casinos in the Chinese gambling enclave of Macau. Adelson is a big backer of Republican Party causes, and his family also owns the local newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

    “It’s clear the Raiders have decided their path for moving to Las Vegas does not include the Adelson family,” Adelson’s statement said. “So, regrettably, we will no longer be involved in any facet of the stadium discussion.”

    Stadium Authority Chairman Steve Hill, who also serves as Sandoval’s development chief, vowed to “continue to ensure the stadium project is developed in a manner consistent with the clear direction of Nevada lawmakers.”

    The plan isn’t only to bring an NFL franchise to Nevada, but also to build a stadium for UNLV football “and enhance our state’s core tourism economy,” Hill said.

    Sandoval, a Republican who called lawmakers into a special session to approve tax funding for the project, thanked the Adelson family “for their role in bringing a publicly-owned stadium to Las Vegas.”

    “It is unfortunate that they were unable to come to terms with the Raiders,” the governor said.

    He added that terms of the law passed to fund the public portion of the project won’t change, “and the state’s contribution will not increase as a result of this announcement.”

    Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak, who has been intimately involved in the stadium and Raiders plan, characterized Adelson’s departure as “a significant setback … unless Goldman Sachs has someone lined up to step into Adelson’s place.”

    “I do not know how the other owners are going to react to this,” Sisolak said.

    Any relocation to Las Vegas must be approved by 24 of the 32 NFL team owners. A vote is expected during league meetings in March in Phoenix.

 

  • Steelers head into offseason with promise, questions– The roll that carried the Pittsburgh Steelers from adrift at midseason to the cusp of the Super Bowl came to a sudden and emphatic stop in New England.The pain of the one-sided 36-17 loss to Tom Brady and the Patriots will linger. If the Steelers want to find a way to take the next step in what has become a methodical march back to prominence, it needs to.

    Two winters ago Pittsburgh’s season ended in the wild card game. Last January, it was the divisional round. On Sunday, it came in the AFC title game. That’s very real, tangible progress. It’s also not enough for a franchise where the only real measure of success lies in Lombardi trophies collected.

    “It’s disappointing that we couldn’t get this one for (chairman emeritus Dan) Rooney,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “I really wanted to do it for him, but we’ll evaluate.”

    There’s plenty to digest. The Steelers (13-6) reaching the NFL’s final four isn’t exactly a surprise. The winding route they took to get there, however, could pay off down the road. Adrift during a four-game losing streak that dropped them below .500 in mid-November, Pittsburgh reeled off nine straight wins, clinching a third straight playoff berth for the first time in Mike Tomlin’s tenure and doing it with a nucleus of young players that aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

    “We went from 4-5 to the championship game,” Roethlisberger said. “If there’s going to be any silver lining, it’s that.”

    Even if the lining was a bit hard to discern under the lights in Foxborough with Brady on the other side of the field. The defense invigorated by the rapid growth of rookies Sean Davis, Artie Burns and Javon Hargrave put up little fight. The offense forced to rely on improbable contributors like Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton couldn’t match the Patriots score for score. The result? A quiet plane ride home and an offseason that starts two weeks too soon.

    Yet when defensive end Cam Heyward — who missed the second half of the year with a torn pectoral muscle, an injury that made his team’s surge even more remarkable — takes the long view, one stumble at a place where many seasons for many teams have gone to die this millennium isn’t necessarily the end of something so much as the beginning.

    “There was a multitude of guys that took drastic steps,” Heyward said. “That’s very encouraging. I know it hurts now, and it should, but there are a lot of things to be optimistic about. We have to grow from this.”

 

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