In many ways the NFL playoffs, better known as the Super Bowl LI tournament, is like an Easter egg hunt. When the playoffs begin, just take the Super Bowl Championship rings off the head coaches and quarterbacks, hide them, and let the search begin.
When the Super Bowl rings are found, they will lead you to the survivors. Those survivors are Tom Brady-Bill Belichick, Ben Roethlisberger-Mike Tomlin, Aaron Rodgers-Mike McCarthy, and Matt Ryan-Dan Quinn, better known as the NFL Final Four: 15-2 New England, 13-5 Pittsburgh, 12-5 Atlanta and 12-6 Green Bay. They were the best teams in the league back in July, when the 2016-17 season started with 32.
Yes, 32 dreamers and believers have been reduced to the best, those that have stood up to take the NFL week-by-week survival test. The pretenders are gone: New York, Miami, Detroit, Houston, Oakland, Seattle, Kansas City and Dallas. Of the eight pretenders, only Houston and Seattle won at least one home playoff game.
Seattle, with Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll, have Super Bowl rings also. Houston kept alive their dream of playing a home game Super Bowl until the Patriots showed them reality. If we look closely at the finalists, we see four teams that have traveled different roads on the journey to Super Bowl LI, which will be in Houston, home of NASA.
Last week the powerful film Hidden Figures premiered detailing the story of the space program and how several courageous Black women survived racism, sexism and bigotry in the 1950s and ’60s to support their families and advance this country. I’m convinced that had the film been released a month ago, Donald Trump would not be president-elect.
I am so looking forward to covering my 36th Super Bowl in three weeks. The two teams that win this weekend will be battle-tested. New England at home, the favorite, will play Pittsburgh in their sixth-straight AFC Championship game coached by the great Bill Belichick, who’s 24-10 in the playoffs, the best in NFL history.
The Patriots have won eight straight games. Pittsburgh has won nine in a row coached masterfully by ex-Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin. The Steelers have won six Super Bowls, more than any other team.
Tomlin is 8-5 in the playoffs. Despite what Terry Bradshaw said, he’s an outstanding head coach. The quarterbacks are Tom Brady vs. Ben Roethlisberger, Brady with four Super Bowl wins and Roethlisberger with two.
The NFC Championship game will be the final game ever at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. The Falcons are the highest scoring team in the NFL. Led by MVP favorite quarterback Matt Ryan, the Falcons scored 540 points and have won five in row. Of the four teams left, Ryan is the only QB who has not won or been to a Super Bowl.
The Green Bay Packers, the NFC North Champions, are led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who’s thrown an NFL-high 42 touchdown passes. The Packers have won eight in a row. They have won 13 NFL Championships, more than any other franchise.
These teams are the cream, they are the best, and they played each other in the regular season. New England beat Pittsburgh 27-16 without Roethlisberger at Pittsburgh. Atlanta beat Green Bay 33-32 in a classic at the Georgia Dome.
I have seen them all play. It’s too close to call. However, I’ll do it anyway: Patriots vs. Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
Larry Fitzgerald can be heard weekday mornings on KMOJ Radio 89.9 FM at 8:25 am, on WDGY-AM 740 Monday-Friday at 12:17 pm and 4:17 pm, and at www.Gamedaygold.com. He also commentates on sports 7-8 pm on Almanac (TPT channel 2). Follow him on Twitter at FitzBeatSr. Larry welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.Larry-Fitzgerald.com.