Roger Goodell, the NFL’s much-maligned commissioner, was nowhere to be found in Foxborough on Sunday when the Patriots breezed into Super Bowl LI with a convincing 36-17 battering of the explosive Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.
Goodell decided he was a better fit at the NFC title game in Atlanta, where the home Falcons closed out the Georgia Dome with a 44-21 rout of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.
Still, the New England crowd wanted Goodell, the man who slapped their fair-haired boy, QB Tom Brady, with a four-game suspension for tampering with footballs in a playoff game two postseasons ago.
“Roger, Roger, Roger!” It was time for Goodell to come out and actually face Brady down. But he was safe and sound in Atlanta. That won’t be the case in two weeks when all parties converge in Houston for the Super Bowl and Goodell hands the Vince Lombardi Trophy to the winner. I’m betting he’s hoping Atlanta wins.
The Pats went into this season without Brady and went 3-1 behind backup QB Jimmy Garappolo and then won every game except one since Brady returned in Week 5. They were calling it the “revenge tour” since many felt Brady’s suspension was unwarranted and excessive since the penalty for tampering with game balls is a $25K fine.
The Foxborough faithful, although elated and raucous, did not seem completely satisfied with the victory. As owner Robert Kraft held the Lamar Hunt Trophy over his head on the podium after the game, the crowd chanted “more”.
They, above all fans, know the significance of the season’s final game. They need to win the Super Bowl, not only to send this franchise into the annals of NFL History with their fifth Super Bowl win, but to the plunge the proverbial knife into Goodell and twist it to vindicate Brady.
That won’t be an easy task against the well-oiled Falcons, who systematically dispatched the Packers and the smoking-hot Rodgers on Sunday. Atlanta, behind QB Matt Ryan and WR Julio Jones, finished the regular season with the NFL’s top offense and have continued to build on that status in the playoffs.
The Patriots have the league’s best defense and perhaps the sport’s most accomplished defensive architect in Bill Belichick. Remember, he is the man who slowed down Jim Kelly and the Bills in Super Bowl XXV as defensive coordinator of the Giants and also shut down the “Greatest Show on Turf” – the St. Louis Rams – in Super Bowl XXXVI.
The Falcons are at the top of their game at the moment and the Patriots have yet to find their identity in a season where journeymen stepped forward to play major roles. Missing their top offensive weapon in the injured TE Rob Gronkowski, the Pats relied on a group of discards and no names to jettison them to the big game. I always said give me Brady and ten drunks from the parking lot and I’ll give you a game.
The New England defense, once anchored by stars DE Chandler Jones and LB Jamie Collins, has become an opportunistic bunch with a shut down secondary that was borne out of Rutgers. Jones and Collins were both traded away in their contract years for draft picks with an eye on the future. The defense has actually gotten better without them.
Atlanta will try for their first NFL title in their five decade history. They have gotten to the Super Bowl only once in that time as the “Dirty Birds”, losing to the Denver Broncos 19 years ago. This time around, there are no gimmicks, no slogans. They are a legit contender packing a powerful punch.
Goodell is likely hoping Atlanta has enough punch to keep the Patriots off the podium in Houston.