Column

NFL's final four get offensive to win playoff games

The Denver Broncos made their case last season that it takes a great defense to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

This season’s four remaining teams — New England, Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Atlanta — are proof that the Super Bowl pendulum tends to swing.

While each of those teams has had its moments defensively, it’s offensive prowess that has gotten them this far.

When the Falcons play host to the Packers in the early game on conference championship Sunday, the game will pit a Matt Ryan-led Atlanta team that has averaged a league-best 35.1 points at home, and a Green Bay group that since Nov. 20 has 24 touchdowns, one interception, and the league’s hottest hand in Aaron Rodgers.

In the late game, it’s Pittsburgh at New England, a familiar showdown between quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger (two rings) and Tom Brady (four). The Patriots finished fourth in offense, the Steelers seventh.

The Patriots finished with the eighth-ranked defense, followed by the Steelers (12th), Packers (22nd) and Falcons (25th).

Both championship games are rematches from the first half of this season.

Atlanta held off the visiting Packers, 33-32, in Week 8 when Ryan hit Mohamed Sanu with an 11-yard touchdown pass with 31 seconds to play.

Rodgers threw four touchdown passes in that game, but he was not yet on the torrid tear he has enjoyed in leading his team on its current eight-game winning streak.

Until he was picked off in Sunday’s game at Dallas, Rodgers had gone 318 passes without an interception, a span of two full months.

“It’s a different energy with this team,” he said Sunday. “I think the guys are very hungry, which we didn’t have at times in the past when we tried to make the playoffs. There’s a stronger belief.”

There’s plenty of belief in Ryan, too, who was phenomenal in Saturday’s victory over Seattle. The Falcons had just 11 turnovers all season, tied for the fewest in the league.

By beating the Seahawks, Ryan improved to 2-4 in postseason games — both of the victories over Seattle, incidentally — but he has yet to advance to a Super Bowl.

In the 2010 playoffs, when Green Bay went from No. 6 seed all the way to Super Bowl champion, the Packers pounded Atlanta in the divisional round, 48-21. Green Bay never punted in that game, and Rodgers was masterful, completing 31 of 36 for 366 yards with three passing touchdowns and one on the ground.

The Patriots and Steelers are familiar foes, playing 10 times in the combined eras of Brady and Roethlisberger. However, this will mark the first time they have met in the playoffs since Roethlisberger’s rookie season of 2004, when the Patriots rolled to a 41-27 victory in the AFC championship game.

The Patriots have won seven of their last 10 meetings with Pittsburgh — including a 2008 game when Matt Cassel played in place of Brady, and earlier this season when Landry Jones played for an injured Roethlisberger.

On Sunday, Pittsburgh will once again face its former running back, New England’s LeGarrette Blount, who walked off the field for the Steelers with the clock still running in a game in November 2014.

The Patriots, who had a first-round bye, have won eight in a row. The Steelers’ winning streak has reached nine, and they have outscored those opponents, 233-149.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
55°