The Big Game in Houston is set, after Atlanta throttled Green Bay and New England dismissed Pittsburgh. Here’s a look at the Atlanta quarterback’s breakthrough and his counterpart’s continued brilliance. Plus items on a retiring Raven, Johnny Manziel, Ryan Grigson, DeShaun Watson and more

By Peter King
January 23, 2017

ATLANTA — To appreciate the magnitude of what we saw Sunday in the last football game ever at the Georgia Dome, we must consider what was happening in this city the April day Matt Ryan was drafted in 2008.

I was in Atlanta that weekend. Michael Vick was not. He was in federal prison in Kansas, serving nearly two years for dogfighting and animal cruelty. But the city not only hadn’t forgotten him; many in the city were keeping his seat warm and wanted him as their quarterback when he finished doing his time. I remember the day before the draft walking through a mall and thinking, All these people with Vick jerseys or T-shirts supporting him … amazing. So when Ryan got picked third overall by new GM Thomas Dimitroff, it was a new start. But some locals seemed unmoved.

An Atlanta TV sports anchor, Gil Tyree, told me on draft day 2008 that Vick “is a messiah here. … No matter what Matt Ryan will do, he’ll never be accepted.”

Yikes.

Now to Sunday, and the 44-21 beatdown of the Packers in the NFC Championship Game, leading to the second Super Bowl appearance for the Falcons in their history. As Ryan compiled a four-touchdown, 392-yard game in the biggest game of his nine-year career, three times the crowd in the Dome rained down chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!” Six straight games without an interception … Heavy favorite to win the NFL MVP on Feb. 4 … Crowd screaming for him as he left the field like New York screamed for the Beatles in 1964.

Matt Ryan is headed to his first Super Bowl and the Atlanta franchise’s second overall.
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The screams and chants sounded a lot like acceptance to me. This seemed a cruel time to remind Ryan of that day and the words of the sports anchor in 2008, but in a quiet moment at his locker after the game, I did.

This is not a topic Ryan wants to revisit. In his nine years at the helm of this team, nobody’s ever seen Ryan sweat. He says the right things, does the right things, works the right way. But he understood the gravity of this day, and what he’d accomplished under such initial pressure. Vick thrilled this town like few athletes have, but Ryan has taken the franchise further than Vick ever did.

No matter what Matt Ryan will do, he’ll never be accepted.

Ryan said quietly: “Some things you don’t forget.”

That was it. But others took up Ryan’s cause. “Matt’s created great memories in this dome,” said Dimitroff, who made Ryan the first pick of his tenure. “Back then, when Matt was drafted, the doubts were there. But he’s evolved and stayed above it all.”

“That’s a long time ago,’’ said receiver and returned Eric Weems, who was a Falcon when Ryan was drafted and who knew the tenor in the city. “If people are still holding grudges, and I doubt there are, it’s on them. I can tell you Matt’s my quarterback. Matt’s our quarterback. I love him.”

The best teams are often forged through difficult times. Ryan was drafted the year after Bobby Petrino pulled one of the all-time classless coaching moves, quitting with two games left in the 2007 season to take a college job. Ryan had some shaky playoff games, but Dimitroff and Blank were unwavering in their support. Blank, wisely, held onto Dimitroff—a strong scout—when he fired Mike Smith two years ago and hired Dan Quinn as coach. Ryan has gotten excellent coaching from offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan over the past two years, and Quinn’s definitive demands for every position on the field allowed Dimitroff and key personnel men Scott Pioli and Steve Sabo to know exactly what to scout. Two excellent drafts and good free-agent finds (Alex Mack, Mohamed Sanu), and here we are—an Atlanta-New England Super Bowl.

On Sunday, the Falcons defense was able to do what no other team could do the past two months: Keep Aaron Rodgers in check.
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Two things I notice about Ryan’s game under Shanahan: He’s more comfortable as an athlete—that 14-yard touchdown run against Green Bay, his first TD carry since 2012, showed he’s not a lumberjng runner, but a competent one. “There was nobody to account for the quarterback,” Ryan said. “And everybody's backs are turned playing coverage, playing man‐to‐man coverage. Just saw a lane open up.” In the past, Ryan likely would have stuck in the pocket, looking at his third and fourth targets.

“Matt’s been a grinder, getting his mental right,” is how Weems put it.

Ryan is better at play-action and run fakes, a more complete player who doesn’t think being a pocket quarterback means you actually have to be in the pocket all the time, surveying the field seven steps behind center. I loved his first touchdown pass Sunday, which was a combination of Steve Young and Brett Favre. On Atlanta’s first drive of the game, from the Green Bay two-yard line, Ryan took off to his left near the goal line, and it looked like he’d run it in. But then he threw a flip pass to Sanu for a touchdown. I just don’t think that’s the kind of thing he’d have been comfortable doing pre-Shanahan.

Against New England, the more multiple a quarterback can be, the better. You saw how Bill Belichick and defensive boss Matt Patricia began to neutralize Le’Veon Bell even before he got hurt in the AFC game by taking away those creases in the defensive front that Bell uses so wisely. The Patriots take what you do well and find a couple of ways to combat it. No doubt that Shanahan today and tomorrow will be all over New England tape trying to play Spy Vs. Spy, figuring what the Patriots will do if the Falcons do such-and-such.

The last player you’d compare Ryan to is Vick. But in the next two weeks he’d better get ready for it. During the run-ups to Super Bowls, long perspective stories are the order of the day. Vick, 2001: thrills and chills, a roller coaster, but didn’t work overall. Ryan, 2008: by the book, outworking everyone, in the Super Bowl. The Falcons, and Ryan, have been rewarded, and a date with Tom Brady is the result.

• REMEMBER THE HARTFORD PATRIOTS? Our #RoadtoHouston begins in the Connecticut capital, which nearly swooped in to steal New England’s team—before Roger Goodell saved the day

* * *

We Could Use a Great Game in No. 267

The Pats and Falcons haven’t played since a Sept. 29, 2013, meeting at the Georgia Dome.
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

After 256 regular-season games and 10 in the playoffs, the NFL season comes down to game number 267 in Houston, Super Bowl LI between Atlanta and New England. I love the game, because there’s so much new and interesting about Atlanta (particularly on defense, where seven of the 12 “starters,” including third corner Brian Poole, are first or second-year players), and because there’s so much history on the line for New England. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick could become the first QB-coach duo in history to win five Super Bowls. Brady could be the first quarterback in history to win five Super Bowls. It could be a momentous night in Houston 13 days from now.

And it’s new for the teams too. Of Atlanta’s 53-man roster, 37 players weren’t Falcons the last time these two teams met, a 30-23 win for New England at the Georgia Dome in 2013. It’s fresh for them, fresh for the players and coaches.

I loved Kyle Shanahan’s reaction when, just before I recorded a podcast conversation with him Sunday night in the Falcons’ equipment office at the Georgia Dome, I told the Falcons’ offensive coordinator it looked like the Super Bowl foe would be New England.

“Good,” he said. Not because he’s a cocky glutton for punishment, but because he wants to play the best. That sounds nuts, but what coach who considers himself really good at his job wouldn’t want to match wits with Bill Belichick and his staff in the game of the year?

By the way: I sure hope it’s the game of the year. We could use one. Average margin of victory in the 10 playoff games: 15.7. Games decided by 13 points or more in the 10 playoff games: eight.

New England (16-2, AFC top seed) versus Atlanta (13-5, NFC second seed), Feb. 5, 6:30 p.m. ET, NRG Stadium, Houston (retractable roof). New England will play in its ninth Super Bowl (a record), Atlanta its second. Tom Brady plays in his seventh, Matt Ryan his first. So clearly, the Patriots have cornered the market on experience. But Atlanta hasn’t shown many signs of being intimidated by the bright lights this postseason, putting up 80 points on Seattle and Green Bay, teams far more playoff-experienced than the Falcons; defensively Atlanta held the Aaron Rodgers-led Packer offense scoreless for the first 35 minutes Sunday. It’ll be fascinating to see the game plan Josh McDaniels weaves after studying players he’s never faced—rangy and instinctive Falcons rookie middle ’backer Deion Jones, for instance—this week. The bigger New England secondary could be a matchup problem for Atlanta, even thought Julio Jones laughs at matchup problems. One Falcon told me Sunday night, “Julio’s playing with half a toe, and it doesn’t matter,” referring to a nagging turf toe injury that won’t get better until he gets four or five months of rest and rehab. But if you saw his 73-yard catch-and-run and breaking of two tackles against Green Bay, you’ve got to figure the Patriots are going to try to eliminate him and let someone else beat them. That someone else might be Mohamed Sanu. I was disappointed in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman (25 carries, 71 yards, long of 14) against Green Bay, and New England’s run defense is better. So that means it’s up to Matt Ryan to justify his MVP-ness and have a big day if Atlanta hopes to keep New England from its fifth Super Bowl win.

• HOW THE FALCONS DEFENSE GOT SO GOOD SO FAST: Andy Benoit examines how a few midseason tweaks paid off in Atlanta

* * *

Marveling at Brady

After Sunday’s win, Tom Brady is now 7-4 in conference championship games.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

You are living through a remarkable time if you’re a football fan. You’re seeing one of the great athletic careers in history play out, apparently with no sign of diminution.

Tom Brady won his 24th NFL playoff game Sunday. To put that in some perspective—though, obviously, there are more playoff games today than there were for much of the NFL’s history—the Chicago Bears as a franchise have won 17, according to Pro Football Reference. Considering that the Bears played their first playoff game in 1932 and are a flagship franchise of the league, and considering Brady was born in 1977, that’s quite a feat for the Patriots QB.

One more gem: New England’s total of 24 playoff wins with Brady under center surpasses the all-time postseason win totals of 25 of the remaining 31 NFL franchises.

Rightfully, having Bill Belichick coaching (with Josh McDaniels constructing the offense and Matt Patricia taking on increasing importance as a defensive brain and presence) and Tom Brady playing is just about the perfect formula for success. Brady, as our Jenny Vrentas wrote so smartly last week, is a perfect leader of the franchise because he likes to be coached, and he can take being coached hard, and Belichick has always believed in coaching hard. I found it interesting last week that the Patriots put pads on before the 18th game of the season, at a time when most teams have put the practice pads away for the year. New England practiced in pads Wednesday. Nobody bitched. If Brady’s not bothered by it, no other player would dare be bothered by it.

The game against Pittsburgh was a good illustration of the Patriots’ intelligence and patience. Against a zone team like Pittsburgh, an offense has to be patient. It’s not likely to yield many over-the-top big plays; the Steelers challenge you to take yards and eventually make a turnover or get greedy and throw risky or incomplete passes downfield. Now, I didn’t watch a lot of this game, but I did think the mid-second-quarter flea-flicker touchdown from Brady to Chris Hogan was very interesting. On a play like that, with Brady handing it to Dion Lewis, and Lewis shoveling it back to Brady, and Brady looking deep, a young secondary like Pittsburgh’s might be tempted to bite on the run. Well, Brady did catch the Steelers looking run, and slipping past the secondary was Hogan, who caught an easy touchdown from Brady.

One other thing, not to go all hagiography on the Patriots: After the game, the little-used Lewis was near tears in the locker room. Why? Because he finished with 11 yards rushing and was angry at the game plan? No. It’s because he’s going to his first Super Bowl. He never thought his meandering and previously unproductive career would take him this far. But when you’re with the Patriots, you get the team concept. It’s the way they do business. If you don’t like it, you won’t be around long. If you’re okay with it, the Super Bowl is often at the end of the rainbow. Such as this season.

• THE TALE OF TOM BRADY AND JOHNNY FOXBOROUGH: How Belichick gets the most out of his star QB—by never treating him like a star

* * *

The Early Retirement of a Raven

A spinal abnormality left Ravens linebacker Zach Orr one wrong hit away from being paralyzed. He retired from the game last week at age 24.
Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Dec. 25, Pittsburgh

“Le’Veon Bell BOWLS over a tackler! HELLO, Zachary Orr.”

On NBC, Mike Tirico normally would be getting through the first offensive play of the game for the Steelers so the Pittsburgh offense could be introduced; a snap or two later the Baltimore defense would be introduced. But Bell’s steamrolling of Orr, on this Christmas afternoon, was a little bit different, so Tirico focused on the play. “The context of this game—with the theme of the best rivalry in the league over the last few years, with such physical play—was in lockstep with this play,” Tirico said Friday.

Orr, the overachieving Baltimore linebacker, had the kind of collision with Bell that you see 10 times a game. Orr moved off a block by Steelers right tackle Marcus Gilbert and readied himself, getting his 6-foot frame low for leverage as he prepped for the impact with Bell. Orr weighs 252, Bell 225. But Orr was stationary, and Bell was powering forward out of a crease in the Ravens’ defensive line. When they met, Bell used his right forearm as a battering ram against Orr’s upraised face mask. Orr fell back on the ground. When the play was over, Orr got up, grabbed his face mask, tried to gather himself. Then he walked off the field to be checked by trainers. “It was like a shock went though my body,” he told me Friday. “My left side went all numb. I went out for a couple of plays, and it seemed to settle down.”

Nothing strange. Even on the sideline, one veteran observer said it was the same thing he’s seen a thousand times. Shaken-up player comes off, is checked out by the medics, shows he’s fine, returns to game. Orr missed six plays. He played the final 51 defensive snaps for the Ravens, and did well. He returned a diving interception of a Ben Roethlisberger pass on the first drive of the third quarter to the Pittsburgh 20 and set up the go-ahead touchdown for the Ravens. He made two big tackles on the last Steelers series, the one that ended with the famous Antonio Brown reach-over-the-goal-line for the AFC North crown. No one could know that the last tackle of his life would be stopping powerful tight end Jesse James with a leg tackle at the Baltimore four-yard-line with 23 seconds left in the game. But he got up from that tackle in clear discomfort, bending over in pain. Two days later it would be confirmed by an MRI: Orr had a herniated disc. He was placed on IR with neck and shoulder pain, and missed the last game of the season, at Cincinnati.

Even missing the last game, this undrafted third-year player from North Texas had more tackles in a season, 132, than any other Raven since Ray Lewis in 2010. The future was bright. On Friday, Tirico passed along his notes from the TV production meeting with Baltimore defensive coordinator Dean Pees before the Baltimore-Pittsburgh game: Orr … too undersized, too small … And all he does … is make plays. What a smart football player, he studies, he is fun to coach … He fits what we have done around here for a long time.

Jan. 6, Dallas

In a quest for information on Orr’s condition, the Ravens thought it smart to do a full-body CAT scan. Now a spine specialist and spine consultant for the Cowboys, Dr. Andrew Dossett, examined Orr’s CAT scan and had some disquieting news for him. Orr recalled these words from Dossett: “You can’t play football anymore. I am shocked you’ve been able to play this long.”

“It turns out I was born with a rare condition that less than 1 percent of the people in the world have,” Orr said. It took this comprehensive scan to discover that the top of Orr’s C1 vertebra was not fully developed. If he continued playing, Orr was a high risk to be paralyzed. “Dr. Dossett told me, ‘You’ve been blessed to play the game as long as you have.’ ”

Orr said: “I was shocked. I was at a loss for words. Disappointed, sad, mad, depressed … I mean, no more football. I’ve been playing football all my life.”

I asked an independent spine specialist, Todd Albert, surgeon-in-chief at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery, about the injury. He is not affiliated with the Ravens. I asked if it’s common for a player to reach his third year in the NFL without anyone in high school, college or the NFL testing for such a dangerous condition. Albert said it’s not surprising that a football player wouldn’t get a CAT scan on a specific body area without symptoms. “A CAT scan is a lot of radiation,” Albert said. “There would need to be a reason to get one.” This reason, obviously, was well-hidden over 15 years of football.

Jan. 20, Owings Mills, Md.

Orr was composed at the news conference announcing his retirement, at 24. A long shot to make the team in 2014, he earned a spot through special-teams play, then advanced to win the inside-linebacker job alongside the first-round pick from his rookie year, C.J. Mosley. (Tackles, 2016: Orr 132, Mosley 92.) “What a lot of people don’t know is one of my teammates in high school got paralyzed on the football field,” Orr said. “Me and my family, we put things in perspective. It was tough news, but you’d rather find out [while] being in good health.”

The Ravens will employ Orr if that’s the life he chooses. He thinks he may want to coach. He may do some scouting. He’s not sure. Over the phone, he told me, “I’m at peace with everything now. You can’t stay mad. You can’t control everything in life. The one thing I’m happy about is that this year, I proved I belonged. I played with the best of the best. It felt good knowing I could contribute to one of the best defenses in football.”

“Do you still like football?” I asked Orr.

“I still love football,” he said.

Postscript: I called Tirico. I rewound the video of the game on NFL Game Pass and played him his call back. He remembered, of course. Tirico had seen the news on Twitter about Orr’s retirement, and he wondered if it was another case of a young player leaving football worried about the long-term impact on his health. Not exactly. This was a case of a player having no choice. Tirico had done the last game of Orr’s football life. “That gives me chills,” he said.

• NFL D-LEAGUE GROWS IN SOCAL: Emily Kaplan on the groundwork being laid for a pre-NFL alternative for college-aged players

* * *

The Podcast is Going to the Super Bowl

The MMQB’s annual tradition of holding a Super Bowl event at a local brewery will continue in Houston.
Dominic Bonvissuto/The MMQB

The MMQB Podcast with Peter King” will cap its rookie season with a special podcast event in Houston on Thursday, Feb. 2, from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. I’ll be recording podcast conversations with three special guests. The first one, ESPN’s Chris Berman, is confirmed, and I’m working on the others right now. The venue is small; it’s a room at St. Arnold’s Brewery downtown. We’ll be limited to selling 80 tickets at $100 apiece. Beer and some light food will be included as part of the admission—and if you haven’t had St. Arnold’s beer, you’ll be very happy you came.

Tickets will go on sale later this week, and I’ll tweet out the information at that time, plus have more details in my Wednesday column.

All ticket proceeds will go to the Caroline School, a small school in Houston that caters to children with challenging educational and health-care needs. 

If you’re in Houston, and you want to hear some good conversation with interesting people for a good cause, please come. I’m going to leave a little time at the end of each conversation for audience questions. Look forward to seeing you there.

• GUIDE TO WATCHING PLAYOFF FOOTBALL IN VEGAS: Dominic Bonvissuto lays out how to make most of a weekend in Sin City

* * *

Quotes of the Week

Tom Brady’s Patriots are now 7-2 all-time against Ben Roethlisberger’s Steelers, dating back to the 2004 season.
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

I

“We needed to play a near-flawless game, and we didn’t … but from 4-5 to the championship games—if there’s any silver lining today, it’s that.”

—Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger

II

“We know we need to take advantage of this. You never know when you’ll get this opportunity again.”

—New England quarterback Tom Brady, after the surgical performance by the New England offense in a 36-17 win over the Steelers.

Well, maybe. But he’s had seven of these opportunities: to cap the 2001, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2011, 2014 and now, the 2016 seasons. Who would doubt he’ll get an eighth chance one day?

III

“I untied them.”

—Colts owner Jim Irsay on Saturday evening, announcing that GM Ryan Grigson had been fired. Irsay had long said, including when handing Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano contract extensions last winter, that they were tied at the hip and would remain paired running the team.

IV

“I think I outworked anyone who ever ran for office. I learned that from Belichick.”

—President Donald Trump, the night before being inaugurated, referring to the New England coach.

V

“God will never forsake you—unlike the Chargers.”

—Sign outside the Community Baptist Church in Fallbrook, Calif., north of San Diego.

VI

“Bill [Belichick] showed this pass that was probably the worst pass I’ve ever seen Brady throw. The ball just completely missed the wide receiver and ended up skipping to the ground and falling out of bounds. Bill was saying, ‘What kind of throw is this? I can get Johnny Foxborough from down the street to make a better throw than this.’ … If Brady is getting it, no one is safe. I just immediately fell in line.”

—Former Patriots receiver Donte’ Stallworth, recalling his first New England team meeting to Jenny Vrentas of The MMQB in her excellent story about the hard coaching that Tom Brady takes.

VII

“We were a country that has been snoozing. Now we are alert. Whether it’s negative or positive, energy has risen. People are engaged. They’re studying. They are thinking more. And I think that’s good. You can’t get that without someone being bold enough to say things people don’t agree with.”

—Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown to the Wall Street Journal, on his support for Donald Trump.

* * *

The Award Section

The Steelers defense had no answer for Chris Hogan, who finished with nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Chris Hogan, wide receiver, New England. The marvelous thing for the Patriots is how the Belichick/Nick Caserio personnel acquisition side of the organization always figures out the right role players to pick up, and how they’ll fit in on this offense. For $12 million over three years, the Patriots stole Hogan from division rival Buffalo last spring, and he basically paid off the contract in one fell swoop Sunday in the AFC title rout of Pittsburgh. His nine-catch, 180-yard, two-touchdown performance was the best by a receiver in Patriots playoff history (by yardage), and, well, the Patriots have been in a lot of playoff games. A feisty undrafted player from the football powerhouse of Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J., Hogan fits in perfectly with the ethos. He caught TD passes of 16 and 34 yards in the first quarter and a half Sunday, staking New England to a 17-6 lead.

Matt Ryan, quarterback, Atlanta. Ryan in the first 41 minutes of the NFC Championship Game: 25 of 35, 371 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions … plus a 14-yrd rushing touchdown, the longest running TD of his nine-year NFL career. Those five touchdowns gave Atlanta a ridiculous 37-7 lead in a game that was supposed to be about 37-33 by that time. Ryan, until Sunday, had never delivered his adopted hometown a Super Bowl appearance, and now, in the span of 24 hours on the weekend of Feb. 4-5, he should give the city of Atlanta its first NFL MVP (awarded Saturday, Feb. 4) and first Super Bowl appearance (Sunday, Feb. 5) in 18 years. Ryan finished with a 392-yard passing day in the 44-21 rout.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Vince Valentine, defensive tackle, New England. So … I give this to Valentine as sort of a representative of so many Patriots who crushed practically every Pittsburgh opportunity. With 1:50 left before halftime and the Patriots leading 17-6, the Steelers had first-and-goal from the 1, and DeAngelo Williams got pushed back for a loss of one. Next play: Valentine, the third-round rookie from Nebraska, burst through the line and grabbed Williams and shoved him back. Loss of three. Then an incomplete pass, and the Steelers settled for a field goal. Great play by one of the rotational guys on the New England front, and on a day when no single Patriot defender stood out, Valentine made a huge play to stifle a very good offense.

Ra’Shede Hageman, defensive tackle, Atlanta. With a sack of Aaron Rodgers and two more tackles for loss, Hageman was a dominant force up front against a Green Bay line that had played well all season in front of Aaron Rodgers. He’s really become the player GM Thomas Dimitroff thought he’d be a year before Dan Quinn took over, and now you see how many different and disruptive things he can do in the interior. He was a major force against the run too.

SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Jonathan Jones, cornerback, New England. Jones led all players in both games in special-teams tackles with three on Sunday—two pinning the Steelers back on kickoffs (at their 22- and 16-yard line), and then corralling Antonio Brown at the Steelers 35 on a short fourth-quarter punt return. New England’s always preached the gospel of the kicking game to its young players, and that obviously helped this undrafted rookie free agent from Auburn to make the roster.

COACH OF THE WEEK

Dan Quinn, head coach, Atlanta. All coaches coming from great programs get pegged as so-and-so’s “guy.” Quinn was Pete Carroll’s “guy.” High energy from day one, like Carroll. And, like Carroll, he was teamed with a personnel guy (Thomas Dimitroff) he really didn’t know. But from the start, Quinn was clear he wanted this team not to be “Seattle East” but rather “Atlanta Now.” And there are some striking differences. But the important thing is Quinn has the Falcons in the Super Bowl in his second season—a great achievement considering he took over a 6-10 team that was comatose on defense and needed an injection of life. Quinn did that, and he built a very good defense in two years.

GOAT OF THE WEEK

Aaron Ripkowski, fullback, Green Bay. Everyone knew the storyline of this game: All possessions mattered, because there weren’t going to be many stops. With Atlanta up 10-0 early in the second quarter and the Packers inexorably driving deep into Falcon territory, Ripkowski had the ball ripped from his grip by cornerback Jalen Collins. The ball was recovered by Collins and put at the 20, and Matt Ryan drove Atlanta to a 17-0 lead. Ballgame. A huge momentum turn, because the guy who should be the best on your offense at hanging on to the ball—the 246-pound steamroller that Ripkowski is—gave it away on the verge of the Packers’ cutting the lead to three.

* * *

Right Combination of the Week

Matt Ryan, quarterback, and Julio Jones, wide receiver, Atlanta. One of the strengths of this Atlanta team is it doesn’t have one go-to guy on offense. When the defense blankets Jones, Mohamed Sanu or Devonta Freeman can take over the biggest complementary role to Ryan. But it was reinforced after a first-quarter drop by Jones that he was the most dangerous non-Ryan on the field in the NFC Championship Game. That’s why Ryan and Jones lap the field and are my Right Combination of the Week. Jones struggled through a two-catch, 10-yard first quarter; Sanu, actually, was the big star early. But over the second and third quarters, Jones caught six balls for 157 yards, and his 73-yard catch-and-run-and-break-two-serious-tackle-tries was the offensive play of the game. Jones simply has no peer as a pass-catcher, speed receiver and physical threat all over the secondary. He’ll be a tough matchup in the Super Bowl—but can’t you say that for any opponent in any game?

* * *

Stat of the Week

Colts owner Jim Irsay fired Ryan Grigson as the team’s GM after five seasons.
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

I

It’s pretty easy to see why Colts owner Jim Irsay whacked GM Ryan Grigson.

• Colts’ record in games played by Andrew Luck since the morning of the 2014 AFC title game: 10-13.
• Games missed due to injuries (lacerated kidney, shoulder, ribs, abdominal in 2015; shoulder in 2016) to Luck in the past two years: 10.
• Luck’s completion percentage over the last 23 games: .597.
• Leaguewide completion percentage in 2016: .630.

If you spin your wheels for two seasons of Andrew Luck’s prime and get him hit too much and face his age-28 year with a bad offensive line and coming off shoulder surgery, well, the general manager is likely going to be endangered.

• IS THERE A ROLE FOR PEYTON MANNING? Albert Breer examines what’s next for the Colts after the Ryan Grigson firing

II

The Times They Have a-Changed Dept.:

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a playoff weekend as run-pass unbalanced as this one.

• No running back had a 20-yard run in either championship game.
• Sunday’s four rushing leaders by team gained 46, 42, 34 and 47 yards.
• Sunday’s four passing leaders by team threw for 392, 287, 384 and 314 yards.

* * *

Factoids That May Interest Only Me

Jets owner Woody Johnson will be the United States ambassador to Britain for the next four years, which puts his day-to-day role with the team in question.
Michael Adamucci/Getty Images

I

Woody Johnson’s road to United States ambassador to the U.K.? It was paved by Johnson raising approximately $25 million for Donald Trump, several million of that coming from fellow NFL owners after Johnson appealed to them.

This is not anything scandalous or remotely unusual. It’s consistent with the political system of the United States. Every president rewards huge fund-raisers and fervent supporters like Johnson, the owner of the Jets, with plum ambassador jobs, if they want them. It’s as old as time. (Steelers owner Dan Rooney, a strong supporter of Barack Obama during his first presidential campaign, was named U.S. ambassador to Ireland after the 2008 election.) Johnson’s cause was helped, too, by the fact that he was an ardent supporter of Trump long before most others in the Republican party jumped on the bandwagon when it was obvious Trump had a real chance to win the presidency.

II

I suppose if you cover the NFL long enough (I have been doing it since 1984), things like this will happen:

Los Angeles Rams coach head Sean McVay is younger than both of my daughters, by 29 months and one month.

III

On Jan. 17, 2015, defensive tackle Joe Vellano was signed to the active roster by the Patriots from their practice squad, and the Patriots won the AFC Championship Game and advanced to the Super Bowl.

On Jan. 17, 2017, defensive tackle Joe Vellano was signed to the active roster by the Falcons from their practice squad, and the Falcons won the NFC Championship Game and advanced to the Super Bowl.

* * *

Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note

Flew from New York to Atlanta on Sunday morning. We boarded around 7:25 a.m. (Thanks for the upgrade, Delta.) This always surprises me, when, starting at 7:30, someone can drink three mugs of red wine in a two-hour, 10-minute flight. Those were not half-glasses of cabernet. They were fill-it-to-near-the-brim pours from a generous flight attendant. I am still trying to comprehend drinking 27 ounces of wine before 10 a.m. Mind-boggling. And sir, don’t mind me. I’ll just climb over you for the rest room while you’re “relaxing.”​

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Tweets of the Week

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Pod People

From “The MMQB Podcast With Peter King,” available where you download podcasts.

This week’s conversations: new Denver coach Vance Joseph, 2002 MVP quarterback Rich Gannon, and former Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk.

• Joseph on lessons learned from Wade Phillips when they worked together on the Texans staff: “Wade Phillips is a Hall of Fame coach, but Wade taught me this: Players first, scheme second. Everything Wade did was based on the players. And I never had a bad day with Wade. If it was a win by 50 or a loss by 50, I never had a bad day with Wade.”

• Hawk on Aaron Rodgers: “I sat next to him in our team meetings for nine straight years. He was always the same guy … Now that I am thinking about it, I wish I would have taken some notes, and taken some more time to watch how he did conduct himself. Luckily I still get to talk to him a lot and see him a decent amount. It might be weird if I'm just hanging out with him having dinner and I'm taking notes. Do you think that's weird? In team meetings you just sit wherever you want, there is no assigned seat. When I got drafted, Aaron reached out to me because he was the first-round pick the year before me, and he just kind of let me know what the process was like and what to expect. I didn't know anything, I was 21, 22 years old. We just started hanging out early on. My wife and I got married shortly after I got there, so my wife was always like a team mom to people, so she would have him over and cook dinner for him.”

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Ten Things I Think I Think

Kyle Shanahan is headed to his first Super Bowl as an assistant coach. He is expected to accept the 49ers’ head coaching job when his season ends.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

1. I think these are my quick notes of analysis from championship Sunday:

a. For Tom Brady to feel old, here’s a factoid to hit him with: Matt Ryan capped his senior season at Boston College with a 24-21 bowl victory over Michigan State on Dec. 28, 2007 … and on the next night Brady and the Patriots capped their 16-0 regular season with that crazy 38-35 win over the Giants at the Meadowlands.

b. Imagine Ryan in his Chestnut Hill dorm or apartment, watching Brady dissect every defense in football in that perfect season; there’s no way he ever wondered, “Man, I’d love to face him in the Super Bowl sometime.”

c. I loved Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s reaction when, just before we taped a podcast conversation Sunday night in the Falcons’ equipment office at the Georgia Dome, I told him it looked like the Super Bowl foe would be New England, and he said: “Good.”

d. Not that Shanahan thinks he can shred Belichick’s defense—far from it—but it’s the kind of bring-it-on attitude Kyle Shanahan has had his entire coaching career.

e. On fourth-and-two with 36 minutes left in the NFC title game, at the Green Bay 37, with the Pack down 17-0, Mike McCarthy punted—and I absolutely would not have.

f. At the conclusion of the final football game that will ever be played at the Georgia Dome, I had this reaction: Meh.

g. Seven Super Bowls for one quarterback (Brady) is just … just … well, it’s like what Elaine said that one time in Seinfeld: “I am speechless—I am without speech.”

h. The Falcons got a gem in Mohamed Sanu, who started to put the game out of reach and then Julio Jones finished it.

i. Classy, apt and loyal move by ESPN, naming their Sunday pregame studio after Chris Berman and Tom Jackson at the close of Berman’s last Sunday studio show in Bristol this weekend.  

j. The way to stop childish but significant behavior like that of the person who, at 3 a.m. Sunday, pulled the fire alarm at the Steelers’ Boston hotel and forced its evacuation, is pretty simple: Put the idiot’s name on TV and in the papers, and make the perp serve two months in jail.

k. This Pittsburgh offense, which is supposed to be great with all these unstoppable weapons, managed two touchdowns in eight quarters at Kansas City and New England.

2. I think I’ll wish Johnny Manziel well on his road back to the real world, and I mean that. Anyone who is trying to turn around his life is to be commended. But this one’s going to take some time to believe. I remember back almost three years, when he was an Eagle Scout at the 2014 combine, and during the pre-draft process, when he played the earnest prospect and very nearly had Mike Zimmer and the Vikings convinced he’d left his partying days back on his college campus in Texas. If I’m a GM, I’m saying to Manziel, even if he’s sober the next six months, “We’ll talk in 2018.”

3. I think I understand why the NFL moved commissioner Roger Goodell’s press conference up two days, from the Friday morning before the Super Bowl to Wednesday afternoon in Houston. (Something that’s gotten surprisingly little attention.) Especially with the Patriots in the game, there was no way the league wanted to have the buildup to the biggest game of the year marred by the wet blanket (apologies to Greg Bedard for stealing his patented phrase, but it applies here) of countless recitations of Deflategate in papers and websites and sportscasts two days before the Super Bowl. In general, I believe the league did this to try to keep interest building in the game itself as it approaches. One other Goodell note, about him attending the game in Atlanta on Sunday instead of Foxboro: Goodell should have taken his Patriots medicine sometime in the regular season. He should have gone to a game some random Sunday in Foxboro, suffered the venom that would have come, so that this “Roger’s afraid of showing his face in Foxboro” thing (which I do not doubt he is) wouldn’t continue to be such a big story.

A few other notes about Super Bowl week:

a. The Patriots will practice Wednesday through Friday at the University of Houston’s football facility.

b. The Falcons will work out at Rice University.

c. The first media availability will be Monday night at Minute Maid Park. NFC interviews, on the field, will be from 8:10 to 9:10 p.m. ET, with AFC team interviews from 10 to 11 p.m.

d. Goodell and a few select players (not in the game) will have a fan forum event at the House of Blues in downtown Houston on Friday. Fans, mostly of the Texans, will be invited to ask questions.

e. And a most interesting Monday Super Bowl MVP celebration could be at 8:30 a.m. Houston time, if Tom Brady wins it. Goodell would have to be there to say nice things about Brady, and Brady will have to pose for photos with the man who banned him from the NFL for a quarter of this season.

4. I think this qualifies as a terrific waste of opportunity: Quarterback Deshaun Watson is skipping the Senior Bowl this week. Clemson’s Watson would logically have played for the South team, which will be coached by Hue Jackson and his Cleveland Browns assistants. If you’ve got faith in your ability, and you want to convince the coach of the team with the first pick in the draft—the team that desperately needs a quarterback and will almost certainly choose one high in the draft if it can’t trade for one or sign one before that—why would you not take the golden opportunity to work with Jackson for a week? The other two prime quarterbacks in the draft, Mitch Trubisky and DeShone Kizer, were not eligible, either because they weren’t seniors or because they hadn’t graduated. A couple of notes about the Watson miss, including a clarification I want to add from my post of this note Monday morning: I said the Browns talked to him and asked Watson to play this week. The Browns did talk to him, but the team says it did not urge Watson to play. In any case, Watson decided to not play. Some of the other players who chose to decline a Senior Bowl invitation went much lower in the draft, fairly or unfairly, than they’d hoped—Geno Smith, Brett Hundley, Connor Cook, A.J. McCarren. I’m not saying the same fate will befall Watson. And I will be clear. If the Browns fall in love with Watson, the fact that he didn’t participate in the Senior Bowl won’t matter. But what if it’s close? What if Jackson’s on the fence about one or more quarterbacks? Just feels like a big miss to me.

• DESHAUN WATSON, EVALUATED: A Super Bowl coach and two NFL quarterbacks break down the Clemson star as a draft prospect

5. I think those of us of a certain age were lucky to have had Edwin Pope in our midst for as long as we did. Pope, who wrote a column for the Miami Herald for more than 50 years, died Thursday at 88. He was a raconteur of the highest order (and he loved making you look up the occasional word in his columns, by the way), a fixture in south Florida for a half-century who once told Dolphins owner Joe Robbie to hire Don Shula (he did), and an opinionated Hall of Fame voter (I know; I sat next to him a few times at selection meetings, and he had some pretty strong under-the-breath views on players). And he had his fastball until near the end. In his last column for the Herald, upon the death of Muhammad Ali in June 2016, he wrote about a bus trip he took with the then-Cassius Clay from his training place in Miami north to Maine, to fight Sonny Liston, in 1965:

If you knew Ali when he was still Cassius Clay and just starting to shock the world with that spectacular sock and smile, you never wanted him to grow old. I remember him steering our rented Trailways bus into a curb in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, on the way to chill Sonny Liston in Maine in 1965, and asking, “You think we far enough up the road for a nigger to eat?” I remember him saying, “Anybody don’t like anything on this bus better see me. I am the navigator, the instructor and the provider.”

And the winner, by a knockout in the first round.

I remember a little before that, when we checked into our hotel in Chicopee, Massachusetts, and a desk clerk tried to tell Clay that he couldn’t let him into his $60-a-day suite because someone else was still in there. “Well, get him out, “ Cassius said. “The Greatest is here.’’

And they did.

6. I think the great writers are mostly the great tellers of stories. That’s one of the things I respected most about Edwin Pope.

7. I think there’s a lesson for all in handling crises, watching the way Steelers cheerleading coach Mike Tomlin handled the Antonio Brown one. Forcefully, with mild and controlled anger, facing it straight on. Textbook crisis management. The most disturbing thing to me, other than Brown putting his me-firstness on display for the world to see, were the players who ignored Tomlin’s post-game message. That has to stop.

Carl Cheffers will be the lead official in Super Bowl 51.
Bob Levey/Getty Images

8. I think Carl Cheffers, who will ref the Super Bowl, is one of the least-known NFL referees—and the NFL likes it that way. Football Zebras has been on the Cheffers-as-Super Bowl-ref story for a few weeks now, and Mike Pereira had it last weekend for FOX. I asked Football Zebras editor-in-chief Ben Austro (yes, there is a site covering NFL officiating, and Austro is really good at it) to give us a scouting report on Cheffers, in his ninth year as NFL referee. Writes Austro:

Carl Cheffers is not the kind of referee who is going to leave his mark on the average fan. He may not have the swagger of some of his contemporaries, but do not confuse his unassuming demeanor with weakness. Cheffers has been a steady hand at the wheel of his crew for some time. Cheffers is also known for an infamous face mask flag in 2015, which gave the opportunity for the Packers to beat the Lions on the resulting untimed down. It was a call that 100 officials out of 100 would have made, even though slow-motion replay showed otherwise. When asked by a reporter at the Lions training camp about that call, Cheffers responded, “Dude, it's 2016.” Fans will always remember; Cheffers will, too, but his focus always must be on the next snap. The most controversial call of this year’s playoffs was a flag thrown by Cheffers, a holding penalty on Chiefs tackle Eric Fisher that nullified Kansas City’s two-point conversion that would have tied the playoff game with the Steelers. While Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce leveled heavy criticism at Cheffers’ feet, it was a call he had to make. No official wants to have the call that ends a team's season. It's not easy, but good officials step up, take control, and make the call in that situation, rather than letting the situation take control of the official. An entire season is made up of a few thousand “microcalls” that are all considered, but it turns out that, essentially, the last call he made exemplifies the fact that Cheffers belongs at the head of the crew on football's biggest stage.

9. I think I have a Carl Cheffers Trivia Question. Ready? What’s the significant event that happened in the first game of Cheffers’ career as an NFL referee eight years ago? (Answer below.)

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. The press must cover the president truthfully without being intimidated. Period. If that means the president hates the press and rips the press at every turn, so be it. That cannot change the duty of a free press.

b. I come from a family of women, and so I found it amazing, and rewarding, to see the reported crowds at the women’s marches all over the world Saturday, from Edinburgh, Scotland (3,000 people), to Saskatoon (800), to Chicago (250,000) to Erie, Pa. (1,500), to Birmingham, Ala. (5,000), to Beaumont, Texas (300), to Boston (175,000), to Moscow, Idaho (2,500), to Montpelier, Vt. (15,000), to Oahu (3,000), to the biggie, Washington, D.C. (an estimated 500,000, including a King, and including SI’s Grant Wahl and his wife, a physician). ”I’m 66 years old, and this is my first rally,” Denyse Goodman, of Northbrook, Ill., told the Chicago Tribune at the Chicago rally, where 10 times the expected 25,000 showed up. “I hate crowds, but I’m here. This is the most important thing I’ve ever done.”

c. IT WAS MINUS-18 DEGREES IN FAIRBANKS, ALASKA, AND 2,000 WOMEN SHOWED UP.

d. Football Story of the Week, by Greg Bishop, on a member of our profession, Bob McGinn (“this journalistic metronome”) of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who is one of the best football beat writers ever.

e. Everything about McGinn in there should be shouted from the rooftops. Young writers in the business, and really, young people in all professions, should study how Bob does his job.

f. Sometimes great things are written about people after they die. Why wait? Celebrate McGinn now.

g. Real World Story of the Week. Great job by Scott Shane on an extremely worrisome topic.

h. Or should I say, “Disgusting, Revolting Story of the Week,” by Scott Shane.

i. Read that story, and tell me why any employer who ever gets a résumé from a Cameron Harris of Annapolis, Md., would not immediately put it in the shredder.

j. Many Americans hate journalists. Okay. But if you don’t feel outrage over the actions of Cameron Harris, shame on you.

k. Listening to more and more podcasts these days. Enjoyed this last in-office interview of Barack Obama, by his four former speechwriters in their “Pod Save America” podcast. “The work continues,” was Obama’s parting line.

l. Beernerdness: Well, I can now say I have lived a full and wonderful life. A grandchild one week, a beer named after me the next. The fine people at Harpoon Brewing (Boston and Windsor, Vt.) have produced a beer after my own heart, a witbier (a white wheat ale) and put it on tap at a few spots on trial in greater Boston. Thanks to Mike Nadeau for pointing it out on Twitter. This is what he saw on the beer menu at Five Horses Tavern in Somerville: “Harpoon Peter King Wit $7 … Pilot batch release. Classic interpretation of a Belgian style wit with coriander and orange peel, 5.93% (alcohol), 12 ounces.”

m. Such a bargain: Peter King beer, for just 58 cents per ounce!

n. I owe you one, Harpoon. Thank you.

o. As you know, I rarely venture into NBA waters, but I found it interesting that in the NBA players’ balloting for the 2017 All-Star game, there were three vote-getters who haven’t played in a game this season.

p. NBA 2: And that whoever officiated that Knicks-Wizards game did nothing about the assistant coach for Washington, Sidney Lowe, on the court interfering with the Knicks players. How possibly does something like that happen?

q. NBA 3: And that, in their big test week, when Golden State played possibly three of the best teams in basketball (Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Houston), the Warriors won by 35, 21 and 17.

r. NBA 4: And that, regarding the Knicks’ quiet and weird trial balloons to rid themselves of Carmelo Anthony, it certainly seems Phil Jackson, who is one of the best coaches of all time, is also one of the worst communicators.

s. Cheffers trivia answer: After eight years as a side judge in the NFL, Cheffers was promoted to referee at the start of the 2008 season. In his first game as ref, Kansas City at New England, Cheffers was running the game as Tom Brady got his knee caved in by Bernard Pollard on the 19th play. Brady missed the rest of the season.

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The Adieu Haiku

Odd, this lil factoid:
Quinn’s coached three of last four Supes.
But now, he’s head man.
 

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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