The final four is a big deal in any sport. In the NCAA, it might be just as popular as the national championship itself. In professional leagues like the NFL, the Conference Championships don’t hold nearly as much weight as the championship game, but they’re still a badge of pride for the teams that win and make it to the Super Bowl.
The old saying goes ‘no one remembers the semi-final losers’. But, that isn’t always true in the drama-laced NFL where teams like the 2004 Atlanta Falcons, the 2000 Minnesota Vikings, the 1999 Jacksonville Jaguars, and the 1967 Los Angeles Rams are still remembered as great teams that choked in the semi-finals. But, many more Conference Championship losers have been forgotten to the annals of time. All four teams that will play for the right to appear in Super Bowl LI are great in their own right, but every team would hate to have a season that has gone so well in so many ways end so unceremoniously.
The Green Bay Packers are, without a doubt, the most surprising team left in contention. A series of injuries and bad luck throughout the season saw them sitting with a problematic 4-6 record by Week 12, but they battled back to steal the division from the Detroit Lions, who got hot late and the Minnesota Vikings, who got off to a great start but collapsed in the second half of the season. The Packers earned the NFC’s No. 4 seed in the process, the lowest of all remaining teams.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are also a bit of a surprising team to have made it this far. They were so inconsistent throughout the 2016 season that both the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals had legitimate chances to battle back and win the AFC North at one point or another. But, they pulled things together at the end of the season and easily defeated the Dolphins in the Wild Card round. Despite not scoring a single touchdown last week, they defeated the Kansas City Chiefs en route to their first AFC Championship appearance since the 2010 season (2011 playoffs).
Like the Steelers, the Atlanta Falcons struggled with consistency through the first half of the NFL season. But, after their Week 11 bye, they won five of their final six games to win the NFC South crown and the NFC’s No. 2 seed. Matt Ryan lead the team with an MVP-caliber season and seems to be on a mission to give the Falcons their first Super Bowl victory ever.
Finally, we would be remiss if we did not discuss the New England Patriots. As the highest remaining seed (No. 1), they are the favorites to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Foxborough this week and also the current Super Bowl favorites. If successful, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will surpass Terry Bradshaw and Chuck Noll as the most successful quarterback-coach tandem of all time, at least in terms of Super Bowl victories. Bengals fans may or may not like the idea of Brady and Belichick reaching those heights, but many would simply rather see anyone but the Steelers with that distinction.
It’s hard being a Bengals fan at the end of the 2016 season, watching teams play for the glory we all know the Bengals weren’t even close to attaining. But, if you are planning to watch Championship weekend, here is all the information you will want to know:
No. 4 Green Bay (10-6) at No. 2 Atlanta (11-5)
When: Sunday, Jan. 22
Game Time: 3:05 p.m. ET
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Georgia
*Line: Falcons -5.5
No. 3 Pittsburgh (11-5) at No. 1 New England (14-2)
When: Sunday, Jan. 22
Game Time: 6:40 p.m. ET
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts
Line: Patriots -4.5