A season that began with Tom Brady serving a four-game suspension will end with him in the Super Bowl, where his New England Patriots will take on Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons.
While much of the attention between now and the NFL championship game Feb. 5 in Houston will be focused on Brady vs. Ryan, the truly key matchup could be Atlanta's score-at-will offence, which produced the most points during the regular season, against the unheralded defence of New England, which allowed the fewest.
And these two teams are playing their best football at the most important time.
AFC champion New England has won nine-straight games—and hasn't even trailed since Nov. 27.
NFC champion Atlanta, meanwhile, has won its past six in a row, scoring at least 33 points in each.
“We'll enjoy this,” Ryan said after earning his first Super Bowl trip in his ninth season.
“But we've got some work to do,” he stressed.
Brady and coach Bill Belichick will be seeking their—and the Patriots'—fifth Lombardi Trophy and second in three years.
This will be the franchise's league-record ninth appearance in the Super Bowl, including titles in 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2015.
“This team showed a lot of mental toughness over the course of the year,” Brady noted.
The Falcons have never won the Super Bowl.
This will be Atlanta's second trip to the big game; it lost to Denver back in 1999.
The club's never had a quarterback quite as good as Ryan, though.
The guy nicknamed “Matty Ice” went 27-for-38 for 392 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions, while adding a rushing TD to boot, in leading Atlanta past Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers 44-21 in the NFC championship game yesterday.
“We did exactly what we've been doing all year and it feels really good,” Ryan said after becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for at least three TDs in four-straight post-season games.
“We'll be ready to go, that's for sure.”
Later yesterday, the 39-year-old Brady tied Hall-of-Famer Joe Montana's record with a ninth three-TD post-season game, helping the Patriots beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 36-17 for the AFC title.
Odds-makers didn't even wait for the second game to end before making New England a three-point favourite over Atlanta in the Super Bowl.
But as well as Brady played yesterday (32-for-42 for 384 yards, those three scores, and no interceptions), it was the way New England's defence played that stood out.
Right from the get-go, too. On Pittsburgh's first two drives, nine plays yielded a total of 26 yards.
Then there was the stand late in the second quarter, when the Steelers had first-and-goal at the one-foot line and wound up settling for a field goal.
And by game's end, the Patriots had forced two turnovers.
New England ranked No. 1 in the NFL in points allowed per game at 15.6, and it gave up only 326.4 yards per game, eighth-best.
MVP favourite Ryan, meanwhile, directed a unit orchestrated by offensive co-ordinator Kyle Shanahan—expected to be hired after the season as San Francisco's new head coach—that topped the league in scoring (33.8) and ranked second in yards (415.8).
Brady, a three-time Super Bowl MVP and two-time league MVP, and the Patriots also own a pretty effective offence—even after losing star tight end Rob Gronkowski to an injury.
New England ranked fourth in yards (386.2) and third in points (27.6).
Another thing these teams have in common is that neither hurts itself with turnovers: they tied for the fewest in the regular season with 11.
That could be part of why bookies are expecting a high-scoring game, with most setting the over-under at 58 points.