NFL Playoffs 2016: Turning point for conference finalists

We are down to four teams vying for two spots in Super Bowl LI. What was the season turning point for the conference finalists?

Momentum can be hard to put a finger on. A turning point for a player and/or a team may be even harder. But we are making our best guess when it comes to the NFL and its version of the final four in 2016. The New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons all entered the postseason with winning streaks of four or more games. And none of these clubs has shown any signs of cooling off anytime soon.

So what was the pivotal moment for each of these franchises this season? Time to take a look.

Green Bay Packers

Week 14: 38-10 win over Seattle Seahawks

After a suspect 3-1 start in which the team didn’t play scintillating football, Mike McCarthy’s club saw its faults exposed. It was quite evident in a 30-16 home loss to the Dallas Cowboys. It would begin a stretch in which the Packers went 1-5, including four straight losses that gave the team a 4-6 record with six games to play.

The team’s shortcomings on defense started to become a bigger issues, as were the injury issues at the running back position.

Slowly but surely Green Bay got its act together. Wins over the Eagles and Texans set up a showdown with the Seattle Seahawks at Lambeau Field. When the smoke cleared in Titletown, Aaron Rodgers hit on 18 of his 23 throws for 246 yards and three scores without an interception. Even more significantly, the Green Bay defense came up with three sacks and forced six turnovers, including five interceptions of Russell Wilson.

It was also the start of a current six-game stretch in which the Pack has totaled at least 30 points in six consecutive games. And the end result is that Rodgers, McCarthy and the team is back in the NFC title game for the second time in three years.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta Falcons

Week 8: 33-32 win over Green Bay Packers

We have to flash back to a year ago to understand just how pivotal the Atlanta Falcons’ one-point victory over the visiting Green Bay Packers in late October.

During his head-coaching debut in 2015, Dan Quinn led his club to a 5-0 start. The Falcons were the talk of the league. Following a primetime loss to the New Orleans Saints, a win over the Titans have Quinn’s squad a 6-1 record, equaling the team’s victory total of the previous year.

But optimism turned into disaster as the Falcons dropped seven of their final nine contests. The team finished second in the NFC North but seven games behind the Super Bowl-bound Carolina Panthers.

So when Atlanta overcame a Week 1 home loss to the Buccaneers and reeled off four straight wins, the skeptics were back. And that criticism was somewhat warranted when the team dropped consecutive games to the Seattle Seahawks and San Diego Chargers. The latter saw the Falcons squander a 27-10 lead at home in a 33-30 overtime loss.

So when the Green Bay Packers invaded the Georgia Dome one week later and took a 21-13 second-quarter lead, the heat was on. But Matt Ryan finished the game with 288 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. He hit on a blistering 80 percent of his throws (28-of-35). His 11-yard TD toss to Mohamed Sanu with 31 seconds to play (and subsequent PAT) gave Quinn’s squad a one-point win.

The Falcons would win six of their final eight regular-season contests, then roll the Seahawks in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. This is a confident football team that finished strong because they refused to let a little adversity snowball into another midseason slump.

NFL: New York Giants at Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers

Week 13: 24-14 win over New York Giants

The 2016 season opened in fine fashion for Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers…sort of. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his teammates got off to a 4-1 start. Three of their four wins were by 18-plus points. But that one loss was a king-sized omelet, a 34-3 setback to the Eagles in the land of cheese steaks. (Writer’s note: you can never have enough food references here)

Soon, the Black and Gold would find themselves in the midst of the four-game losing streak. The Pittsburgh defense was exposed on a weekly basis, especially when it comes to stopping the run. We say Miami’s Jay Ajayi, New England’s LeGarrette Blount and Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott gash the Steelers for at least 100 yards on the ground. At 4-5 and with their season teetering, Tomlin’s club gathered itself and came up with two wins in five days at the expense of the struggling Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts.

With a little extra time to prepare for the hot New York Giants, the Steelers looked to snap Eli Manning and company’s six-game losing streak. Running back Le’Veon Bell ran for 118 yards, Ben Roethlisberger threw for 289 yards and a pair of scores (1 interception) and the Pittsburgh defense gave up a mere 234 total yards in a 10-point win.

Combine the workhorse performance with an improving defense and you’re seeing the results. The Steelers’ overall winning streak has reached nine game. Big Ben and Antonio Brown are still huge factors. But this is a different approach on offense that is benefitting both sides of the ball. And outslugging that tough Giants’ defense was a sign of the current physical style of football this confident team is playing at the moment.

Dec 24, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA;  New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) looks for a receiver during the first half against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 24, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) looks for a receiver during the first half against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

New England Patriots

Week 15: 16-3 win over Denver Broncos

It’s always amazing when you hear some people talk about the whole “strength of schedule” thing in the NFL. It is worth reiterating that you play who you play. And more importantly, it’s how you play.

Still, critics of the New England Patriots like to point out the team’s less-than-scintillating competition at times this season. And when the club lined up against the eventual NFC West champion Seattle Seahawks on a Sunday night, the results were a 31-24 loss.

Following that setback, the Pats rolled off four straight victories. There were tough wins over the New York Jets (22-17) and Baltimore Ravens (30-23) over that stretch. At 9-4, Bill Belichick’s squad headed to the Mile High City to deal with a Denver Broncos team they had dropped a pair of games to in 2015, including a tough 20-18 setback in the AFC Championship Game.

New England’s 16-3 conquest of the defending Super Bowl champions was less about scoreboard. It was more about dominating Gary Kubiak’s club physically. The central theme was about mindset. And it was to show that the Patriots had learned a lot from last year’s losses to Von Miller and that savage defensive unit. This time around, it was Belichick’s team that did the beating up. By season’s end, the Pats allowed an NFL-low 250 points.

The New England Patriots have one of the league’s most potent offenses and can beat you with their efficiency on special teams. Their defense has absorbed its share of criticism in recent years. But that win over the Broncos showed that this team will not only bend but not break but it’s a team capable of breaking your will as well.

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