For The Record – Joe Kazmar

Sunday’s two lop-sided conference championship games produced the participants for Super Bowl LI that will be played Feb. 5 at NRG Stadium in Houston, the home of the Houston Texans.
Unfortunately neither of the two Lone Star State’s franchises made it to this year’s extravaganza—although they got to the Final Eight–as the two top-seeded, heavily-favored teams–the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots—will be lighting up the huge scoreboard in NRG in less than two weeks.
But both the Houston Texans and the Dallas Cowboys could very well have had a hand in helping Atlanta and New England get to the Big Dance.
Although the Texans lost by the convincing score of 34-16 to New England in the Divisional Championship Game, they showed the New England coaching staff that quarterback Tom Brady was vulnerable to a pass rush right up the middle.
They proved it by sacking the future Hall of Fame quarterback two times, hitting him eight times and hurrying him on almost every play.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, who were overwhelmed 36-17 by the Pats, got to Brady for two early sacks, but only hit him three times and allowed him to complete 32 of 42 passes for a franchise-record 384 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions for a 127.5 passing rating.
Houston also showed the Patriots that a team with a weak, low-scoring offense can’t stay on the same field with New England. Pittsburgh won their division championship game WITHOUT scoring a touchdown.
The Steelers proved their offensive ineptitude by not scoring a touchdown just before half after having a first-and-goal from inside the one-yard line.
The Cowboys may have helped Atlanta by playing a super-physical game against the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Championship Game and softening them up for the Falcons.
The Packers faced Atlanta Sunday without three offensive linemen and with three receivers playing with injuries that kept them out of practice last week. The Cowboys forced Green Bay to go “all-in” to luckily pull out its dramatic 34-31 victory as time ran out.
But most of the magic that Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers displayed during the eight-game winning streak fizzled quickly at Atlanta Sunday. Rodgers found his team trailing 31-0 early in the third quarter thanks to the porous defense.
The Packers allowed Atlanta to reach Green Bay territory eight times on nine possessions and ended up losing to the Falcons 44-21.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan connected on 27-of-38 passes for 392 yards and four touchdowns, zero interceptions and a passing rating of a phenomenal 139.4. He also ran for a 14-yard touchdown. He became the first NFL quarterback with at least three touchdown passes in four consecutive playoff games.
Super Bowl 51 should showcase two of the NFL’s top quarterbacks, perhaps of all time. But I believe the determining factor in winning this year’s Lombardi Trophy will lie in which defense plays best and with the fewest mistakes.
New England is an early three-point favorite and if I had to make a decision right now, I probably would take the points and root for Bridge City native Matt Bryant to kick the winning field goal.
KWICKIES…Speaking of Matt Bryant, Atlanta’s 41-year-old kicking specialist had to turn down his invitation to play in his first Pro Bowl Sunday because he has bigger fish to fry the following Sunday at NRG Stadium in Houston.
Beaumont Central’s head football coach and former West Orange-Stark student, football player and assistant football coach Toby Foreman has been extremely busy showcasing his Jaguar players to the college coaches as the Feb. 1 National signing date approaches. “Anything that benefits the kids is a positive for me,” Foreman told a Jefferson County newspaper last week.
Yordano Ventura, who helped the Kansas City Royals win the 2015 World Series, died in an auto accident Sunday in his native Dominican Republic. The 25-year-old pitcher, who his teammates called “Ace,” was one of the most popular players on the team. He played his whole career with the Royals, signing a $23 million, five-year deal with Kansas City before he started on opening day in 2015. He was 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA in 2014, his first full year in the majors and helped the Royals reach the World Series for the first time in nearly three decades.
The University of Oregon hired David Reaves as co-offensive coordinator last Tuesday and then placed on administrative leave Sunday after he was arrested for driving under the influence. The process to terminate his employment started this week.
JUST BETWEEN US…There will be some familiar faces at NRG Stadium for Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5. Matt Ryan’s backup quarterback is Matt Schaub, famous for the many Pick Sixes that got him canned from the Texans, defensive end Brooks Reed, Richard Smith, the Texans’ former defensive coordinator from 2006-2008 who has Atlanta improving every week and Falcons’ offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who tutored Andre Johnson to his best two seasons in Houston.