FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Buckle up football fans. You’re in for quite a day.

Yes, Super Bowl Sunday may be nearly a national holiday, an excuse to eat and drink excessively while watching football and commercials. But this is the most anticipated day of the year for a football fan.

The four best teams remaining will play for the right to go to the Super Bowl in Houston on Feb. 5. And this year’s matchups truly feature the four best teams.

The Green Bay Packers play the Atlanta Falcons in the final game at the Georgia Dome at 3 p.m. Then the New England Patriots take on the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium at 6:40.

Gunslinging Aaron Rodgers against likely-MVP Matt Ryan in the first game. Tom Brady and his four Super Bowl rings versus Ben Roethlisberger and his two Super Bowl rings in the second.

Really, can you ask for anything better?

A possible offensive shootout in Atlanta between two teams that play full throttle on every down. A physical mashing in Foxborough between two teams that try to beat you down on every play.

I know that many Patriots fans would rather see Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs on the Gillette Stadium turf. But truthfully, this is the game that everyone deserves.

If the Patriots are going to return to the Super Bowl for an NFL-record ninth time, then it should come against the best opponent possible.

And that’s the Steelers.

They represent the greatest test the Patriots will face this season. They have won nine consecutive games – New England has won eight straight – and have done it by imposing their will both offensively and defensively on opposing teams.

With Roethlisberger at quarterback, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown, New England hasn’t faced an offense this diverse and balanced since the season opener in Arizona against Carson Palmer, David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald.

This is the day we will see if the Patriots’ defense – maligned for much of the season for its inability to close out games – has truly come into its own. The Patriots haven’t given up a rushing touchdown since Oct. 30, a span of nine games. But they haven’t faced a back like Bell, either.

This is the day we see if the Patriots’ offense can move against an aggressive, physical defense – the kind that has always given New England problems in the past.

Pittsburgh, led by 38-year-old James Harrison and rising star Bud Dupree, has 31 sacks in the last nine games.

It’s not going to be easy. For either team. For any player. Every yard, every inch, is going to be earned.

It’s going to be thrilling to watch.

Mike Tomlin’s recent profane characterization of the Patriots aside, these teams never have hidden their dislike for each other. They respect each other and their success. They just don’t like each other.

They have been going at each other for the game’s biggest prizes since Brady took over as New England’s starting quarterback in 2001.

They have met twice before in the AFC championship game. Both games were played in Pittsburgh. Both times the Patriots were underdogs. Both times the Patriots won – and then went on to win the Super Bowl.

These are two of the NFL’s proudest franchises, both having been to eight Super Bowls. The Steelers have won six, the Patriots four.

They always bring out the best in each other.

And you can expect more of the same Sunday.

The NFC game promises to be played at a breathtaking pace. Rodgers is playing as well as any quarterback ever has, his legend rising with every Hail Mary pass he completes. Matty Ice set a franchise record by throwing for 4,944 yards this season and has proven several times this year that no lead is safe against his offense.

That game will be thrilling to watch.

Two teams will emerge from these games Sunday, knowing that they have earned the right to play one more week. Whoever that is will know they had to play their best to get there.

And that’s how it should be.

Enjoy it folks. This is going to be a special day.

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

 


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