The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, so it should come as no surprise that the last four teams standing have elite signal-callers.
Sunday’s conference championship games feature perhaps the NFL’s four best quarterbacks this season, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and New England’s Tom Brady.
A lot of head coaches and offensive coordinators were fired over the last few weeks. In most cases, they met their end due to the lack of an elite quarterback. In the NFL, it’s hard to be a great coach or offensive coordinator without a top-shelf quarterback.
So the four coaches left standing – Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy, Atlanta’s Dan Quinn, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and New England’s Bill Belichick are four very fortunate men. They have special quarterbacks. So many other NFL head coaches are spinning their wheels because they lack an elite player under center.
Sunday’s two games should be special with this quartet of magnificent quarterbacks on the two fields of action.
Here is a breakdown of the NFL’s two conference championship games:
Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons
NFC Championship Game
Sunday, January 22, 3:05 PM on FOX
Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Georgia
This game should be a classic NFL shootout, a match-up of two red-hot quarterbacks, facing a pair of suspect defenses.
No NFL team scored more points this past season than the Ryan-led Falcons. He threw 38 touchdowns in the regular season, and tossed three more in a playoff win over Seattle. He’s playing the best football of his career.
The game’s other quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, is also playing on a very high level. Ever since his proclamation that the Packers would “run the table” after starting the season 4-6, which they did, he’s been tearing up opposing defensive backfields. During the regular season, he threw a remarkable 40 touchdowns, and has added six more in two playoff wins. His interception last week in Dallas was his first in nine games.
And Rodgers has destroyed some very good defenses over the last month, putting up 38 points against both the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings, and 34 last week in Dallas.
You could make a strong argument the Falcons’ defense isn’t as good as these three units.
So the Packers’ offense could march through Atlanta like Sherman. But keep in mind, Falcons coach Dan Quinn has a 3-0 record against Rodgers, as a defensive coordinator in Seattle and head coach (and de facto defensive coordinator) in Atlanta. So Quinn has a good feel for how to deal with Rodgers.
Also, Rodgers currently has the flu, so he might be less than 100 percent during this game.
Speaking of health issues, Falcons star receiver Julio Jones isn’t 100 percent, dealing with a painful toe injury that kept him out of practice on Wednesday and Thursday. This injury tends to get worse as the game progresses.
The Packers also have some question marks at receiver with Jordy Nelson (ribs), Davante Adams (ankle) and Geronimo Allison (hamstring) all game-time decisions. Expect two of the three to play. On Saturday, the Packers called up WR Max McCaffrey from the practice squad as insurance.
This game is too close to call, and could come down to which team has the ball last.
Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots
Sunday, 6:40 PM on CBS
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts
This is the 11th AFC Championship game appearance for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
If the Steelers hope to keep him from his seventh Super Bowl appearance, they need to duplicate what the Denver Broncos did in last year’s AFC Championship game, put the Pats’ superstar QB on the ground a lot.
In Denver’s 20-18 win over New England on January 24, 2016, the Broncos sacked Brady four times, and had 17 QB hits.
While it might be hard for the Steelers to duplicate what Denver did since they don’t have linebacker Von Miller, their pass rush really improved late in the season. Pittsburgh has won nine straight, and during that streak, they’ve have the most sacks in in the NFL.
A big reason for Pittsburgh’s resurgent pass rush was the return of outside linebacker Bud Dupree, who didn’t play when New England beat Pittsburgh in Week Seven due to a hernia. The explosive Dupree, and veteran James Harrison on the other side, have been on a tear. They need that to continue this week if the Steelers hope to have any chance at winning this game.
Brady was average by his standards in New England’s playoff win over Houston last week, but the Patriots still won by 18. This illustrates Brady’s greatness. A pedestrian performance by #12 is still better than most.
“Pedestrian” would be a good word to describe Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger the last six games. In Pittsburgh’s playoff win over Kansas City last week, they had to settle for six field goals. Maybe his left knee is still a problem. On October 17, he had arthroscopic surgery.
And not helping matters for Roethlisberger is Sunday’s game is on the road. In eight road games this season, “Big Ben” completed just 59.4 percent of his passes, throwing just nine touchdowns to eight interceptions. In eight games at home, he completed 70.8 percent of his throws, and threw 20 touchdowns to five interceptions with a 116.7 rating.
A big reason the Steelers have been able to win, despite less than stellar play from the franchise QB, has been the amazing play of tailback Le’Veon Bell, who has emerged as the NFL’s best runner. Not only is Bell a great player, but he’s playing behind the NFL’s best offensive line, which has further enhanced his game. Stopping Bell will be a herculean task for New England.
But the Steelers will need more from Roethlisberger than they got last week at Arrowhead Stadium. You can beat Chiefs QB Alex Smith with six field goals, but not Brady.
“We know that [Brady and Roethlisberger) are Hall of Famers one day,” said Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said. “When that type of competition goes head to head against each other, it should be a show out there.”
It certainly should be, but it’s hard to pick against Brady at home in the playoffs. In the post-season, he’s 16-3 in Foxboro.
So there is a very good chance the Patriots win a razor-close game at Gillette Stadium.