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Conference Championships Are Quarterback Nirvana

Bob George
Bob George on Twitter
5 years ago at 9:14 pm ET
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary

Conference Championships Are Quarterback Nirvana

Offense sells tickets, defense wins championships.

1985 Bears. 2000 Ravens. 2015 Broncos. Each of these champs featured a defensive player who got Super Bowl MVP. There were many others, but these three stand out from the others.

The 2016 winner won’t be next on the list of great Super Bowl defensive teams. Far from it.

However, you the football fan are in for potentially some of the best offensive playoff football in recent memory. In particular, the final four quarterbacks could be arguably the best quartet in Super Bowl history. Many football fans love defense, but most love offense more.

Matt Ryan. Aaron Rodgers. Ben Roethlisberger. Tom Brady.

This is the offensive football equivalent of a hot fudge sundae with whipped cream and nuts. It is like looking for Shangri-La and actually finding it. It is when a composer of music waits for weeks for the right melody to come into his or her head, and then it finally does.

Many football experts think that the Divisional Round is the best football weekend of the year. Not this year. It is the Conference Championship weekend. The home teams, New England and Atlanta, are each five-point favorites. If you are fans of the visitors, Green Bay and Pittsburgh, your response is “We should be five-point favorites!”

How about we split the difference and call both games what they deserve to be called. Pick ‘em.

The home teams deserve an edge because they will play better in front of their home fans. The Falcons will be extra motivated because it will be the final game in the history of the Georgia Dome. Remember what the last game at Foxborough Stadium was like? (Hint: tuck rule) But both Green Bay and Pittsburgh won on the road this weekend to get to these games. Neither the Steelers nor the Packers will be fazed one bit by the hostile visiting crowd, and Green Bay has no weather issues to deal with.

Let’s go through all four quarterbacks, and what they project to bring to the table on Sunday.

Ryan is a local favorite. The former Boston College Eagle has had a nice nine-year NFL career since being the third selection in the 2008 NFL Draft. He threw for 9,313 yards and 31 touchdowns in his four years at Chestnut Hill, and led BC to four bowl game victories, including a 24-21 win over Michigan State in the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando his senior year. BC spent two weeks as the number two team in the nation in 2007, his senior year.

In Atlanta, Ryan had his best season statistically in 2016. He threw for a career high 4,944 yards, and led the league in yards gained per attempt, percent of touchdowns per attempt, yards gained per completion, and passer rating. He had more wins in 2010 and 2012 (13 in each of those seasons compared to 11 this season).

But Ryan has more weapons on offense this year than ever before. He has perhaps the best wide receiver in the NFC in Julio Jones. He is complimented by Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel. Like Pittsburgh, he enjoys a potent rushing attack to compliment the passing game. His backfield tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for almost 1,600 rushing yards in 2016. These two guys also combined for 85 pass catches (Freeman was third on the team in pass receptions).

Jones and Sanu alone will keep defensive coordinators up late at night. Add Freeman and Coleman to the mix, and Green Bay will have plenty to think about with their injury-depleted defense.

Ryan is a leading candidate for NFL MVP. Many experts think he will win it. After seeing him dismantle Seattle on Saturday, 36-20 in the Divisional round, his winning the MVP will surprise no one. Of all the quarterbacks in this quartet, however, he is the only one with nary a Super Bowl win. The Falcons have been to only one Super Bowl in franchise history, losing to Denver in Super Bowl XXXIII 34-19.

Rodgers was a first round selection by Green Bay in 2005 out of California. He came in and was an understudy to Brett Favre for three seasons before he got the keys to the car in 2008. When you look at Jimmy Garoppolo, you pray that he becomes the next Aaron Rodgers or the next Steve Young. For now, Rodgers will do just fine.

It took Rodgers six seasons to reach the NFL summit. He and his Packers beat Roethlisberger and his Steelers 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV. Rodgers was game MVP with three touchdown passes, and showed everyone that he is an elite quarterback. He hasn’t been back to the big game since, and the Packers have had some playoff disappointments over the years. But nobody will doubt the greatness of Rodgers.

If Ryan was the best quarterback this season, Rodgers is the best right now. After a 42-24 loss to Washington on November 20, Rodgers vowed that “we will run the table!” So far, the Packers have reeled off eight straight wins. Rodgers has been playing out of his mind, and never mind the Hail Marys he continues to throw. The win on Sunday at top-seeded Dallas was one of the best quarterback performances in recent postseason memory.

Rodgers might get injured wideout Jordy Nelson back this weekend. He already has Randall Cobb, Devante Adams, Richard Rodgers (no relation), Geromimo Allison and Jared Cook. None of these receivers has the size of Jones nor the pedigree of Antonio Brown, Julian Edelman or Rob Gronkowski. But any of these receivers can beat you. They will beat you because Rodgers will get them the ball when he needs to. Ask Cook if that’s true if you don’t believe it.

Rodgers lacks the running game. Eddie Lacy has been out since Week 5. Converted receiver Ty Montgomery led the team in rushing, but only with 457 yards. The second leading rusher is Rodgers himself. But Rodgers has enough clutch right now to carry the day against anyone. And pray that he’s not at midfield with two seconds left and trailing by four points. Knock it down? Someone will get behind you.

Patriot fans know Roethlisberger very well. Roethlisberger knows the Patriots very well also. After a 2004 win on Halloween which broke a 21-game win streak by the Patriots (and was only four days after the Red Sox broke their 86-year championship drought), the Patriots have basically owned Roethlisberger since. They came back that same year to win the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh, and it has never really let up.

We will spare you the details and get to this year. The Patriots missed him in Week 7 at Heinz Field and beat the Steelers 27-16. Big Ben has more offensive weapons this season than ever before, namely the best running back in the conference and the best wide receiver in the conference in Le’Veon Bell and Brown. In that Week 7 matchup, the Patriots “held” Bell to 81 yards rushing on 21 carries. Bell was the team leader in pass catches with 10; Brown had seven catches for 106 yards.

The Patriots might want to do what the Chiefs did on Sunday night, and that is to hold Pittsburgh to nothing but field goals. Chris Boswell hit for six, but that was good enough for an 18-16 win to send them to this game. In Week 7, Boswell kicked three field goals. The only Pittsburgh touchdown was scored by Darius Heyward-Bey. Heyward-Bey had one rush this season (for 60 yards), and caught six passes for 114 yards. Those are season stats, not Week 7 stats.

Again, Landry Jones was the quarterback in that game, so Bill Belichick loaded up on stopping Bell and didn’t worry about the receivers. Beyond Bell and Brown, Roethlisberger has Eli Rogers and new tight end Jesse James as secondary targets. The focus of containing Pittsburgh offensively will still center on Bell and Brown.

Roethlisberger is perhaps the best quarterback at making something out of nothing. But he is older, more brittle, and susceptible to careless throws. Still, he should scare Patriot Nation a bit.

Which brings us to Brady. He is 9-2 against Pittsburgh in his career. Brady will have a defense he can handle, which won’t give him problems like Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus gave him on Saturday night. It’s not that Pittsburgh doesn’t have some good players on defense, as James Harrison, Bud Dupree and Ryan Shazier head a decent linebacker corps that can cause problems. But the secondary is weak, and if the pass rush can be contained, Brady will find someone.

Even minus Gronkowski, the Patriots should not have major problems scoring, unless they are still off kilter as they were Saturday night. The Patriots did draw one of the more potent offenses in this game, but not one of the more talented defenses.

All four quarterbacks can drop at least 30 on their opponent. Three of them have been to the mountaintop. Both games could very well come down to who has the ball last, like the Dallas-Green Bay game did. Fans of all four teams, you may now start sweating.

For the rest of pro football fans everywhere, simply sit back and enjoy the shows. It promises to be a weekend to remember.


Posted Under: Patriots Commentary


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