Like clockwork, the drama and intensity ratcheted up another notch during last weekend’s divisional round, after teams eliminated a slew of pretenders through a wild-card weekend that left much to be desired. Green Bay split the uprights on a 51-yard kick as the last man standing through a 34-31 shootout over Dallas. Next, Pittsburgh went on the road to Arrowhead, kicked six field goals, and ground out an 18-16 slugfest over the Chiefs. The two teams nobody wanted to play, out of both conferences, advanced to the Conference Championship Round.
These AFC and NFC Championship games read like a “who’s who” when it comes to elite quarterbacks. As a group, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Tom Brady have already combined for seven Super Bowl titles. For 2016–17, Matt Ryan took the leap and emerged as the leading MVP candidate after torching defenses for 70% completions, 4,944 yards, and 38 touchdowns. This is the year of the quarterback.
Still, at these levels, a key block, possession catch, or strip sack from a role player late in the fourth quarter may swing the balance of the ball game and pave the road to Super Bowl LI. For these power rankings, the supporting cast makes all the difference. Quarterbacks get the glory. But, football is the ultimate team game.
4. Atlanta Falcons
The naysayers still openly question whether these Atlanta Falcons are for real. In 2010, the Falcons went 13-3, only to get blown out at home by a white hot Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers en route to Super Bowl XLV. Two years later, in 2012, the Falcons went 13-3, but got punched in the mouth at the Georgia Dome and folded up by the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. For this, many wrote off Ryan as a “good, but not great” quarterback.
Against this backdrop, the 2016–17 Atlanta Falcons quietly put together one of the more explosive offensive attacks of all time. These Falcons torched defenses for 34 points per game — to lead the league in scoring. As always, Julio Jones was a matchup nightmare on the outside, racking up 83 receptions for 1,409 yards, and six touchdowns despite missing two regular-season starts.
Besides Jones, the Falcons have two versatile backs, Tevin Coleman and Devonte Freeman, who can run between the tackles, bounce carries outside, pass protect, and catch the football out of the backfield. Taken together, Coleman and Freeman accounted for 2,482 yards of total offense this season. Last week, the Atlanta Falcons made quick work out of a battle-tested Seattle club. Matty Ice turned in his best prime-time performance as a professional, spreading around 26 completions to eight separate receivers.
At the same time, the Freeman/Coleman platoon paced the Falcons offense for 102 yards and one touchdown on the ground. The Falcons were up by two touchdowns heading into the fourth quarter, before unleashing the dogs upon Russell Wilson. Wilson took three sacks on the day, while rapper Future laughed it up and slapped high fives on the Atlanta sidelines.
Still, these NFC playoffs appear eerily similar to those of 2010, when Green Bay backed into the postseason at 10-6, before rattling off three straight wins on the road and marching off to the Super Bowl. For once, the high-octane Atlanta Falcons may very well find themselves in a shootout that they just cannot win. The game of football has not seen a freewheeling gunslinger like Rodgers since Brett Favre ran around like a kid out there.
3. Green Bay Packers
In 2010, the Green Bay Packers won their last two games through an up-and-down season to go 10-6 and make their way into the playoffs with a wild card. From there, the Pack won three straight games on the road, including a 48-21 blowout in Atlanta, to march all the way to the Super Bowl. For Super Bowl XLV, Rodgers lit up the Pittsburgh Steelers for 304 yards and three touchdowns to claim MVP hardware. By 2014, Rodgers earned the right to stand at the press conference podium and spell out the word “relax,” after Green Bay took two ugly losses to start that season at 1-2.
This year, the low point came in Week 11, when the Packers traveled to Washington and took a 42-24 beat down, one week after losing in Tennessee by 22 points. The Pack lost four straight games and fell to 4-6, with Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson both sharing the hot seat, while a rattled Rodgers looked completely out of sorts at quarterback. It was then that Rodgers felt as if the Green Bay Packers would run the table. The Pack, of course, went on to rip off six straight regular-season wins and clinch the NFC North title, at 10-6.
Two weeks ago, the Pack throttled the New York Giants 38-13 on the Frozen Tundra, apparently to avenge bitter home playoff losses to Eli and the G-Men, in 2008 and 2011. Next, it was on to Dallas, where Green Bay knocked off the top-seeded Cowboys in a 34-31 thriller. To set up the game-winning kick, Rodgers completed two big-pass plays to drive the Packers 43 yards down field in 35 seconds. NFL teams that don’t know to play “keep-away” quickly learn that Rodgers can always get a score, as long as there is any time remaining on the clock.
Now, the Pack will make its way to Atlanta for the NFC Championship Game. Certainly, the game plan will call for a series of misdirection plays to neutralize Victor Beasley and the Falcon pass rush. Next, expect Aaron Rodgers to make heroes out of the likes of Davante Adams and Jared Cook, without a banged up Jordy Nelson in the lineup. From there, a “bend, but don’t break” defensive unit may give just enough for this team to steal another playoff win at the Georgia Dome.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
This has been a tale of three seasons at Three Rivers. First, these Pittsburgh Steelers opened up the regular season as legitimate Super Bowl contenders and looked the part, going 4-1 through their first five games. Next, bitter rival Baltimore popped Pittsburgh in the mouth amid a brutal stretch when the team lost four straight games to suddenly find themselves at 4-5. Now, the Pittsburgh Steelers are the hottest team in football, after ripping off nine straight wins.
These wild swings in momentum largely had to do with the timing of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown taking the field together. Bell sat out the first four games of the regular season, serving out his suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse protocol. Next, Big Ben sat out Week 8 against New England, after being rolled off the Miami turf in a cart the prior week. Roethlisberger, Bell, and Brown finally started their first playoff game together earlier this month.
Bell, in two playoff games, ran amok for 337 yards and two touchdowns, off 59 carries. Brown, for his part, also went over 100 yards receiving against both the Dolphins and Chiefs. Meanwhile, the Steeler defense is tightening up, limiting playoff opponents to a mere fourteen points per game. These Pittsburgh Steelers are clicking on all cylinders right now.
Last Sunday, Brown went Facebook Live to post an expletive-laden victory speech by head coach Mike Tomlin, after his Steelers just survived an 18-16 bloodbath in Kansas City. The rant took dead aim at New England and will certainly serve as even more motivation for Kraft, Belichick, Brady & Co. to keep this long-running Dynasty rolling. Six field goals will not get it done in Foxborough, Mass.
1. New England Patriots
Brady hasn’t been this fired up since 2007, when he went over the top to the likes of Wes Welker and Randy Moss on the outside for 4,806 yards and a then-record 50 touchdowns. That year, the Patriots went 16-0 through the regular season, before coming up just short to Eli Manning, a miraculous helmet catch, and the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
This year, Brady served out a four-game suspension to start the season, for his role in the Deflategate scandal. Brady finally took the field in Week 5 and he’s lit it up ever since for 67% passing, 3554 yards and 28 touchdowns against only two interceptions. This production calculated out to a 112.2 quarterback rating, the second best of his career (117.2 in 2007). For this, many analysts already moved Brady ahead of Joe Montana, as the greatest quarterback of all time.
These New England Patriots appear hell bent upon proving that their long-running Dynasty is indeed, legitimate. Last week, the Patriots were far from their best, but still managed to romp over a clearly overmatched Houston club 34-16. Dion Lewis proved to be the hero of the Divisional Playoffs, scoring three touchdowns for the run, catch, and kickoff return cycle. We have seen this movie before.
First, the Patriots rip through the regular season, own the AFC East, and clinch home-field advantage through the postseason. Next, New England will win ugly in the divisional round, with mad-man Belichick dialing up the blitz from every angle and controlling the clock.
For the Conference Championship, Belichick will pull out all the stops, with exotic shifts, formations, and gadget plays to move the chains. Expect a former cast-off straight from the scrap heap, like a Corey Dillon, Troy Brown, or LeGarrette Blount to somehow come up big for the Patriots. Brady, of course, will remain at the ready to close out the game, and assume command of the victory formation. These Patriots are now set to win one more ring for the thumb.