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“It’s A Quarterback League”

 

If you pick NFL playoff games based on quarterbacks alone, the first two rounds of the postseason have been pretty easy. Now, it gets hard.

As Pittsburgh gets ready to visit New England in the AFC Championship Game and Green Bay travels to Atlanta for the NFC title game, the showdowns for berths to the Super Bowl come down to the best quarterbacks in the postseason.

New England’s Tom Brady goes against Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger for the AFC title and the two enter the game with a combined six Super Bowl titles. Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay has one title and is in the midst of one of the most impressive runs of his legendary career. He goes against Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, who is the only one without a Super Bowl ring. Yet Ryan enters this game with some gaudy and MVP-worth statistics, including a staggering average of 9.3 yards per pass attempt for a team that led the NFL in total offense.

New England and Green Bay weren’t far behind at No. 3 and No. 4 and Pittsburgh finished No. 10 in the league. In the absence of a great defense like Denver last season or Seattle in 2013, the path to the Super Bowl is clearly defined by which passers show up the biggest this weekend. In fact, this weekend should serve as a primer for any young general manager. As tempting as it might be to build around defense and a running game when you can’t find a quarterback, you still have to find a quarterback.

“It is and forever will be the most important position in the game,” said Hall of Fame former executive Bill Polian, who had the likes of Jim Kelly and Peyton Manning as his quarterbacks. “It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about this year, next year or 25 years from now. Lots of things about the game change. That part doesn’t. Ever.”

As for this weekend, Roethlisberger has the task of trying to take down the most consistent team in the NFL over the past 16 years. The advantage Pittsburgh has is that the Steelers have no fear of the Patriots. New England beat the Steelers 27-16 earlier this season in Pittsburgh, but Roethlisberger missed that game with an injury.

The game that may be a better indicator of how the AFC Championship Game plays out is the 2015 season opener when the Steelers lost 28-21 in New England. But Patriots fans shouldn’t take that as a good sign. First, the Patriots won that game primarily because of dominant play from tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had three touchdowns and was a matchup nightmare for a Steelers team that was just beginning to transition to a new defensive scheme. This time around, there will be no Gronkowski, who is out for the season with a back injury, and the Steelers defense has made strides over the past two seasons. Second, then-Steelers kicker Josh Scobee missed two makeable field goals in that game that changed how Pittsburgh played the game strategically. In addition, the Steelers committed the only turnover of the game.

Finally, the Steelers actually dominated the Patriots in a couple of key areas. Pittsburgh outgained New England in total offensive yards 464 to 361 and held the ball for nearly five minutes longer because of the strong running game. The Steelers rushed for 125 yards in that game even though they were without star running back Le’Veon Bell. In short, this game has all the makings of a Steelers win.

In the NFC title game, many people may dismiss Atlanta because of the attention Rodgers has received during Green Bay’s eight-game winning streak. After the Packers fell to 4-6 and were in danger of being eliminated from the playoffs, Rodgers declared that they would “run the table” to make the playoffs. He has led that run by completing 195 of 283 passes (68.9 percent) for 2,385 yards, 24 touchdowns and only one interception.

Rodgers’ performance goes well beyond the stats. Against the New York Giants, he hit a critical Hail Mary touchdown just before halftime after the Packers had struggled for much of the first half. Against Dallas in the second round of the playoffs, he helped avenge a loss earlier in the season by getting the Packers off to a strong start (they led 21-3 at one point) and hit a seemingly impossible 36-yard pass to Jared Cook with three seconds remaining to set up a game-winning field goal.

Rodgers has done that despite a patchwork running game that features former wide receiver Ty Montgomery lining up at running back because of injuries. The Packers defense has also been suspect most of the season. Green Bay is trying to become only the third team in Super Bowl history to reach the title game with a defense ranked 20th or worse during the regular season.

Against Atlanta, that defense could get scorched. The Falcons not only lead the NFL in offense this season on the strength of Ryan’s previously mentioned stats, but the team has great balance. Atlanta’s had the third-best pass-run ratio in the league behind only Dallas and New England. The Falcons also led the league in offense despite being the only team in the top 10 of the league to run less than 1,000 plays this season. That’s because Atlanta was extraordinarily efficient. That was by design.

“That was something we were striving for all season,” Ryan said after Atlanta dismantled Seattle in the second round. “We were efficient and we took care of the ball.”

Ryan contributed directly to that by completing 69.9 percent of his passes and threw only seven interceptions. For the year, the Falcons had only 11 turnovers. Against Seattle and its respected defense, the Falcons had three touchdown drives of 75 yards or longer, including a 99-yard drive just before halftime that gave Atlanta complete control of the momentum. Symbolically, that 99-yard drive also featured nine plays. All of them were passes and Atlanta put Ryan in complete control at the most critical moment.

Now, with the Super Bowl on the line, expect every team to put their quarterback in complete control.

Packers 45 Falcons 42

Patriots 28 Steelers 27