By Jason Keidel
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After a few dry runs, the NFL playoffs took proper form Sunday.
Wild-card weekend was rife with boredom and blowouts, as was the opening day of the divisional round.
But the twin duels forged in Dallas and Kansas City gave the final four an epic feel. And no real football fan can say that the best four teams are not still in the dance.
Locally, you’d like to see Big Blue around. And nationally, the Packers-Cowboys game was befitting a conference championship, every bit as exciting as their first two clashes in the ’60s between Landry and Lombardi, each punching a ticket to the Super Bowl before Lamar Hunt named it so. But beyond those slight aesthetics, this coming weekend is the perfect panacea for a sport that sagged this season.
Between a bitter election and poor public relations, the NFL’s ratings tanked about 10 percent this season. To extend the tone-deaf nature of the league, it abandoned two hardcore fan bases (San Diego and St. Louis) to head to a city that already gave up on two franchises and has hardly clamored for a redux.
But the two games Sunday drained the adrenal gland like no other in recent memory. And it was fitting that all four teams are big-ticket franchises, all on the map for at least 50 years.
Phil Simms said it best during a recent episode of “Inside the NFL” — and some of us have echoed Simms’ sentiments for a few years: At his apex, Aaron Rodgers is the best passer this planet has ever seen.
His impossible contortions Sunday, spinning 360 degrees, trotting left, hopping while heaving a football 40 yards, a laser that only Jared Cook could have caught — and did so divinely — was a throw that only he could have made.
We’ve slowly run out of superlatives for the Packers’ QB nonpareil. Not only did Rodgers save a game the Packers were close to blowing — there’s no way Green Bay wins that game in overtime — but he did so with a dearth of decent running backs and sans his star receiver, Jordy Nelson (who should be back for the Falcons game).
We should apologize in advance, as Atlanta will not get the attention afforded the other three clubs, all of which have the pedigree and historical prerogatives that have eluded the Falcons for 40-plus years. Beating the Packers and punching their ticket to the Super Bowl would change that.
The Patriots played an uncharacteristically sloppy game against Houston, but it didn’t matter. With an exponential premium placed on QB play, there was no way Brock Osweiler, who happily backed into a $72 million contract (with $37 million guaranteed), would beat Tom Brady, in New England, or England, or Ireland, or Cambodia.
But it did set up a sublime AFC title game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who eked out a win in the ornery climes of Kansas City on Sunday. It didn’t feature the pyrotechnic passing game we saw in Dallas — but it had all the defense and drama of an old-world NFL Films classic.
And while Dallas somehow maddeningly remains the sport’s most popular team, the Cowboys shrivel in the shadow cast by the Packers, Patriots and Steelers, all of whom have actually won playoff games and Super Bowls over the last 20 years. Indeed, Dallas is 2-8 in the postseason over the last two decades, the worst mark for any team with at least 10 games played.
Pittsburgh enters its 16th AFC title game, the most among any team in the Super Bowl era. New England has now reached its 13th conference championship game. And it feels like the Packers invented the game.
Without seeing the point spreads, it’s hard to imagine either home team spotting big numbers against the hotter road teams. And it’s no coincidence that the four best quarterbacks this season are still standing and slinging the pigskin.
The three leading MVP candidates — Matt Ryan, Tom Brady and Rodgers — are playing at peak levels. And while Ben Roethlisberger may have let Le’Veon Bell do the work Sunday, it was Big Ben who sealed the game with that 7-yard pass to Antonio Brown on third down with the crowd, noise and momentum all behind the Chiefs.
The home team won the first six games of the NFL playoffs. The Packers and Steelers jarred that machinery. Now it’s just the best four teams fighting for two tickets to the Super Bowl.
Maybe the NFL season had a frigid start, but you couldn’t ask for a more sizzling finish.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel