By Jason Keidel
Maybe college basketball coined the phrase Final Four, but it’s hard to find a more eclectic or electric slate of football teams playing on Sunday. The winners, of course, punch their tickets to the Super Bowl in Houston.
Unlike last year, when Denver’s monolithic defense carried Peyton Manning to a glowing sunset, this year’s gridiron quartet is fueled by pyrotechnic passing and overall offense. The Patriots are the only team that flaunts a decent overall defense. But three of four quarterbacks sport Super Bowl rings, while the other, Matt Ryan, is the leading candidate for league MVP.
Green Bay Packers @ Atlanta Falcons
Sunday, January 22, 3:05 p.m. ET
It feels redundant, but there’s nothing left for Aaron Rodgers but swaths of superlatives.
His last-second throw to Jared Cook — who made a memorable catch — will be on loop for as long as they play football. He can beat you with a 10-yard out, a 12-yard slant or a Hail Mary from 50 yards. Despite the fact that he’s had to play musical chairs with his wideouts, he keeps posting video game numbers.
Rodgers is the first passer to exceed 350 yards in consecutive playoff games. It’s all part of this absurdly sizzling streak. Over his last nine games, he’s thrown 24 touchdowns and one interception.
The Packers and Falcons played an electric game in Week 8, a 33-32 shootout won by Atlanta on a last-minute TD pass to Mohamed Sanu. Keeping with their walking-wounded narrative, the Packers played that game without Randall Cobb, Ty Montgomery, Jared Cook and Clay Mathews. Like that game, this one will be played in the Georgia Dome, a thousand miles and 70 degrees south of the Frozen Tundra.
And while we are left spellbound by Rodgers’ exploits, his counterpart arguably had a better regular season. Not only was Matt Ryan first or second in every salient passing stat in 2016, he’s pretty hot now, too, with 14 TD and 0 INT over his last five games.
Atlanta has averaged 35 points per game at home this season, and 36.5 points since their Week 11 bye. They have scored at least 30 points in 12 of their 17 games, and over 40 in the remaining five. Julio Jones is among the top three receivers in the sport. But don’t obsess, as Atlanta has a nuclear gridiron arsenal. Of Ryan’s 38 TD passes, 13 went to different receivers, an NFL record.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 204 yards against Seattle’s ornery defense. And Freeman loves running at home, scoring 13 of his 15 touchdowns inside the Georgia Dome.
The Packers are laughably wounded. Green Bay enters this game as a walking triage, with injuries to three wideouts, Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison, none of whom are certain for Sunday. Thankfully, they should be able to count on Ty Montgomery, who was converted from WR to RB and may have to convert back to WR. Jared Cook, who made that catch for the archives with three seconds left against the Cowboys, should be a matchup problem for the Falcons.
Nelson, of course, is their best pass-catcher and pacifier when plays break down in the pocket. Even still, Rodgers is 12-7 sans Nelson, including the playoffs. Aaron Rodgers has proved he can practically win with anyone on his flank. But it’s the Packers defense that could be exposed by Atlanta’s multi-pronged, volcanic offense.
Pittsburgh Steelers @ New England Patriots
Sunday, January 22, 6:40 p.m. ET
If you need a statistical symbol of quarterback vitality, consider that 12 of the last 13 Super Bowls have included Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger.
While Big Ben is the captain of the offense, he’s gotten some super help from Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, who now make up a most holy football trinity. Indeed, the new version of the Killer B’s make up 76 percent of the Steelers offense.
Let’s begin with Bell, who has gashed two playoff opponents so far, making January his personal demo reel. In his first playoff game, he set the Steelers record for rushing. Then he broke his own record in the next game. For historical perspective, consider Bell is just the fourth RB in NFL history to run for at least 150 yards in consecutive games, joining a Hall-of-Fame roll call in Marcus Allen, Terrell Davis and former Steelers great Franco Harris. (OK, maybe Davis isn’t in the HOF, but he should be.)
Bell’s brethren on the outside, Antonio Brown, is just as good. No one in NFL history has caught more balls over four years than Brown has over the last four. And he seems to embrace playoff football. Brown only needed the first quarter to break 100 yards against Miami, and needed the first half to top triple-digits against the Chiefs, who have arguably the best secondary in the NFL (at least west of the Meadowlands). And if No. 84 gains at least 57 more yards, he will set the all-time record for receiving yards in a single postseason.
While Ben has been a beast at home, he’s only thrown nine touchdowns and nine interceptions on the road.
Trey Wingo tweeted the stat of the young century. Against the Chiefs, the Steelers became the first team in NFL history to win a playoff game when the opponent scores at least two touchdowns more. The team being outscored was 0-245. Pittsburgh is also just the sixth team to win a playoff game without scoring any touchdowns.
If you need some New England mojo, consider the breakout game by Dion Lewis, who just went Gale Sayers on the Houston Texans, scoring three TDs in three different ways. But Pats fans probably realize how essential the electric RB has been. Indeed, the Pats are 15-0 over the last two seasons with Lewis in the lineup.
If we remove the season he missed because of a knee injury, Brady has reached 11 AFC title games in 15 years. Brady is 21-2 in the playoffs when the Pats score at least 20 points.
On defense, the Patriots have not allowed a rusher to gain more than 90 yards in their last 24 games. And we don’t need stats to know that Belichick is a master at designing perfect defensive tonics. So it should surprise no one that the Patriots surrendered the fewest points in the NFL this season.
Toss out the first game between these teams, a 27-16 Patriots victory. Landry Jones started in place of an injured Big Ben, and Le’Veon was just getting his legs back after serving a suspension. While it’s bizarre that this is just the second time that Brady and Big Ben have played each other in January, they have more than enough film on each other.
Four teams have played in eight total Super Bowls. Two of them are playing in this game (joining the Broncos and Cowboys). One of them is about to set the record, and the standard.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.