As NFL conference title weekends go, this one is about as good as it gets, with varying degrees and nuances of legacy on the line for all four quarterbacks involved. With all due respect to the quarterbacks eliminated last weekend (except Brock Osweiler, who was lucky to be on the field in an NFL playoff game), these four signal callers give us all sorts of juice.
Let's go one by one:
MATT RYAN — Likely regular season MVP, he can get the playoff monkey off of his back by finally breaking through, living up to his "No. 3 overall pick in 2008" draft status, and getting to his first Super Bowl.
AARON RODGERS — Rodgers has a playoff monkey on his back, although not nearly the gorilla Ryan has on his. Rodgers is looking to get to his second Super Bowl, and first since the 2010 season, when we all thought he would be going at least every other year. Rodgers's winning a Super Bowl would put him in the "multiple Super Bowl winner" club, with a dozen other quarterbacks (three active, seven Hall of Famers, Peyton Manning and Jim Plunkett).
BEN ROETHLISBERGER — A win by Roethlisberger would give him his first playoff triumph over Tom Brady. Hard to believe they've only faced off one time, Roethlisberger's rookie year in the AFC Title Game, a 41-27 New England win in Pittsburgh. A win would also send Roethlisberger to his fourth Super Bowl. Only seven QBs have been to four or more; all are in the Hall of Fame (or named Brady or Peyton). A win would give Roethlisberger a shot at his third Super Bowl win, which would put him in a group with only Brady, Bradshaw, Montana and Aikman. Also, a win would give Roethlisberger the second-longest timespan between first and last Super Bowl appearances, 11 seasons, behind only Brady (14) and Elway (12).
TOM BRADY — A win would extend his lead in Super Bowl appearances from six to seven, and a win in the Super Bowl would make him the only five-time Super Bowl winner ever. The rich would get richer, the best would get better.
One other interesting fact — other than 2012 (Joe Flacco), since 2003, the AFC winner has had either Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger as its starting QB. Barring injury, that will be the case again this season. Conversely, the NFC, over that 13-season period, has had 11 different starters, with Eli Manning and Russell Wilson the only two-time starters. (Sidebar — the other nine starters make up quite the eclectic list — Delhomme, McNabb, Hasselbeck, Grossman, Warner, Brees, Rodgers, Kaepernick and Newton.)
So let's get to the picks for this weekend...
Packers +4.5 over FALCONS
I think we know what type of game to expect here. The posted total on this game (60 as of Thursday morning) is the highest in postseason history. This game will be the NFL's answer to the Big XII, with very little defense, lots of big plays and (we hope, for betting purposes, since it would imply a close game) plenty of lead changes. As for the reason we are going with the Packers here, it quite simply boils down to this — how do you bet against Aaron Rodgers right now? After starting the season 4-6 and then declaring that Green Bay would "run the table," Rodgers might be on the greatest eight-game run in the history of the league, an 8-0 streak, complete with a 21 to 1 TD/INT ratio. It doesn't matter if his favorite target (Jordy Nelson) is injured, or if he has a wide receiver as his starting tailback, or if he decided to draw up plays like this in the dirt...
For his part, Matt Ryan was outstanding in taking out the Seahawks last week, but a banged-up Julio Jones is a bit of an issue. Neither defense is going to stop the other team, so it comes down to which quarterback I trust with the ball late in the game. Ryan is the 2016 MVP, but Rodgers is the best quarterback in the game right this very moment...
PREDICTION: Packers 41, Falcons 37
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Steelers +6 over PATRIOTS
This is going to sound strange, since they're 14-2, but I'm not entirely sure how truly great this New England team is, and this has nothing to do with their letting a team quarterbacked by Brock Osweiler hang around into the fourth quarter last week. (Okay, maybe a little to do with that.) But if you look at the regular season, who did they beat? They were 4-1 versus playoff teams, but those four wins came against Miami (twice), Houston (Brock!) and Pittsburgh with Landry Jones at quarterback. Since defeating Pittsburgh in Week 7, the Pats played Buffalo, Seattle, San Francisco, the New York Jets (twice), Los Angeles, Baltimore, Denver and Miami. The only good team in that bunch is Seattle, and they beat the Pats in New England. Pittsburgh, like Green Bay over in the NFC, is the hotter team right now, as they're currently riding a nine-game winning streak. Bill Belichick likes to take away what an opposing offense does best, but Pittsburgh might have the two best skill players remaining in the playoffs (with Julio Jones banged up, especially) in RB Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. New England will have its hands full all day, but in the end, Stephen Gostkowski has his "Vinatieri" moment...
PREDICTION: Patriots 31, Steelers 30
Last Week: 1-3
Season Record: 66-50-2
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.