You can talk all you want about defense, pass rush, coverage, and everything else that plays a role in winning games in the NFL. In the end, like it always does, the NFL playoffs will again came down to quarterback play.
As we head to the conference championship games, take a look at the four quarterbacks left playing:
- Matt Ryan, the probable MVP this season.
- Aaron Rodgers, the two-time MVP and Super Bowl winner.
- Ben Roethlisberger, the two-time Super Bowl winner.
- Tom Brady, maybe the greatest of all-time, a two-time MVP and four-time Super Bowl champion.
Go ahead all you doubters out there. Tell me how quarterbacks don't decide titles.
They always do. They will again this year.
Bring it on. The playoffs picked up steam Sunday with the Packers' stunning 34-31 victory over the Cowboys on a last-second 51-yard field goal. It was an unreal ending to one of the best playoff games we've seen in recent years. Then we saw a close game in Kansas City with the Steelers edging the Chiefs 18-16.
That now sets the stage for the conference championship weekend, which should provide plenty of offensive fireworks.
Yes, it's about the quarterbacks again. Isn't it always?
Now for a first look at those games:
Sunday's conference title games
NFC: Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons
Time (TV):3:05 p.m. ET (FOX)
The Skinny: The Falcons impressed in beating up on a good Seahawks team, with Ryan having a big day. The defense was leaky, and will need to be much better next week against the Packers. But the Atlanta offense again was almost unstoppable. The Packers were good on offense too in Sunday's win, but the defense waned in the second half. If they play like they did against the Cowboys in the second half, they will have big problems against Ryan and Julio Jones.
Key Unit Matchup: The Packers secondary against the Falcons passing game. How can they stop it? Can they?
Interesting stat: For a team that plays an up-tempo offense like the Falcons, they have tied the Patriots for No. 1 in the league in fewest turnovers with just 11 during the regular season. That's impressive.
AFC: Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots
Time (TV):6:40 p.m. ET (CBS)
The Skinny: The Patriots didn't play great against the Texans, but they found a way. They got it going late to pull away, but they will have to be better than that against the Steelers.
Key Unit Matchup: The front seven of the Patriots against the offensive line of the Steelers. The Steelers have opened up enormous lanes for Le'Veon Bell in the two postseason wins, with him gaining 330 yards. The Patriots have to contain him by winning up front.
Interesting stat: In 11 games against the Steelers, counting playoffs, Tom Brady has 26 touchdown passes and three interceptions. In seven of those games, he's had a passer rating of 110.0 or higher.
More Musings from around the NFL
In 2015, I was a giant critic of Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. But he's done a great job of fitting his offense to Ryan. A year ago, it was the opposite. He tried to make Ryan something he wasn't, a rollout, throw-on-the-run passer. Now he has him in the pocket much more, which is why the Falcons are one game away from the Super Bowl. Shanahan is still in play for the 49ers job, and he's earned that right. He's done a heck of a job.
The Cowboys lost to the Packers, but they have to be thrilled with the play of Dak Prescott. After a slow start, he really played well. Prescott threw three touchdown passes and rallied the Cowboys back from down 18. The Cowboys have their long-term answer at quarterback, which has to be comforting.
A lot of coaches I respect in the league have been pumping up new Denver Broncos coach Vance Joseph. They said he was bright and would be a great head coach someday.
That day is now. The uncertainty was about Joseph's offensive coaches, but he did a nice job hiring former Chargers coach -- and former Broncos coordinator -- Mike McCoy to lead his offense with Bill Musgrave as quarterbacks coach. That's smart.
Now those two have to figure out who starts, and my best guess right now will be that Paxton Lynch will be that guy next season.
Now that the Texans are eliminated from the playoffs, corner A.J. Bouye goes to the top of the free-agent ratings for corners in 2017. The Texans would be wise to keep him, but if he hits the market he will get a lot of action. He is a long corner who can play man coverage. There's great value there.
Tom Coughlin as vice president of football operations and Doug Marrone as coach will bring a lot more discipline to a Jaguars team that needs it. The young players seemed to get away with stuff last season under Gus Bradley. In talking to some players, they said more discipline was needed.
I loved when Marrone said during the introductory press conference last week that when he finds out how close Coughlin's office will be, he will be going down there a lot. Uh, Doug, as a guy who spent many hours with Coughlin in my career, it will be the other way around.
Tom Coughlin has to meddle. That's his nature. It's not a bad thing, but that's the way it will be.
When he was coach of the Jaguars from 1994-2000, he ruled with an iron fist and what he said went -- in more ways than just on the football field. It will be interesting to see if Coughlin and Marrone bring back the tight organization that the Jags used to be when Coughlin was there the first time.
They used to put guards in the hallways to keep the media out. The team under owner Shad Khan has been one of the most media-friendly teams in the league. Will that change? Will paranoia rule again?
Coughlin is a great coach -- a Hall of Famer one day -- but it will be interesting to see how he does in personnel again. This is a man who once screamed at the Bears brass on draft day because they wouldn't trade a pick to take Curtis Enis in exchange for his two first-round picks. Enis wound up being a bust. Those two first-round picks ended up being running back Fred Taylor and longtime safety Donovin Darius.
I love when teams think outside the box and aren't afraid to buck the trends in hiring a coach. When the Los Angeles Rams hired 30-year-old Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay to be their head coach last week, he became the youngest head coach ever in the NFL. But they didn't care -- nor should they.
McVay's biggest challenge will be commanding the room. He has to be able to handle players who are almost his age, and some older. That's a challenge.
It will help that he has veteran Wade Phillips to lead the defense. The big challenge, I think, for McVay will be getting Jared Goff right at quarterback. If he doesn't, he won't be around for long. Make no mistake about it, he's tied to him.