Get your workout in and your chores done. Finish making the kids’ lunches for Monday. Call your Mom. Go to church. Do whatever you feel compelled to do this weekend, but do it before 3 p.m. And then “R-E-L-A-X,” as Aaron Rodgers once said.
It’s time for what I believe will be the best Sunday of this NFL season.
There has never been a championship-game Sunday quite like this one, at least not at the game’s most important position. Three of the four quarterbacks left have won Super Bowls – Tom Brady (four), Ben Roethlisberger (two) and Rodgers (one). And the fourth QB is my choice for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 2016 – Atlanta’s Matt Ryan.
This is Gunslinger Sunday. If you don’t score at least 30 points, you don’t win. If you do score at least 30, you still might not win. Let’s give the punters the day off and let the boys have at it, as NASCAR might say.
The four starting quarterbacks in Sunday’s NFC and AFC title games combined for a passer rating of 107.0 during the regular season. That’s the highest combined rating for any four QBs to make the championship game in a single season.
First Green Bay goes to Atlanta for the NFC Championship (3:05 p.m. kickoff). Then Pittsburgh travels to New England for the AFC Championship (6:40 p.m.). With the requisite commercials and inane pre- and postgame studio chatter, we’re talking a 3-10 p.m. total time commitment if you want to watch it all.
And I do. As we have all seen before – as recently as 12 months ago – the Super Bowl itself can be a Super letdown. But on Championship Sunday, you double your chances for nerve-tingling fun.
The ‘55 percent’ solution
The best part about Sunday will be that every play from scrimmage is going to feature a great quarterback. That’s no coincidence. Football is a team game, but that doesn’t mean all the players mean the same amount to the team.
In one of our first interviews ever, in 2011, I asked Carolina coach Ron Rivera what percent a quarterback’s play determines an offense’s success, or lack of it. Rivera came up with the startlingly specific number: 55 percent.
Cam Newton did poorly with his 55 percent of the pie in 2016, and the Panthers’ other 45 percent on offense (the patchwork line, the receivers who couldn’t get separation, the unimaginative playcalling) didn’t do much, either. That’s why Carolina finished 6-10 instead of 15-1 while Atlanta ascended to the top of the NFC South.
The Falcons resemble the Panthers of 2015 in many ways. Each team led the NFL in scoring behind a quarterback who had the best year of his career. Each ended up hosting the NFC title game. Each found a couple of young stars to augment the ones already there.
But in the NFC Championship Game, Carolina only had to beat Arizona’s Carson Palmer – a solid quarterback, sure, but not a hall of famer. Brady, Roethlisberger and Rodgers will all be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day, and Ryan has an outside shot if he continues his late-career renaissance and wins a couple of Super Bowls himself.
Then, in the Super Bowl, Carolina did have to face a future hall of famer. But Peyton Manning practically used a walker to get to the field for that one. Denver won it with defense as Carolina flopped. Manning promptly retired.
4 QBs, countless scenarios
Brady is 39 now, the same age Manning was a year ago. But Brady is playing at a far different level. If not for the “Deflategate” suspension that correctly cost him four games, he would be the NFL’s MVP this season.
Brady threw 28 touchdown passes and only two interceptions the entire regular season, which was fewer interceptions in 12 games than Newton had against Tampa Bay in the season finale.
For his entire career, Brady has elevated the play of everyone around him, and he’s in the AFC Championship Game for the 11th time in his 15 healthy seasons as a starter. That’s staggering. He has played the equivalent of two additional full seasons in the playoffs.
The winner of the AFC Championship will set an NFL record by qualifying for a ninth Super Bowl appearance. At the moment, Pittsburgh, New England, Dallas and Denver are all tied with eight Super Bowl berths.
Roethlisberger is the quarterback among this final, fantastic four who Newton most resembles. “Big Ben” is a tough, big quarterback who often shrugs off the first would-be sacker in the pocket. He has already won two Super Bowls. I don’t like his chances because he’s not as good on the road, but he does have Antonio “Facebook Live” Brown and Le’Veon Bell as running mates. Pittsburgh has a chance.
Rodgers is probably playing the best of all the quarterbacks right now, but Atlanta’s defense is better than people think. The Falcons and Ryan caught a big break when Green Bay beat Dallas, allowing Atlanta to host one final NFL game in the “But I’m Too Young to Die!” Georgia Dome.
Who’s going to win? I predict the two home teams will, but I really don’t know.
I think the only clear winner on Sunday will be the fans. They get to watch four of the NFL’s premier quarterbacks go at it all afternoon and most of the night, too. So get finished with “must-do” list. It’s “must-watch” time.