Common link among NFL's remaining teams? Top-tier QBs
It wasn’t a real play. Aaron Rodgers told each of his receivers which route to run. Get open. Schoolyard football. Then the Packers quarterback, rolling to his left, throws a dime for a 35-yard completion to toe-tapping tight end Jared Cook with three seconds remaining. The play sets up Mason Crosby’s game-winning 51-yard field goal in a 34-31 victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
That may not have even been the best thing Rodgers did Sunday. One play earlier, he withstood a blind side sack by Cowboys safety Jeff Heath and somehow held onto the ball with his right hand. (Are you watching, Jameis Winston?).
Those two plays are the examples of quarterbacking in the NFL at the highest level. Nobody is playing the position right now on the planet better than Rodgers, who has not only run the table since the Packers were 4-6 but has set it for a point-per-minute NFC Championship game at Atlanta on Sunday.
Prediction: Packers 60, Falcons 58. Take the over.
Seriously, you want to know what it takes to make it to the championship game these days? Take a look at the four quarterbacks playing next Sunday to go to Super Bowl LI in Houston: Rodgers (1 Super Bowl ring), Ben Roethlisberger (two Lombardi Trophies), Tom Brady (four) and Matt Ryan, who will likely win the Most Valuable Player Award.
In fact, 13 of the past 14 Super Bowls will feature Brady, Roethlisberger or Peyton Manning. I’m going to be at the Georgia Dome’s last game Sunday when the Packers play the Falcons. It’s a rematch from October when the Falcons hung on for a 33-32 win. Rodgers hadn’t yet made his "run the table" prediction.
The Falcons haven’t been in the NFC title game since 2012, when they lost at home to San Francisco. Atlanta has never won a Super Bowl. The Packers were in this game in 2014, when they imploded and lost in overtime to Seattle.
This will be the ninth time since the 2002 regular season that an NFC South team has reached the conference championship.
The Falcons dismantled the Seahawks Saturday in a 36-20 win. Ryan was spectacular, completing passes to eight different receivers while passing for 338 yards and three touchdowns. A year ago, it was Cam Newton winning the league’s MVP. Drew Brees is a nine-time Pro Bowl player and Super Bowl MVP.
That’s the company Winston is keeping and the level he has to reach to win the NFC South. What Ryan has around him on offense is much better than what Rodgers is playing with. The Packers don’t have anyone who can cover Julio Jones. Mohamed Sanu is a solid No. 2. But it’s the two-headed running back monster of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman that stresses the defense. Against the Seahawks, they each scored a touchdown. Freeman had 125 yards rushing and receiving while Coleman contributed 79 yards on 14 touches.
Rodgers worked his magic without his top receiver, Jordy Nelson, who has a rib injury and may not play again Sunday. But when you are as hot and as efficient as Rodgers, you can get it done with players like Cook, tight end Richard Rodgers, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams, Geronimo Allison and running back Ty Montgomery, who had two touchdowns.
The Falcons have a chance Sunday. They can score with the Packers. Atlanta’s linebackers can run, they have a hard-hitting safety in Keanu Neal. But Dwight Freeney and Vic Beasley have to keep Rodgers from getting outside the pocket where he becomes the magic man.