Conference championship week defined by accomplished quarterbacks
College Contributor Network
The NFL's conference championship not only provides two excellent rematches from the regular season, but also features what could be the most impressive group of starting quarterbacks in conference championship history.
The early contest features the front-runner for the league's Most Valuable Player award, Aaron Rodgers, against the defending Super Bowl champion, Russell Wilson. The late game is a battle between the perennial Tom Brady and the newcomer Andrew Luck.
This weekend boasts four outstanding quarterbacks all squaring off for an opportunity to go to the Super Bowl. The storylines are uniquely polarizing.
Brady is a first-ballot Hall of Famer seeking to break a 10-year title drought. Rodgers is playing through a torn calf muscle in the prime of his career and looking to add to his already storied legacy. Wilson is a new-school QB looking to be the first quarterback to repeat since Brady won back-to-back titles a decade ago. Luck just knocked off his predecessor Peyton Manning and is looking to enter the realm of the elite in merely his third season by making Indianapolis idolize a new man behind center.
The excellent headlines are accompanied by even stronger accomplishments. Brady, Luck and Rodgers each threw for over 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. Wilson combined for over 4,000 yards passing and running with 26 total touchdowns.
The group's playoff credentials are even more impressive. Each quarterback, with the exception of Luck, has won a Super Bowl. Their combined postseason record is 33-15 with five championship rings.
Wilson's Seahawks dominated Rodgers and the Packers in their Week 1 tilt. Seattle crushed Green Bay 36-16 in the inaugural game of the season. Rodgers was below average by his standards, going 23-of-33 with 189 yards, a touchdown and a pick. Wilson was 19-of-28 with 191 yards and a touchdown.
Seattle forced Rodgers to throw underneath often and took away the deep ball, a staple of Green Bay's offense. Rodgers was one-for-six with 23 yards on deep passes, but was 22-of-27 with 166 yards on short passes. Jordy Nelson was targeted 12 times on short passes, but only twice on downfield passes.
It could be a similar story for Green Bay as Rodgers' calf will likely limit his mobility. One of Rodgers' most underrated strengths is his ability to buy extra time not by scrambling, but by rolling out and extending the pocket. This is especially crucial on deeper routes that take a longer time to develop.
Green Bay's offensive line will need to give Rodgers more time to throw in the pocket and can't afford to let Seattle sack its franchise quarterback four times.
Wilson's performance was good, but not great in the season opener. He had one of his quieter games with his legs as he had seven carries for 29 yards. The Seahawks didn't really test Green Bay deep and attempted five downfield passes.
Then again, Seattle didn't need to go downfield against Green Bay because Marshawn Lynch pounded the Packers front seven for 110 yards. Seattle also picked apart the Packers secondary on shorter routes, as Wilson completed 17-of-20 passes for 134 yards on quick throws.
One thing to note in the passing game is the absence of wide receiver Percy Harvin, who was traded to the New York Jets on Oct. 18. Harvin had an impressive game against the Packers. He was the leading receiver with seven grabs for 59 yards, but also had four carries for 41 yards, specifically on end-around sweeps.
A similar game plan should be utilized in the conference playoffs. Green Bay's run defense ranks 23rd in the league, which means the Packers should see a steady dose of Lynch with timely passing from Wilson.
The AFC title game wasn't about the quarterbacks, but a now irrelevant running back. Jonas Gray stole the show in the mid-November matchup with 37 carries, 201 yards and four touchdowns.
Both quarterbacks had modest days, but Luck actually outplayed Brady despite the loss. Luck tossed 303 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, while Brady threw for only 257 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Patriots controlled the entire game and never trailed, which means they never really needed Brady to play spectacularly. The Colts were rallying the entire way, which explains Luck's 39 pass attempts to Indianapolis' 16 rushing attempts.
Both quarterbacks did most of their damage on short sideline passes. Interestingly, Luck only targeted the speedy T.Y. Hilton twice on deep routes and struggled to find the big-play wide out for most of the game. The Patriots have been a below-average unit against the pass, but it will be tough to find open receivers against Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner.
The Colts may be best suited attacking New England's defense through the middle on passing plays. Hilton and Reggie Wayne could struggle to find separation, which means tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener will need to find openings when matched up against New England's linebackers. Rookie Donte Moncrief could be the X-factor Sunday afternoon, but has shown inconsistencies all season.
Brady will likely need to make due without either Julian Edelman or Brandon LaFell, who will draw coverage from Vontae Davis. The Patriots have plenty of other options, including tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronk had a modest day against Indy, reeling in four passes for 71 yards and a touchdown. The Colts actually did a nice job covering him, as they limited the best tight end in football to just four targets.
Both Luck and Brady administer incredible football IQ, but New England likely won't get another incredible effort from the running game like it did in November. This game will be decided more by the gunslingers and which of their weapons can have an impact.
Matt Barbato is a senior at Marquette University. His favorite sport is football and is an avid New York Jets fan, for better or worse. You can follow him on Twitter @RealMattBarbato