The NFL playoffs keep rolling. Last week, I previewed the eight quarterbacks of the Divisional Round. This week, in advance of the Conference Championship games, I’ll be breaking down how the four remaining quarterbacks match up against their opposing defenses.
With a combined 33 playoffs wins and five Super Bowl rings, these four QBs are the elite of the elite. Each guy has what it takes to book his team’s ticket to Phoenix, but not if these defenses have anything to say about it.
Here are the deciding factors in each matchup:
Andrew Luck is facing a huge challenge this Sunday: New England’s very, very strong secondary. The Pats have big, physical corners. I’d like to see who the Patriots are going to match up against T.Y. Hilton. Are they going to use Darrelle Revis to cover him everywhere around the field? Or are they going to just keep their corners in their typical positions? Tight end Coby Fleener has emerged as a reliable option for Luck this season, reaching career-highs in yards (774) and touchdowns (8). Andrew played with Coby at Stanford and they really have a great rapport going on right now—their chemistry is peaking at just the right time. Luck is not only completing passes to him, but completing big passes for big gains—Fleener is averaging 15.2 yards per catch. Sometimes they line him up wide as a wide receiver. We’ll have to see how New England matches up against him. In man-to-man coverage, the Patriots might match up Brandon Browner, a 6-4, 220-pound corner, with Fleener to win the physical game.
The big factor for Indianapolis is generating some type of running game just to keep the Patriots off-balance. The Colts don’t run the football very well—they ranked 22nd in rushing yards this season and only put up 84 rushing yards against the Broncos last weekend (and 23 of those yards came from Luck). They have a young running back in Dan Herron who does a nice job catching balls out of the backfield, but that’s not going to be enough against the Patriots. Once you become one-dimensional against a great football mind like Bill Belichick, you’re going to get beat.
Tom Brady was really active against Baltimore, completing 33 passes. He threw the ball a ton—50 times—but it was necessary because they were trying to overcome a two-touchdown deficit. It’s going to be interesting to see how Indianapolis defends against Tom because the Colts are pretty good in the secondary. They’ve got four guys who can play a lot of good man-to-man against Tom Brady’s weapons. The key is going to be how much pressure can they can put on Tom at the line of scrimmage.
The big matchup advantage for New England is Rob Gronkowski. He’ll be a problem for whomever the Colts choose to put on him. Gronk’s size and speed are a nightmare for defenders. He’s too fast for a linebacker but he’s too big for defensive back—and the Colts don’t have any huge defensive backs. They have good cover guys but none of them has the size and strength to jam Gronk at the line of scrimmage and slow him down, even a bit. The Patriots should exploit the Gronk mismatch as much as possible.
The Patriots’ running game is harder to predict. You also have to wonder if the Patriots are going to run the ball against the Colts like they did the last time they played. When the Pats played the Colts in week 11, Jonas Gray had 201 rushing yards and four touchdowns. With Bill Belichick you never get the same thing twice, so Indianapolis might come in preparing for a big time running game and then have Tom throw for over 300 yards.
Tom Brady is 5-3 in Conference Championship games. At 37 years old he doesn’t know how many more times he’ll be one win away from returning to the Super Bowl. You know he’s thirsty for another trip back to the big dance.
Aaron Rodgers’ gutsy play against the Cowboys last weekend proved that even with a nagging injury he is still an elite quarterback. He was playing with pain, was visibly uncomfortable at times and didn’t have the mobility he’s used to, but he still maneuvered around the pocket well enough to throw the ball effectively. He completed 24 of 35 passes for three touchdowns and no interceptions. That’s a good day for any healthy quarterback.
Rodgers made some difficult throws and that’s what makes him so special. He has such great arm talent that he doesn’t have to throw the ball with the perfect foot position and he doesn’t throw every pass from the same launching point. Sometimes it’s side arm, sometimes it’s overhand and sometimes he’s just shoveling the ball to a guy if he has to. He can get rid of the football so many different ways. So what he’s going to lack in mobility, he’ll make up for with his quick release and the unusual ways he gets the ball to his receivers. If the Packers running game is rolling like last weekend—Eddie Lacy ran for 101 yards—Rodgers will find a wide open field to do his damage.
Seattle’s secondary is a big step up from that of the Cowboys. Rodgers’ mobility is going to be key. The Packers’ Week 1 loss to Seattle was one of Rodgers’ most anemic (he completed 23 of 33 passes but had only one touchdown and also one interception). You know who else had an off day? Eddie Lacy, who ran for only 34 yards on 12 attempts. There was a lot of talk about how Aaron avoided throwing the ball to Richard Sherman’s side that game, but if you look at the stats from Green Bay loss (Seattle trounced them 36-16), you’ll see that Seattle’s defense dominated all over the field, not just on Sherman’s matchup. Rodgers and Lacy both have to bring it for this Sunday’s result to go the Packers’ way.
Russell Wilson’s performance last week was amazing because he only had 22 attempts and still ended up throwing three touchdown passes. Incredibly, he only had three of his passes dropped and he had one throwaway, so without those he could have been 19 for 22 in a perfect ball game. He had a 149.2 rating—you can’t get much higher than that. This kid seems to just play his best when the stage is the biggest. He lives for these moments.
Green Bay’s defense has improved a lot since last season. In 2013 they were giving up 26.8 points per game, this year it’s 21.8. Nearly a full touchdown improvement isn’t anything to scoff at. They also moved Clay Matthews to the inside, but they move him around to bring him off the edge sometimes, so you always have to watch out for where he’s going to be. Green Bay is doing a better job of rushing the quarterback and forcing mistakes now—they had 18 interceptions this season compared to 11 in 2013. Russell is going to have to get the ball out on time and that’s something he’s been doing a much better job of.
Russell Wilson takes very good care of the ball and he doesn’t throw a lot of interceptions. He’s very smart when he runs, he gets down to the ground or gets out bounds when he has to.
He’s anticipating his receivers better and better—the timing on his routes was amazing last weekend. He also has that ability to escape and he has a great instinct of when to get outside the pocket to make plays with both his arms and his legs.
Can he repeat his performance this Sunday? If he can, and if Seattle can get Marshawn Lynch off to a great start and the offensive line can impose its will on the defense, then the Seahawks should be back in the Super Bowl. Seattle has a way of wearing defenses down throughout the game and then producing big plays in the second half. That’s what we saw last week against the Panthers when Russell had a 25-yard pass to Luke Willson to give Seattle a 14-point lead in a game that, for a short time, was closer than many people were expecting.