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Milt Northrop's Sunday Playbook: The Day of the Quarterback

Take the four best quarterbacks in pro football − with no apologies to Drew Brees, Russell Wilson and Eli Manning. Add in the carry-over from two thrilling outcomes in the divisional round last Sunday, a couple of controversial officiating calls that led to those outcomes and mix in a lot of familiar names.

What you have is a compelling schedule of games for the most exciting day of the season for the National Football League - the conference championship games..

Take four teams with Super Bowl hopes, three from franchises that have been recent holders of the Lombardi Trophy, and you have the makings of football drama.

It's reminiscent of the 1970s, when the same cast of characters − Bradshaw, Staubach, Stabler, Warfield, Blount, Tatum, Mean Joe, Too Tall, Lambert,  Noll, Landry, Shula, Madden − seemed to dominate the scene year after year.

This time the household names are it's Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers on the marquee along with lesser lights Le'Veon Bell, Julian Edelman, Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Davonte Freeman,  Mike Tomlin and Mike McCarthy.

Trying to crash the party as outsiders would appear to be the Atlanta Falcons with their second-year coach Dan Quinn and quarterback Matt Ryan.

It would not be surprising to see a combination of any two of these four, New England, Pittsburgh in the AFC and Green Bay and Atlanta in the NFC, going on to Super Bowl LI in Houston in two weeks. Home teams, the Patriots and Falcons, are favored but formidable opposition awaits.

A capsule look at Sunday's NFL conference championship games:

Packers (12-6) at Falcons (12-5)

TV: Fox, 3:05 p.m.
The line: Falcons (-4).
The scoop on the Packers:  There's a quiet history between Green Bay and Atlanta, although they do not seem to be historical rivals. They have met three times in the postseason since 2010 with the Packers winning twice. ... Mike McCarthy, not Vince Lombardi or Curly Lambeau, has coached the most postseason victories in Green Bay history, although Lombardi and Lambeau usually had no more than one shot in any season. McCarthy is 10-7 in the postseason. ... Has anybody had an eight-game stretch as good as what Rodgers has turned in the last month and a half -- 298 passing yards per game, 21 TDs, one interception and a 122.2 rating? In Green Bay's two playoff victories so far, he has passed for 350 yards and multiple touchdowns each game and his memorable sideline bullet on the run to tight end Jared Cook set up the winning field goal by Mason Crosby last week against Dallas. ... After two weeks of rugged playoff football, the Packers are banged up. WR Jordy Nelson, the league's leader in touchdown catches, is questionable (ribs). Davante Adams, another WR, was held out of practice most of the week with an ankle injury. The running back group has been depleted for weeks, to the point that former wide receiver Ty Montgomery is the leading ballcarrier now.  Defensively, there are questions in the secondary outside of CB Damarious Randall and Pro Bowl S Ha Ha Clinton Dix.
The scoop on the Falcons:  QB Matt Ryan set franchise records with 4,944 passing yards and led the NFL with a 117.1 passer rating. Also, he has shown a penchant for making clutch plays. WR Julio Jones had 1,409 receiving yards in the regular season. There are other receiving threats -- veteran Mohamed Sanu and late-season standout Taylor Gabriel.  ... Atlanta was second in the NFL in offense (415.8), and it wasn't all Ryan. RB Devonta Freeman ran for 1,079 yards while sharing the load with Tevin Coleman.  Both are excellent receivers out of the backfield. Defensively, the Falcons are as big a question as Green Bay. Atlanta allowed 406 points in the regular season, joining seven non-playoff teams who were over the 400 mark. Green Bay gave up 388 points, more than even the Bills.
Outlook: Can't expect anything less than a offensive show with these  two star quarterbacks and the defensive questions on each side. Rodgers on a fast  track indoors is a scary, but Ryan, with support of the running game and home-field carries the day. Falcons, 42-34.

Steelers  (13-5) at Patriots (15-2)

TV: CBS, 6:40 p.m.
The line: Patriots (-6).
The scoop on the Steelers: Pittsburgh has won more postseason games and appeared in more conference championship games than any NFL team. Hopefully, they had time to think about football this week in Pittsburgh, with all the commotion about Antonio Brown's foolish video of coach Mike Tomlin's postgame remarks last week. ... Pittsburgh won at Kansas City last week. Impressive, until you consider they won with six field goals and no touchdowns. The Steelers chewed up the well-regarded KC defense  with Roethlisberger's passing and Le'Veon Bell's running (franchise playoff-record 170 yards), but could not finish. They needed a game-changing offensive-holding penalty to erase Kansas City's go-ahead points before Roethlisberger sealed it with two short pass completions that enabled Pittsburgh to run out the clock. ... Pittsburgh gave up 327 points in the regular season playing a schedule that included six games against teams that were not exactly offensive juggernauts.

The scoop on the Patriots: It's the sixth straight appearance in the AFC Championship Game for New England, a record. The Pats are 3-1 against Pittsburgh in postseason play, including wins in the AFC championship games in 2001 and 2004, both in Pittsburgh with Bill Belichick coaching and Tom Brady at quarterback. New England was not at its best in last Sunday's 34-16 win over Houston, but they covered as one of the biggest favorites (16 plus points) in NFL postseason history. ... New England always seems to have somebody, not regarded as a headliner, come through in a big game. Last week it was speedy RB Dion Lewis who became the first player in postseason history with a rushing, receiving and return touchdown in the same game. ... How much does the absence of tight end Rob Gronkowski diminish the New England offense? Like Rodgers of the Packers, Brady always seems to overcome. Julian Edelman is the No. 1 target, but ex-Bill Chris Hogan had four catches against Houston before he was injured. Tight end Martellus Bennett could be a key this week, if he can hold up physically. WR Michael Floyd, picked up by New England after he was cast off by Arizona, also could become a key player in this one.
Outlook: It any teams is not intimidated easily, it's Pittsburgh. Still, picking against the Brady and the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, where they are 16-3 in postseason since it opened in 2002, is risky business. If Patriots can keep Antonio Brown and Bell from running wild, New England 30-20.

Last week's results: 3-1 outright, 4-0 versus spread.

Season's record: 156-84-3 outright; 123-110-10 versus spread.

 

 

 

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