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Playoff push helps Rodgers make case as game's best QB

What a great weekend of football the divisional round brought us, with the biggest highlight being Aaron Rodgers' performance against Atlanta. We got to see Rodgers play the position like no other -- at least this postseason. With Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning being one and done in the playoffs, Rodgers looks like he is ready to take the throne as the best in the league.

What Rodgers did in Atlanta was just spectacular. He escaped pressure like Harry Houdini while on the move and made incredible throws that, regardless of the coverage, his receivers were forced to catch. He also handled the crowd noise extremely well and never let the situation appear too big. Rodgers maximized every possession, which forced the Falcons to play from behind -- not the kind of game they want to play.

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When playing the likes of Brady, Manning and Brees, field position is meaningless because it only takes a few completions to put the ball in scoring position. You can now add Rodgers to that group. He had three scoring drives of 80-plus yards against Atlanta, an amazing accomplishment in an extremely loud stadium. It's rare for a Green Bay quarterback to play in perfect conditions in January and Rodgers rose to the occasion.

But Rodgers has done this all season. When healthy, Rodgers performed at a high level even with the absence of some critical players due to injuries. When running back Ryan Grant and tight end Jermichael Finley went down, Rodgers never missed a beat. In the Green Bay offense, Rodgers does not have a favorite target. He just throws the ball to the open guy, so it was not a surprise that Jordy Nelson, normally the fourth receiver, was tied for the most catches against Atlanta with eight. Rodgers is not looking for one man, just the open one.

What is truly shocking is how much better Rodgers has become since he was drafted. This Aaron Rodgers is much different than the quarterback that played at California. Remember he was not picked high in the first round (24th overall in 2005) and was never seriously considered at the No. 1 overall choice, which the 49ers eventually used on Utah's Alex Smith. What makes Rodgers' success with the Packers so fascinating is that Mike McCarthy was on the San Francisco staff that picked Smith. McCarthy might have liked both players then, but was not the person running the draft to actually make the call.

Where Rodgers is most different is in his arm strength, body build and precision-like accuracy. Rodgers did not just hold a clipboard behind Brett Favre. He worked on his craft, improved his body and prepared himself to be ready when his number was called. Rodgers did not take being a first-round pick as he was entitled to anything. He went to work and improved in every phase to make himself the great player he is today. And what is really scary is that he will keep on improving.

The one noticeable area of improvement from his time in college to now is his arm strength. He never displayed this type of rocket or the ability to throw the ball from every angle. He had a good arm, now he has a powerful arm. Part of the reason for the increased velocity is that in college he never had that rock-hard body. He appeared as if the weight room was for linemen, not quarterbacks. Now he looks like he enjoys the weight room and has made his meek body into one that can take a hit and drive the football.

Rodgers is a testament to combining talent with hard work. His God-given ability made him a first-round pick, his work ethic has made him great.

Another Final Four for the Jets

The Jets played perfectly in every phase on Sunday. They executed their plan and forced the explosive Patriots to throw the ball outside the numbers, which is not their comfort zone because their wide receivers are more suited to play inside.

The Jets played pass defense like a matchup zone in basketball as they defended the middle of the field, taking away Brady's first and second read. They locked onto their receivers with tight coverage and never allowed any easy throws. Clearly, they had Brady out of rhythm all day, making him seem slow and confused.

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When I interviewed Jets coach Rex Ryan on Thursday, he was relaxed and confident in his plan. He knew the only way to play the Patriots was to not get behind early and keep the game close to the fourth quarter. When I asked him what score would be ideal for his team entering the fourth quarter he said, "Within one score." Not only did he have what he wished for, his team was in front.

Ryan also knew he had to change his plan of attack much like he did against Peyton Manning the week before. Ryan checked his ego at the curb and did not make this a blitz game. Instead, he made it a coverage game and gave the advantage to the Jets. He, like most of his team, has learned from past mistakes. For all the confident chatter, he is really a fine strategic coach that can adapt and be divergent in his plan of attack.

The Jets utilized an offensive game plan similar to what the Browns did when they beat the Patriots in Week 9 -- avoid negative plays at all cost, especially on first down. The offense must get positive yards on each down, throwing safe passes with the objective to be in as many third down and shorts as possible, which has been a weakness for the Patriots' defense. Milk the clock, reduce the game and force New England's defense to make plays late in the game.

Mark Sanchez was outstanding, only throwing nine incompletions all day. Three of his nine games with a completion percentage over 60 have come against the Patriots. He never made a mistake behind solid protection and made clutch throws. His final touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes was as incredible as the catch and Sanchez seemed to slow down his game. He looked confident and played confident. Since falling to Miami in Week 14, Sanchez has played the best football of his young career.

The Jets head to Pittsburgh for another rematch game. This time, the team with vengeance on its mind will be the Steelers, who lost at home to the Jets in Week 15. This will be a great game and one I am looking forward to seeing in person.

Three-step drops

» I know the Bears were good defensively, but the star of the show was quarterback Jay Cutler. He was outstanding and, like Rodgers, his rocket-like arm allows him to make throws few can. The offense is dangerous. With Cutler playing in the right system, he can be an elite quarterback. …

» The Bears and Packers have not squared off in a playoff game since 1941. Something tells me that George Halas and Vince Lombardi will be watching this one. …

» The Bears were 10 of 18 on third down against the Seahawks, which shows their improvement from Week 6, when they failed to convert any of their 12 third-down opportunities vs. Seattle. Credit the coaches for the improvement. …

» I really feel the unsung hero for the Jets has been offensive line coach Bill Callahan. He is one of the finest coaches I have ever worked with and his talents are greatly benefitting the Jets. …

» My first instinct is that the Jets are a bad match for the Steelers. Pittsburgh's offensive line is really bad and New York can take advantage of that much like it did in the first game. The Steelers will need turnovers to beat the Jets. ...

» The bad news for the Patriots was they played poorly in every area against the Jets and were soundly beaten. The good news, they have a young team without much playoff experience and they will learn from this loss. They also have three of the top 33 picks in the upcoming draft. …

» The Patriots lacked the speed to challenge the Jets' corners and they must take the same approach this offseason that the Steelers did the past few years -- get younger and faster at wide receiver. …

» The Falcons, like the Patriots, played their worst at the biggest moment of the season. They also have a young team that can learn from the loss. Atlanta needs to address a few areas, starting with the offensive line. …

» The Ravens must take the next two weeks and make a serious, unfiltered evaluation of their offense, including players, coaches and schemes. To succeed next season, they need to find an identity offensively. They were supposed to be a physical offense that could run the ball and control the line of scrimmage, but they were not able to fulfill that identity. …

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» I hope my partner at NFL Network, Jim Mora, finds the right job for him, besides just jumping back into the league. Another year at NFL Network might not be the worst thing. …

» Dallas made a good move in hiring Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator. He will get the players to consistently play hard with great passion. The players will love him. …

» I keep hearing that Seattle is going to act this offseason as a 7-9 team and aggressively make changes. Winning the NFC West has not let them lose sight of their problems. …

» The best thing that could happen to Sam Bradford this coming year, besides some new receivers, would be if the Rams can secure Josh McDaniels as their offensive coordinator. …

» The Eagles are revamping their defense and will take their time in hiring the next coordinator with Andy Reid away on vacation until next week. …

» Finally, I feel bad for Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, who has yet to experience a playoff win and is nearing the end of his wonderful career.

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.

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