Aaron Rodgers enters The Zone by backpedaling. Like the rest of us mortals, Rodgers can't help but admire his prettiest passes.
Rodgers has so many signature moves working these days that don'tinvolve a fake belt, from his three-quarter Frisbee release on deep throws outside the numbers to his ability to flatten out a 30-yard toss thrown against his body. But the backpedal is my favorite, the surest sign that he's enjoying the hell out of playing the game at its highest level.
So what are some of the other trademark moves to watch out for during this delicious Championship Sunday? Glad I asked. Here are seven more:
James Harrison's bull-rush
It is the year 2017, and there is no defender playing better than James Harrison entering Championship Sunday. The Steelers ask the 38-year-old to do so much, often moving him just before the snap to confuse the opposing quarterback. Harrison can move from defensive end to inside linebacker. He can chip tight ends, play zone coverage or hurry the quarterback on a delayed blitz. He diagnoses running plays like few others, often making plays outside the numbers.
Harrison's trademark play is his simplest. After 14 seasons, the 242-pounder is still the master of the bull-rush. He gets leverage underneath tackles like Kansas City's Eric Fisher and walks them back into a quarterback's lap despite weighing 70 fewer pounds than his adversary.
Against Miami in the Wild Card Round, in one of the best games by any defensive player all season, Harrison bull-rushed Dolphins guard Laremy Tunsil backward into a sack. Football still often comes down to answering the question: Is a player stronger than the man across from him? With James Harrison, the answer is obvious.
Tom Brady's pocket movement
Tom Brady -- who has been mocked for his slow feet dating back to his glacial 40 time at the NFL Scouting Combine -- scored another round over Father Time this season because of his movement skills. Brady's pocket presence still stands out as his signature trait, with his footwork inhumanly improving in his late 30s. The Patriots quarterback's ability to slide to his left or step up in the pocket is the product of film study, his feel for the game and technique. He senses pressure and makes more plays late in the down than ever.
The Brady I will remember after he retires will be standing tall in the pocket, balanced, feet quiet but bouncing, an all-time great who plays lighter and more nimbly than he did as a young Super Bowl champion.
Green Bay's toe-tapping
"You can practice that! We're trained athletes, we practice sideline catches all the time," Cobb said after Green Bay's win.
Every team practices the "scramble drill," but it's become the bedrock of Green Bay's offense. So many of the Packers' biggest plays all season -- including in bothplayoff wins -- came from a receiver breaking off his original route, following Rodgers' out-of-pocket wanderings and going with him toward the boundary. The final piece of the puzzle is the toe tap, expertly displayed all season by Cobb, Cook, Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, Ty Montgomery and Geronimo Allison. This skill is not unique to Packers receivers, but no group does it better. Rodgers is the band leader, and they've learned to follow his cues.
Devonta Freeman's hard charging
Running hard is a vital skill that cannot be measured by a stat. But if there was a metric for treating every carry with life-or-death importance, Devonta Freeman would rank near the top of the NFL.
The Falcons running back breaks tackles and cuts with incredible authority, and he's never cheated out of a rep. He often shakes one defender out of his shoes before running over another on the same play. He can catch a pass and posterize a defender for a 53-yard gain, like he did to Seattle's Steven Terrellin the Divisional Round.
David DeCastro's jolt
DeCastro used his brute strength to repeatedly jolt Dolphins defender Ndamukong Suh backward in the Wild Card Round. It was a thorough 60-minute domination that was hard to believe against one of the game's best. DeCastro and friends kept it rolling in a comically one-sided battle with the Chiefs' defensive line. The Steelers have barely needed Ben Roethlisberger to win two playoff games. DeCastro has an incredible way of blasting an opposing defensive tackle off the snap before firing out to pull on an outside run, eventually wiping out another defender. The coordination between DeCastro and center Maurkice Pouncey is special, and offensive line coach Mike Munchak deserves a ton of credit for a group that is so in sync.
Matt Ryan to Julio Jones on a deep crossing route
Search the play-by-play logs of the Atlanta Falcons' season, and you'll find the same sentence over and over: "M. Ryan pass deep middle to J. Jones."
I'm not smart enough to know how the Falcons make this look so easy. It helps when an MVP candidate at quarterback is the second-most talented player on the offense. Having a receiver in Mohamed Sanu who plays with a style similar to Julio Jones' also helps, especially when both receivers break inside on the same play to fully confuse a defense.
Jones is as comfortable working between the hash marks as he is outside the numbers, and he's also comfortable quietly drawing double-teams for long stretches, seemingly biding his time until the Falconsreally need a 20-yard pickup, with the resulting big play appearing as routine for this team as an inside handoff.
The tackling of Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan
Malcolm Butler is a 190-pound cornerback who thinks he's James Harrison. Known best for his competitiveness and plays on the ball, Butler is my favorite Patriots cornerback to watch since Ty Law because he loves to hit. Butler looks to lay out the opposition, whether he's facing a 225-pound receiver or Jay Ajayi. Few cornerbacks are better at separating the receiver from the ball at the point of contact.
His cornerback tag-team partner, Logan Ryan, was mentioned by one PFF writer earlier this season as perhaps the best tackling cornerback in football. Ryan makes his plays with less flair, but he's a textbook sure tackler in space. The fourth-year veteran returned to an every-down role in the Divisional Round and delivered perhaps the best game of his career.
Season after season, the Patriots tend to rank better in points allowed than yards allowed. That partly flows from this cornerback group's ability to limit damage after the catch. Butler and Ryan will give up short passes, and then they make receivers pay.