With Championship Sunday upon us, NFL.com's network of reporters gets you up to speed with the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:
But first, a quarterback stands on the brink of a legacy-changing moment ...
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When Dan Quinn became the Atlanta Falcons' coach two years ago, he challenged Matt Ryan to get to know all the new faces on the team -- coaches and players -- on a personal level. The goal was for Ryan to learn what motivated each person. So the quarterback made a point of having breakfast with a different person every day. He arranged dinners with assistant coaches and their wives. Last offseason, he organized players-only workouts in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
The most critical relationship, of course, was to be between Ryan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who arrived with Quinn and who is likely to leave after the Falcons' season ends to become the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. The fruition of the relationship first nurtured in those early shared meals -- and tested when Ryan and the Falcons struggled after a hot start last season -- is on display now, with the league's top scoring offense headed into the NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers, Shanahan on his way to a top job and Ryan on the cusp of finally joining the exalted company of the other three quarterbacks in the conference title bouts.
There is little question that Ryan's reputation has the most to gain this weekend, which features an extraordinary collection of quarterbacks who, combined, have a passer rating of 107, the highest for the four conference championship game quarterbacks since at least 1991.
Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger are all certain future Hall of Famers, and all are already Super Bowl champions. Ryan is neither, and there is an anvil weighing down his résumé: Ryan's postseason record is, at best, mixed. The Falcons lost their only previous conference championship game appearance with Ryan, to the 49ers in the 2012 campaign. His overall postseason record is 2-4, although Ryan's performance in the three most recent playoff games (328 yards per game, nine touchdowns, three interceptions) is noticeably improved from the first three (194.7 yards per game, three touchdowns, four interceptions).
Ryan, who has already been named to The Associated Press' All-Pro Team, is the favorite to be the league's MVP this season, and it can be argued that he has outplayed even Rodgers during his torrid run to the playoffs. Until his bottom line changes, though, Ryan will be considered fourth-best in this group. For now, he resides somewhere in the imaginary NFL quarterback rankings with Philip Rivers: accomplished regular-season quarterbacks who have been unable to get over the postseason hump.
Even Ryan's close friend, former Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, said on a CBS Sports conference call this week that he thought making it to a Super Bowl would change Ryan's perception of himself, because he would have bounced back from a terrible season to have an MVP-caliber one. Ryan, though, pushed aside a question about whether a Super Bowl is required to be considered a great quarterback.
"I don't think about it all that much," Ryan said this week. "I think one thing I've learned throughout my career is that if you sit there and you're worrying about all these things that don't make a difference for this week, your focus is not where it should be. Would it be nice to do that and all those things that you mentioned? Absolutely, but it's not going to help us Sunday. At the end of the day, the only thing that really matters is trying to focus all of my energy and my mental preparation toward what's going to have us play our best Sunday. I don't think about those things all that often, and certainly not this time of the year."
Ryan has never had a better opportunity to join the current pantheon of elite quarterbacks than the one he'll get on Sunday, though. Time has helped solidify relationships, and the acquisition of center Alex Mack, who was already familiar with Shanahan's system from their shared year in Cleveland, shored up the offensive line. The result has been an offensive explosion. The Falcons have scored at least 30 points in 12 games this season, including their last five. During that stretch, Ryan has thrown 14 touchdown passes and no interceptions, a dominant streak that drew much less notice than Rodgers' similar run. Statistically, this was the best season of Ryan's career (he averaged 309 yards per game and threw 38 touchdowns against just seven interceptions) and he was also perhaps the league's best downfield thrower this season, ranking first in the league with a 52.2 completion percentage on passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air.
In the minutes after the Falcons beat the Packers in October -- with Ryan throwing the winning touchdown pass with 31 seconds remaining -- Quinn recalled an offseason program during which the Falcons worked with Navy SEALs, which asks participants to figure out how they can get one percent better. Quinn was already sure he could see that improvement in Ryan by the time of the Packers game, which followed twolosses that featured late interceptions by Ryan, and he has certainly seen more of it since.
"You know what I'm always happy about, is when you see somebody really apply themselves and really go for it to get to a new level when you're already at a really high level," Quinn said this week. "So to take another step to break through a new ceiling, it's really difficult. He totally owned that challenge to do that. That's from on-field performance, that's from leadership on and off the field, the connection he has with his teammates, the things he wanted to improve in his game. And then it's kind of like a New Year's resolution -- do you stay with it or do you knock back off? And he's had the grit to not back off and to keep striving to get to a new spot."
And now, the rest of this week's notes from NFL.com's reporters:
PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Hoping to avoid another communication breakdown in Gillette. The Steelers this week did their best to downplay talk of the, uh, technical difficulties they faced the last time they were in Foxborough. In the 2015 season opener, the Steelers lost headset communication for much of the first half, with the Patriots' radio broadcast filling the lines. Head coach Mike Tomlin was steamed after the 28-21 loss, saying, "That's always the case (here)."
"That's why you have hand signals and wristbands," Roethlisberger said.
Facebook Live fallout. In the aftermath of Antonio Brown's Facebook Live video, there was plenty of talk of the narcissism of today's athletes, and even more of the discipline of the Steelers franchise. Both Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and wide receiver Julian Edelman commented, with malice or not, that such a thing would never happen in their locker room.
"If you want to defend our organization, if you want to defend our coaches or how we go about our business, you win the game," the Stanford grad -- and two-time Pro Bowler -- said. "That's the only thing we can do. Talking won't convince anyone. Winning will."
The ring-leaders in Pittsburgh. It's been six years since the Steelers were in the AFC Championship Game, eight since they won the Super Bowl. That means there are only a handful of players with rings -- and a few weeks ago, after the Steelers' wild-card win over the Dolphins, defensive coordinator Keith Butler said it was obvious who those players were: two of them, linebackers James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons, were the best defensive players on the field in that game.
This week, Timmons said "of course" you can tell who has a ring. It's not, as Tomlin said, that these are the players setting the example, but rather, Timmons stated, "we're the hungrier ones."