Someone asked the question in our newsroom Sunday: Are the best four quarterbacks in the NFL still playing? Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo and Philip Rivers may disagree, but Russell Wilson's incredible play of late makes it a legitimate debate.
We have an MVP in Aaron Rodgers who is trying to add a signature chapter to his career while playing through injury. To make it back to the Super Bowl, he'll have to beat the best defense we've seen since the early 2000 Baltimore Ravens. Packers-Seahawks matches up the best two teams in the NFC all season. It's a game that many of us expected back in August, and both teams have lived up to expectations.
The AFC matchup is more of a surprise, but maybe it shouldn't be. Andrew Luck has made the leap to the top level of quarterback play this season, and the rest of his team caught up with him in the playoffs. No quarterback makes more "wow" throws per game, and he's improved on his decision making. After one symbolic beating of Peyton Manning's Broncos in the Divisional Round, Luck can crown himself the king of the AFC in Foxborough. But he'll have to beat a Patriots team that found a little bit of magic in their instant classic win.
There are only three games left this season, but they should all be sweet. Here are a few things we'll be looking for on Conference Championship Sunday:
- Let's stop saying that Andrew Luck has no help around him. He literally received spotless protection in Denver; the Broncos didn't have a single hit on him. Luck's mobility and movement in the pocket is a big asset there, but his offensive line is playing outstanding. The Colts' defense has also played its best in the playoffs, and running back Dan "Boom" Herron is playing his guts out. Perhaps it's not a great team on paper, but they are playing like a great team.
- The last two Luck losses in Foxborough will be talked about plenty this week. Don't make the mistake of believing they were both wildly one-sided games like the final scores suggest. Both games were within one score in the fourth quarter before the Patriots pulled away. Luck made some youthful mistakes and the Colts' defense wore down in both contests.
- Tom Brady is coming off a terrific performance, but the Patriots' defense has a lot to clean up after facing Baltimore. They struggled at the point of attack and it would not be surprising to see the Colts run the ball more this week. Last time the teams faced off, Darrelle Revis did not match up on T.Y. Hilton. The Patriots did a nice job limiting Hilton with slot cornerback Kyle Arrington and some safety help over the top.
- Aaron Rodgers has helped win two massive games since leaving Week 17 with a calf injury. But winning in Seattle will be a whole other challenge. The Seahawks' defensive line is the most underrated group in the league. Seattle can get creative with their linebackers and send waves of pressure at Rodgers if they are confident he's not mobile. It will be a far cry from Dallas' pass rush.
- Which quarterback is playing better in this game? Rodgers was the best at the position all season, but there's no denying that Wilson had the better playoff performance over the weekend. Wilson's near-perfect outing against Carolina got lost in a crazy weekend. Buoyed by a historically good ground game, the Seahawks' offense makes this team more balanced than you think.
- Seattle's defense is playing at a level we have rarely seen. They have roughly seven players that can take over a game, depending on the week: Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. Beating that peaking group in Seattle would be the niftiest achievement of Rodgers' career.
The latest Around The NFL Podcast recaps every Divisional Round game and ranks the remaining quarterbacks still standing. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.