These final four NFL franchises can seemingly be cut into two groups, three inside the velvet ropes, one outsider being held by the bouncer in line. For the Packers, Steelers and Patriots, championship games and Lombardi Trophies are woven into their fabric. Pittsburgh has six rings, Green Bay and New England each have four. These are three of the most decorated organizations of the Super Bowl Era (and the Packers success starts long before a half-empty stadium and a half-drunk Max McGee in 1967).
The Falcons are the kid with its nose pressed against the candy shop glass. This will only be Atlanta’s fourth ever trip to the NFC title game, and the Dirty Birds of ’98 are still their only representative in the Super Bowl. But Sunday’s games will also be a referendum on the four sensational quarterbacks stepping under center. Here’s what’s on the line the quartet of field-generals.
Tom Brady: Can TB12 break the deadlock with Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw of four Super Bowl titles? Many consider Brady the greatest winner in NFL history, but in reality any of these three are merely the greatest winner in the modern era. Bart Starr won 5 NFL championships (and the first two Super Bowls) and Otto Graham won 7 league titles (four AAFC, three NFL). Brady with a win Sunday heads to his 7th Super Bowl, and a chance to surpass Montana and Bradshaw, and catch Starr. Patriots fans are combative and unbending (shockingly) in the idea that Brady’s two lackluster performances in losses to the Giants could put him behind Montana as the all-time greatest quarterback in the Big Game. They would have the final word with a 5th title for Tawmmy Twelve. Every win now for Brady is another line on his resume for G.O.A.T. And being able to do it after his suspension for his role in Smashing Cell Phone and Testing the Ideal Gas Law-Gate would be the sweetest of all.
Aaron Rodgers: This feels slightly like LeBron James in last year’s NBA Finals run. He already had jewlery, so it wasn’t about becoming a champion. It was about a final punctuation on his greatness. We didn’t need to see LeBron beat the Warriors and deliver a title to Cleveland to appreciate his career. But it was a swift uppercut to any bubble heads that still questioned his “clutchness” or ability to carry a team by himself. It was the stuff of legend. Rodgers is having that same type of run. While his ’10 path to a title was incredible as well, this eight-week stretch is just stupefying. Rodgers had the onions to suggest running the table at 4-6, and then went out and did it. During this win streak he’s had an insane 21-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He’s averaged nearly 300 yards per game, and made one of the NFL playoffs’ greatest throws ever last week to Jared Cook to help win the game. If Rodgers wins another ring, and especially against Bill Belichick in the Super Bowl, it would be his crowning LeBron moment. We already know how special he is, but now he would have to be considered one of the greatest of all-time.
Ben Roethlisberger: Big Ben already has a strong case for Canton. Two titles, a third Super Bowl appearance. A consistent playoff quarterback, renown as one of the toughest SOB’s to ever play the position (even if he’s soaked every injury for drama). In his first Super Bowl, he was a passenger for an offense that relied on a ground game and trick plays. His second ring was all Big Ben and a great defense, every throw he made on the final drive to Santonio Holmes was tremendous. A third title would put him in rarefied company, alongside Brady, Montana, Bradshaw and Aikman. We have discussed Brady, Rodgers, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning over the last decade as the best in the league. A third title (especially if he has two more big games) would cement him in that conversation (which he should be in already) and a no-brainer for Canton.
Matt Ryan: This is a chance not only for the Falcons to finally win their first title, but also for Ryan to enter the conversation as one of the handful of best quarterbacks in the league. He’s put up great numbers before (six 4,000 yard seasons), but just one playoff win coming into this year. Ryan is in complete command of the deepest collection of offensive talent in the league. He is locked in, seemingly just choosing which way to gash a defense. Deep to Julio Jones? 20-yard post to Mohamed Sanu? Crossing route to Taylor Gabriel? Or maybe one of his two dynamic backs in the flat? This is reminiscent of Joe Flacco’s run four years ago (which ironically was the last time Ryan was in the title game). The Ravens quarterback was looking for his first ring and was brilliant in achieving it. But while Flacco is still not regarded by most as an elite quarterback, a Super Bowl title would leave no question Ryan is one.
In a quarterback-driven league, these final four teams have a very obvious engine that propelled them this far. The elite arms under center, all of which have an important line waiting to be written on their resume.
D.A. hosts 6-10 p.m. ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.