*Maybe offense wins championships, or rather, quarterbacks. *
*After the dust, ice and tornadoes settled from this weekend's quartet of Divisional Round games, we were left with four legendary signal-callers, including three legitimate 2016 MVP candidates. *
*The lineup for championship weekend: *
*Is the league's old adage that defenses win championships a falsehood? Maybe just for this season. Or maybe one of these offensive juggernauts will prove us wrong in the coming week. *
All we do know is that the star power will be out next Sunday, when a seven-hour slate of football is bound to boast big plays, notable names and massive legacy implications.
But before we hype up next week too much, let's take a look back at how we got here:
- After both teams traded clinical opening-drive touchdowns that spilled over to the second quarter, a holding penalty on special teamer Kevin Pierre-Louis swung the game in Atlanta's favor. Devin Hester's 80-yard punt return would have set the Seahawks up at the seven-yard line with a chance to take a commanding 17-7 lead. Instead, Seattle lost 84 yards of field position, ultimately leading to a safety when defensive tackle Ben Garland fell on a tripped Russell Wilson in the end zone. The Falcons quickly answered with a field goal and a 99-yard touchdown drive to close out the half. Coach Dan Quinn was vindicated in his decision to defer upon winning the coin toss, as Ryan led yet another lengthy touchdown drive to open the third quarter -- turning a 10-7 deficit into a 26-10 lead before Pete Carroll knew what hit him.
- Mistakes aside, Atlanta was the superior team, winning up front on both sides of the ball. MVP favorite Ryan directed touchdown drives of 99, 75, 75 and 54 yards, hitting eight different targets for a 125.7 passer rating against a Seahawks secondary that lost cornerback DeShawn Shead in addition to the absence of All Pro safety Earl Thomas. The Falcons now boast 11 scoring drives started inside their own 10-yard line, five more than any other team in the league this season. Ryan has orchestrated opening-drive touchdowns in seven consecutive games, the longest streak since the 1970 merger. With a dialed-in Kyle Shanahan calling the plays, Ryan distributing like an all-world point guard, Julio Jones leading the NFL's deepest receiving corps and the Devonta Freeman-Tevin Coleman tandem giving linebackers fits, the Falcons offense is the class of the playoff field.
- On the flip side, Atlanta's pass defense might just be the biggest postseason weakness -- pending the outcome of Brock Osweiler's offense in New England on Saturday night. Quinn's unit deserves credit for generating consistent heat and forcing turnovers, but that's par for the course against Wilson's offense that is too often stifled outside of Seattle. The Falcons' red-zone defense is the worst in the league, allowing a touchdown 73 percent of the time in the regular season. Every team remaining can throw on Atlanta's cornerbacks, as Wilson did in the first half of Saturday's tilt. This defense is built to play with a lead, so it's vital that Ryan stays white hot against the winner of the Cowboys-Packers clash.
-- Chris Wesseling
- New England came out sluggish in the first half. The Patriots committed two turnovers that accounted for 10 Texans points to keep the game close early. New England ran just five plays in the first quarter due to the turnovers and a Dion Lewis kick return touchdown. Tom Brady was battered in the first half, and New England couldn't run the ball (19 yards on the ground through two quarters). Despite the poor first half, Brady and the Pats' defense took control late. Brady punctured the Texans' secondary with big plays, and the defense took advantage of a punchless Houston offense to earn the comfortable win despite not playing their best football.
- Dion Lewis hadn't scored a touchdown since October 29, 2015. Saturday night the running back earned a hat trick. Lewis became the first player in postseason history to have a receiving, rushing and kick return touchdown in a single game. The jitterbug flashed his angle-busting speed on a first quarter touchdown reception. He then earned the Patriots' first-ever postseason kick return touchdown on a 98-yard blast. Lewis added a 1-yard TD plunge to put the game away. The Patriots took advantage of Texans linebacker Benardrick McKinney in coverage several times. After Lewis clowned McKinney early, James White blazed by the linebacker for a TD.
- Credit the Texans' defensive front for harassing Brady all game. Houston controlled the line of scrimmage most of the game. Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus consistently disrupted the Pats' offense with penetration from all over the field. Romeo Crennel moved his game-wreckers around to create mismatches -- particularly taking advantage of center David Andrews. Moving Mercilus and Clowney inside on third downs was particularly effective. Getting in Brady's face up the gut discombobulated the Pats' offense multiple times. Mercilus' versatility was a big story. He got pressure off the edge, up the middle and even helped break up a pass down field on Lewis. Clowney and Mercilus combined for five QB hits, a sack and several other pressures.
-- Kevin Patra
- Including Dan Bailey's 52-yard field goal and Mason Crosby's "iced" attempt a split-second before the Cowboys called timeout on the game-winner, we saw four successful kicks over 50 yards with the game on the line in an instant classic. Although Bailey's boot tied the game at 31, it left 35 seconds and a pair of timeouts for Aaron Rodgers to work his wizardry. Rodgers somehow managed to avoid fumbling on a blindside sack by safety Jeff Heath, leading to a third-and-20 desperation play on Green Bay's 32-yard line. Rodgers escaped the pocket, threw a dime across his body off of one foot into a window the size of the Grinch's heart for a spectacular 35-yard toe-dragging sideline catch by Jared Cook. Crosby snuck a 51-yard field goal inside the left upright, just moments after sending a knuckleball through the right corner pocket from 56 yards out. He will never buy his own beer in Green Bay for the rest of his life.
- No Jordy Nelson, no problem. Before Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli dialed up a series of blitzes to confuse Green Bay in the second half, Rodgers had led the Packers to 66 points in the first 74 minutes since Nelson's Wild Card-round exit last week. Prior to the opening whistle, FOX analyst Troy Aikman declared that Rodgers is playing quarterback at the highest level it has ever been played. Rodgers spent the next 60 minutes of game time proving Aikman right. The man who turned the Hail Mary into a routine play deployed every other weapon in his arsenal on Sunday, extending plays, throwing receivers open, pump faking to dupe defensive backs, picking up first downs with his legs and tricking Dallas' defense into untimely penalties. Rodgers' 34-yard touchdown pass to Richard Rodgers was his 14th on a "free play" due to defensive offsides since 2012. No other quarterback has more than three such scores over that span. A master craftsman possessing the position's most gifted and varied toolbox, Rodgers has advanced the art of quarterbacking over the past two months.
- The new version of the "triplets" brought the Cowboys back into the game just as the Packers were threatening to run away and hide with a 28-13 lead late in the third quarter. While social media was clamoring for a Tony Romo appearance, rookie quarterback Dak Prescott hit 13 of 17 throws for 142 yards, two touchdowns and a two-point conversion in his final three possessions. Directing a textbook one-minute drill, he picked up 42 yards in six plays to give Bailey an opportunity for the game-tying field goal. Fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott churned out 125 yards on 22 carries, highlighted by a phenomenal spin move on Clay Matthews to set up Dez Bryant's seven-yard touchdown that ultimately tied the contest at 28 with five minutes remaining.
-- Chris Wesseling
- Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown dominated early on, only to come up short in the red zone versus Kansas City's bend-but-don't-break defense. By the end of the third quarter, Bell had racked up more yards (161) than the entire Chiefs offense (150). Making defenders miss with his trademark suddenness, Bell joined former Broncos back Terrell Davis (1998 playoffs) as the only players with back-to-back games of at least 160 rushing yards in the postseason. Despite an impressive second-half adjustment by Bob Sutton's defense, Bell still managed to bypass Arian Foster (285) for the most rushing yards (337) in a player's first two playoff games. Authoring one of the greatest stretches we've ever witnessed by a running back, Bell has amassed 1,431 yards from scrimmage over the last eight games. He will remain the focal point of Pittsburgh's attack in next week's AFC Championship Game at New England.
- Not to be outdone, Brown joined Larry Fitzgerald as the only receivers with four straight 100-yard games in the postseason. Although Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters knocked an early touchdown out of Brown's hands, the elusive wideout came through with one of the game's biggest plays, getting open for a third-and-3 conversion that allowed the Steelers to assume victory formation just after the two-minute warning.
- Pittsburgh's unsung offensive line deserves a lion's share of the credit, opening holes for Bell and shutting down Kansas City's edge rushing trio of Justin Houston, Dee Ford and Tamba Hali. Rarely pressured throughout the game, Ben Roethlisberger wasn't hit until a third-down coverage sack forced a field goal with 10 minutes remaining.
-- Chris Wesseling