Listen to the wise words of Big Ben Roethlisberger before joining the masses with your proclamation that Sunday’s NFL conference title games will produce the two greatest quarterbacking battles in the history of the world, or at least since organized football legalized the forward pass back on April 6, 1906.
“We’re not playing tennis,” the Steelers quarterback said.
Yes, it’s still a team sport. Green Bay’s vulnerable secondary, Pittsburgh’s powerful running game, New England’s top-ranked scoring defense and Atlanta’s 27th-ranked scoring defense also are suiting up alongside the quarterbacks Sunday.
Plus, people today tend to forget the past with every 140th character they can type before the car behind them beeps.
For example, on Jan. 17, 1993, four guys named Marino, Kelly, Aikman and Young were the starting quarterbacks in the conference championship games. A year later, Kelly, Aikman and Young returned while Marino was replaced by some Joe named Montana.
Those four games featured five Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Yet only Aikman — who had the best team — lived up to expectations, winning twice with passer ratings of 120.0 and 144.7 en route to back-to-back Super Bowl titles.
That being said, we should be in for a treat Sunday. The NFC opens with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers (12-6) in Atlanta to face Matt Ryan and the Falcons (12-5). The AFC closes with Roethlisberger and the Steelers (13-5) visiting Tom Brady and the Patriots (15-2) at New England.
The quarterbacks are elite, in rhythm and leading hot teams that have won a combined 31 straight games. The seven combined Super Bowl victories — Brady (four), Roethlisberger (two) and Rodgers (one) — is a record for the conference championship round. So is this year’s combined passer rating of 107.0: Ryan (117.1), Brady (112.2), Rodgers (104.2) and Roethlisberger (95.4).
If you were to line up the four playoff résumés and ask, “Which one isn’t like the others?” well, Ryan would be the proverbial sore thumb. He’s 2-4 in the postseason, trailing Brady (23-9), Roethlisberger (13-6) and Rodgers (10-7) by considerable margins.
So, yeah, there’s a lot of heat on so-called “Matty Ice.”
“When his career is over, I think he’s going to have Hall of Fame numbers,” said CBS analyst and former Giants Super Bowl-winning quarterback Phil Simms. “But we’ve come to the day and age where it’s, ‘How many Super Bowls are you in, how many victories?’
“He needs playoff victories, probably Super Bowl victories, to get the praise that he deserves.”
These two teams met Oct. 30 in Atlanta. There were 17 possessions, 11 scoring drives and no turnovers. Rodgers completed 73.7 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and a 125.5 passer rating, but the Falcons scored on six of eight possessions and won 33-32 with Ryan completing 80 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and a 129.5 rating.
Prediction: Falcons 41, Packers 38. Barring turnovers, whoever has the ball last wins.
Twelve years ago, the Steelers ended New England’s record 21-game winning streak. The Patriots evened the score and then some by going into Pittsburgh and winning a playoff game later that season.
Roethlisberger was 22. It was his second career playoff game. He threw three interceptions. New England won 41-27.
Believe it or not, that’s the only playoff meeting between Roethlisberger, 34, and Brady, 39. Roethlisberger is 3-6 against the Patriots, including 1-3 at Gillette Stadium. He didn’t play in the 27-16 loss to New England in Pittsburgh in Week 7 this year.
Brady, meanwhile, is 9-2 with 26 touchdowns and three interceptions against the Steelers. He also has played in 11 conference title games (6-5) and six Super Bowls (4-2) and is trying to join Packers Hall of Famer Bart Starr as the only quarterbacks to win five league championships.
“[We’re] going into the dragon’s lair,” said Roethlisberger, “and we’re trying to slay the dragon.”
Roethlisberger’s legacy is solid. But does he get the credit he deserves? Simms doesn’t think so.
“I don’t know why his name never gets mentioned when people talk about the best quarterbacks in the NFL,” Simms said. “He’s an afterthought. It’s always, ‘Oh, and Roethlisberger, he’s pretty good, too.’
“He’s done it many years without a supporting cast. Now, he’s got a great supporting cast, and when it’s working, that offense is still one of the best in the NFL.”
Prediction: Patriots 35, Steelers 31. Using one of the best defenses he’s had, coach Bill Belichick will take away Pittsburgh’s running game and do enough to head off to a seventh Super Bowl.