Our last weekend featuring multiple NFL games is upon us, and boy will it be a good one. This weekend the Green Bay Packers visit the Atlanta Falcons, and the Pittsburgh Steelers head to Foxboro to take on the New England Patriots in two marquee matchups that should set scoreboards on fire. Football fans will be watching from the edges of their seats to see which teams move on to Super Bowl LI.
CBS Sports’ top NFL analysts Phil Simms, Bill Cowher, Tony Gonzalez, and lead play-by-play caller Jim Nantz broke down some of the biggest storylines in the biggest games of the season so far.
A topic that garnered plenty of interest centered around legacy. Of the four quarterbacks remaining in this year’s playoffs, three of them –Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers — are pretty much unanimous first-ballot Hall of Famers.
Their legacies are set, but what about Matt Ryan’s?
“It’s pretty obvious,” Nantz said. “Matt Ryan has a lot to gain here. This could totally change the way people look at Matt Ryan. He’s had a sensational season, but he doesn’t have the Super Bowl on his resume.”
“I agree with everything Jim (Nantz) just said,” Cowher began. “You look at the four quarterbacks, three of them have won a Super Bowl. Matt Ryan maybe had the best season of anybody, but as we all talk about, getting a championship would validate the season he’s had. I feel like he has a lot to gain from this, whereas the others have been there before.”
When it comes to the “others” who have “been there before,” the conversation really starts and ends with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
On Sunday, they will play in their sixth consecutive AFC Championship game with a chance to win their fifth Super Bowl in the Brady-Belichick era. That would surpass the historic Steelers duo of Terry Bradshaw and Chuck Noll for the most of any quarterback-coach combo ever.
Besides mastery of their respective positions, their continuity, Simms argued, is also what has made them so great.
“Seventeen years Tom Brady has been with Bill Belichick, so that has a lot to do with it,” Simms said of the Patriots’ sustained success. “Just think of all the meetings they have, all the plays and situations that they go through, and they constantly are changing. Bill Belichick has run, and Tom Brady has run basically four different offenses since they’ve been in New England, and it’s a wide-ranging offense too. And they keep parts of it as time goes along. So, as I say almost every broadcast, the library of plays they have at their disposal is second to none to anybody in the NFL.”
That allows New England to confuse teams and overload them with the sheer breadth of their offense, Simms explained. Other teams just don’t have that luxury.
“We see it during the game, and I get confused sometimes,” Simms said. “I’ll go ‘Well, they just scored two touchdowns by doing this, with this formation and these guys.’ Then they will come out for the third drive, and they will have a totally different thought process and a different look, and you just go ‘Why?’. Because they don’t want you to adapt to what they’re doing. Everything they’re doing is to try to get you to react. And once you get a defense thinking a lot, that takes aggression away, and a huge advantage goes to the offense.”
For all the reasons Simms mentioned, scheming and trying to play defense against the Patriots is a logistical nightmare. But, playing defense in the NFL in general these days is no picnic. The league has been taken over by offenses and quarterbacks, as evidenced by the four dominant quarterbacks featured this Sunday and the average to below-average ranking defenses.
The saying goes “defenses win championships,” but in 2017, is that still the case?
Gonzalez, one of the most prolific offensive players of all time, certainly still thinks so.
“I’m a big believer — coming from an offensive guy — the old cliche, defense wins championships… It’s still true,” Gonzalez said. “That is the reason that I picked Denver last year, because I was just looking at the defensive side of the ball. At this point, the four teams left in the tournament, you look at the quarterbacks. It’s always these types of quarterbacks, these Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks, or an MVP guy like Matt Ryan this year. And then you look to the defenses. How are the defenses playing? And all four of these defenses — I guess Green Bay and Atlanta are a little down — but they still are playing pretty well at this point. They heated up towards the end of the season. I’ve been on the number one offense in the NFL with our first-round bye. We get to the playoffs, and we lose… and we didn’t even punt. So I’m a big believer that you have to have good defense in order to win games.”
You can catch Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Bill Cowher and Tony Gonzalez on CBS on Sunday afternoon beginning with THE NFL TODAY at 6:00 p.m. ET leading up to and during the AFC Championship showdown between the Steelers and the Patriots.