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VOL. 132 | NO. 15 | Friday, January 20, 2017

Final 4 is Proof NFL Teams Must Have Elite QBs

BY TERRY McCORMICK, Nashville Sports Correspondent

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Now that the NFL playoffs are down to four teams remaining, it is easy to point out the common thread among them: Elite play at the quarterback position.

Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota greets Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers after the Titans defeated Green Bay 47-25 on Nov. 13. The Packers have not lost a game since.

(AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

Whether it is Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers – all of whom have won Super Bowls – or Matt Ryan, who was selected as an All Pro this season and could win the MVP Award, the Patriots, Steelers, Packers and Falcons have a game-changer calling the signals.

And as much as those game-changing quarterbacks are a primary reason their teams are still alive in the playoffs, it is that same reason that teams like the Texans, Chiefs and Raiders (without injured Derek Carr) are now watching from home.

That’s also good news for the Tennessee Titans. After many years of failed draft picks and stop-gap veterans, they do seem to have finally located a franchise QB in Marcus Mariota. 

The most important quality of a franchise quarterback is his ability to make the players around him better.

A great example came in the Packers-Cowboys game Sunday when Rodgers hit former Titans tight end Jared Cook for a 34-yard, toe-dragging-while-falling-out-of-bounds catch that set up the game-winning field goal. 

Honestly, how many game-saving plays did Cook make in his four years in Tennessee? Very few. The reason he did it Sunday? Rodgers. 

Also, neither Vince Young nor Jake Locker could have made the throw that allowed Cook to make such a catch.

Mariota took a big leap forward in his second season and showed some signs of the moxie it takes to be a top-level quarterback. The way he rallied the Titans to comeback wins in Detroit and Kansas City (both playoff teams) and was in complete command in wins against Green Bay (yes, that Green Bay) and Jacksonville moved Mariota closer to the quarterback the Titans envisioned when they drafted him.

The result: He had what might have been the best statistical season of any quarterback since the team relocated from Houston.

That said, there are still a few hurdles Mariota and the Titans must clear before he can be considered a truly elite quarterback.

The first is that the quarterback alone is not enough. We see it now with Andrew Luck’s Colts and Philip Rivers’ Chargers – and even Drew Brees seven years removed from a title with the Saints – that a great quarterback can only take a team so far if there aren’t enough pieces around him. 

In building around Mariota, the Titans have smartly relied on a revamped running game and a solid young offensive line. GM Jon Robinson added a piece or two at wide receiver with Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe, but more is needed there.

The same is true on defense, where the secondary is need of an overhaul and the front seven needs depth.

Mariota also needs time.

Success comes early for some quarterbacks. Brady and Roethlisberger each won Super Bowls in their second seasons. 

But more times than not, it takes a little more seasoning before a quarterback can hoist the Lombardi Trophy. 

Rodgers did it in his seventh season. Ryan is in his ninth year and still trying to break through. 

Peyton Manning didn’t get a ring until his ninth year. Brett Favre won his only championship in his fifth season.

So as the Titans strive for that elusive championship, they have the security of knowing the most important piece is in place. 

The question now becomes what will they do about it? 

Conference championship predictions

NFC Championship: Green Bay (12-6) at Atlanta (12-5), 2:05 p.m. CST, FOX

It’s hard to believe that the Packers were 4-6 at one time and being written off after being dismantled by the Titans in early November. They have not lost since.

Aaron Rodgers has entered another realm with his play, and the Packers defense managed to hang on against Dallas in the divisional round. Now comes a whole new challenge in the Falcons’ offense, which seems to be able to move the ball at will. 

And the Atlanta defense came up big after taking a couple of early punches from the Seahawks last Saturday. 

But the Packers are much more potent offensively than the Seahawks. It’s a tough prediction, but the safest bet is to go with the experience of Rodgers, though Sunday could very well be Matt Ryan’s time to be recognized as an elite QB. Packers 38, Falcons 35.

AFC Championship: Pittsburgh (13-5) at New England (14-3), 5:40 p.m. CST, CBS

The Patriots struggled a bit longer with the Texans than one might have thought. The Steelers withstood a challenge in Kansas City after rolling over Miami in the wild-card round. 

In Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger, the two most prolific QBs remaining in the AFC (with Peyton Manning now retired) will do battle with the winner headed to the Super Bowl. 

Brady was unusually flat against the Texans defense and was intercepted twice after throwing just two picks in his 12 regular season games. As one of the commentators said afterward, it probably won’t happen again. 

The Steelers feature a potent offense led by Big Ben, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, but you can bet that Bill Belichick will find some way to slow it down. It should be a good game, but it’s hard to go against the Pats in Foxboro. Patriots 30, Steelers 24

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