The NFL playoff bracket didn’t leave any wiggle room for a Cinderella story here.
There isn’t a Houston Texans team shocking the world or a Derek Carr-less Oakland Raiders team hoisting a Lombardi Trophy.
But there is one of the best final fours fans have seen in a long time. The NFC side of the equation features a quarterback showdown worthy of the Super Bowl itself, while the AFC boasts two of the league’s most prestigious franchises hunting to further legacies.
A weekend like this hasn’t come around in a long time, so it is only right the games have a Super Bowl berth at stake. Here is a look at viewing information and bracket picks, followed by some player breakdowns.
NFL Playoffs: Championship Weekend
|Green Bay at Atlanta||Jan. 22||3:05 p.m.||Fox||Fox Sports Go||ATL (-4)||GB 33-30|
|Pittsburgh at New England||Jan. 22||6:40 p.m.||CBS||CBSSports.com||NE (-6)||NE 30-27|
Author’s predictions, OddsShark
And then there were 4… #NFLPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/4XunoAD3n6
— NFL (@NFL) January 16, 2017
Jared Cook, Green Bay Packers
Green Bay Packers tight end Jared Cook was a popular X-factor pick last week before his team escaped the Dallas Cowboys.
It is funny, though, because his mention as a key player came simply because Aaron Rodgers produces so well when he’s on the field, not because Cook himself posts numbers.
So of course, Cook went ahead and made a jaw-dropping catch late, as Green Bay’s official Twitter account captured:
Unreal catch.@AaronRodgers12 & @JaredCook89 set up the game-winning FG!#GBvsDAL #GoPackGo https://t.co/dazHoV4VnL
— Green Bay Packers (@packers) January 16, 2017
Cook remains the key here, even if he doesn’t perform any crazy feats. He simply stretches defenses and forces units to account for him, creating room for other guys such as Randall Cobb to go to work.
Funnily enough, Cook wasn’t on the field for a Week 8 loss to these same Atlanta Falcons, a 33-32 affair in which Rodgers still threw four scores.
It might not seem like Rodgers can improve on that line, but he might not have a choice with how great Atlanta looks. Holding onto the ball with extended drives, thanks to Cook, might be the key for a road rematch.
Mohamed Sanu, Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta’s Mohamed Sanu has caught fire in recent weeks.
Sanu only had 59 catches for 653 yards and four touchdowns during the regular season, acting as a solid complement to Julio Jones.
Jones played his lowest percentage of snaps on the season against the Seattle Seahawks, according to Rotoworld.com. It sounds like a recipe for disaster against Richard Sherman and a strong secondary, but Sanu helped pick up the slack with 44 yards and a score. Jones has talked up his teammate since.
“I wouldn’t say Mohamed is under the radar,” Jones said, according to ESPN.com’s Vaughn McClure. “They know. They watch film. They definitely see what Sanu can do on film. If not, they will see.”
Indeed, Sanu now has a touchdown in consecutive games. Against the Packers in the first matchup, he led the team in receiving with nine grabs for 84 yards and a score, while Jones only caught three passes.
The Falcons brought Sanu on as a No. 2 last offseason, yet he might have to carry the passing load for the second time against the Packers this season.
Jesse James, Pittsburgh Steelers
This might come as a surprise, but reliable, huge targets are wildly important during must-win playoff games.
Sarcasm aside, Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James posted 83 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs a week ago on the road, his highest output of the year. With Ladarius Green hurt, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t have any problems turning to the 6’7″, 261-pound target.
Green might return (don’t count on it, though, given his concussion history), but the Steelers just saw enough from James to keep going his way after a strong performance against a stingy defense.
After all, the Steelers have to go against Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots on the road. Big Ben missed the first encounter back in Week 7, a 27-16 loss, while Le’Veon Bell caught 10 short passes and Cobi Hamilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey caught three passes apiece.
This is a new-look offense for the Steelers in the rematch, a charge potentially led by James. The Patriots will scheme to control Antonio Brown and Bell, which could leave James open for a smattering of targets, especially in the red zone.
LeGarrette Blount, New England Patriots
Steven Senne/Associated Press
LeGarrette Blount will play a big role against the Steelers.
LeGarrette Blount quietly put up a monster season this year, rushing for 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns.
The veteran running back was a major part of the Patriots starting 3-0 despite missing Tom Brady, rushing for four touchdowns over the three wins and more than 100 yards twice.
Brady is back, of course, and the Patriots didn’t need Blount much against the struggling Texans in the last round, a 34-16 win in which he carried the ball eight times for 31 yards.
Blount, even with Brady in the lineup, shouldered the load against the Steelers in the first meeting. He carried it 24 times for 127 yards and a pair of scores, though this didn’t lead to the Patriots controlling time of possession, thanks to big plays against a deflated team without its starting signal-caller.
Alas, the Patriots might look to employ this same tactic in the rematch. Blount has been effective all year, and his ability to damage the Steelers again at a reliable clip can keep Big Ben and an explosive offense off the field.
For fun, remember this could have a bit of a revenge-game narrative, after Blount spent 11 games with the Steelers in 2014. If he has a huge game, it is hard to imagine the hosts go down.
Stats courtesy of NFL.com. All betting information courtesy of OddsShark. All advanced metrics courtesy of Pro Football Focus.
Follow Chris Roling (@Chris_Roling) on Twitter.