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Top 10 storylines for NFL Conference Championship Weekend

Le'Veon Bell
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Despite just a two-game slate, there are so many stories to follow as the NFL prepares for Conference Championship Weekend. With four elite-level quarterbacks taking to one of the game’s grandest stages, who will come out on top to compete in Super Bowl LI? The backstory here, of course, being both Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger going for history.

Over in the NFC Championship game, both Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan are looking to end narratives that have in the past concluded that they can’t win the big January game.

Off the field, there’s also a ton to look at here.

As the Pittsburgh Steelers head to Gillette Stadium to take on the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game, wide receiver Antonio Brown is making news for all the wrong reasons. This comes as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has made it a point not to attend the game in New England, instead opting to watch the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons NFC Championship game at the Georgia Dome. Is he just delaying the awkward and inevitable?

These are among the top-10 storylines for NFL Conference Championship Weekend.

1. Roger Goodell’s absence in New England 

A lot has been made of the commissioner’s decision to forgo Gillette Stadium thus far during the playoffs. That will continue on Sunday when he attends the NFC Championship game between the Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers at the Georgia Dome.

We don’t have to look too far into this to realize exactly what is going on. Goodell would rather not create undo drama by appearing at the home of the team he handed ridiculous sanctions on due to the entire Deflategate mess.

It’s obviously better than the alternative here. There’s little doubt Goodell’s presence at the AFC Championship game would cause drama the NFL doesn’t need as it celebrates four of the best teams in the league. But this is really just putting off the inevitable.

How awkward will it be when/if Goodell is there presenting the Lombardi trophy to Tom Brady, Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick in Houston next month? It’s a potentially inevitable scenario the NFL should be planning for. If that means Goodell taking a hit on the chin initially, so be it.

It’s a major storyline because this has engulfed the NFL for the better part of the past 18 months. The Patriots were fined millions and lost their first-round draft pick last year. Brady himself was suspended four games. This comes after Goodell and Kraft had been considered besties.

It’s pretty much the last drama we’ll see unfold regarding the entire Deflategate scandal. And Goodell putting off the awkward probably won’t end well when all is said and done.

2. Matt Ryan’s playoff narrative 

Atlanta’s quarterback is seemingly in the process of turning away a narrative that suggested he somehow wasn’t capable of winning a big game in January.

That came last week in the NFC Divisional Playoffs against Seattle — a game that saw Ryan throw for over 300 yards and three scores in what was a dominating all-around performance. In fact, it was the best outing for a quarterback against the Seahawks during the Pete Carroll era (more on that here).

Still, until Ryan himself takes that 500-pound monkey off his back and beats it over the head with a conference title, the naysayers will be there. He’s coming off an MVP-caliber regular season performance. He just obliterated Russell Wilson in the divisional round. He’s leading the league’s No. 1 scoring offense.

But at the end of the day, and with the other elite quarterbacks competing this weekend, a loss here for Ryan would doom him to second-hand status. One of those quarterbacks that can’t get over the hump. A great regular season quarterback that melts when it counts the most.

We saw this with Ryan during his two-interception performance against Arizona back in January of 2009. It was then repeated again in the 2012 NFC Championship game when he turned the ball over multiple times against San Francisco.

For every quarterback, there’s a defining moment. Some see it come relatively early in their careers. For Ryan, it comes following his best regular season performance. It also comes with expectations sky high for the Falcons. How he responds will tell us a lot about his legacy moving forward.

3. Le’Veon Bell’s historic run

By virtue of putting up 170 rushing yards against the Kansas City Chiefs last week, Bell became the first player at his position to tally 150-plus yards on the ground in his first two playoff games. That came on the heels of a 167-yard performance against Miami in the Wild Card round.

Now heading into the AFC Championship game, Bell is producing at a level we’ve never seen from a running back in the modern history of the NFL. Playoffs included, he’s tallied over 2,200 total yards on 14 games this season. Narrowing it down a tad, Bell has compiled nearly 1,100 total yards over his past six games. Those are some absurd numbers right there.

It’s Bell, not Ben Roethlisberger, that’s the face of the Steelers’ offense as they head into Gillette Stadium on Sunday. He’s also taking on a formidable Patriots run defense that finished fourth in the NFL in yards allowed during the regular season. This is the same defense that’s been absolutely dominating when it comes to stopping the run as of late.

Talk about elite going up against elite. The one common theme for teams going up against the Patriots recently is that they’ve abandoned the run early. During this seven-game stretch, offenses are averaging just 20 rush attempts per game with three of the seven putting up less than 15 attempts.

This cannot repeat itself if the Steelers want to come out on top Sunday. More than anything, they need to utilize Bell as a way to keep Tom Brady’s offense off the field.

The somewhat positive news here outside of Bell’s otherworldly performance is that New England did yield the fifth-most receiving yards to running backs during the regular season. With Bell’s ability to dominate in the passing game, that could help the Steelers move the sticks on a consistent basis.

4. Ty Montgomery and the Packers’ new-found rushing attack

It was just a couple short months ago that Montgomery was seen as nothing more than a reserve receiver for the Packers. He was someone the team viewed as a potential game-breaker from a pass-catching position. He was also stuck behind the likes of Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams on the depth chart.

But when Eddie Lacy went down with a season-ending injury and James Starks proved ineffective, the Packers were forced to get creative at running back. That’s where the supremely talented Montgomery came into play — first as a receiving back, and now as the team’s three-down back.

The stats tell us a story of a player that’s averaging 83.3 total yards over the past six games. These aren’t Le’Veon Bell numbers, but they surely have helped create balance on an offense that existed most of the year without it. The tape itself tells us a story of a player in Montgomery who has taken his new role and run with it (literally).

That cutback ability. That vision. It’s simply something you can’t teach. Now heading into his third postseason game as a running back, Montgomery is set to take on a Falcons defense that finished in the middle of the pack against the run and yielded the third-most receiving yards to this position during the regular year.

Green Bay’s offense may be all about Rodgers and the passing game, but this unit will surely need to get some sort of run game going if it hopes to fend off a furious Falcons pass rush. That’s where Montgomery and his surprising success comes into play here.

5. Antonio Brown’s video mishap 

Brown did his Steelers a disservice by posting that now well-known live video following the team’s win over Kansas City Sunday night. Not only was it an invasion of privacy, it apparently broke NFL rules. More than that, it painted head coach Mike Tomlin in a bad light while creating some bulletin board material for the Patriots.

We’re not going to show the video, as it includes coarse language. But suffice to say, Brown’s post-game antics surely did rile-up the Patriots.

“That’s how that team is run,” wide receiver Julian Edelman told WEEI. “I personally don’t think that would be something that would happen in our locker room.”

Meanwhile, Tom Brady had a more measured response.

“Every coach has a different style. Our coach, he’s been in the league for 42 years and he’s pretty old school. He’s not into social media and I think he lets everyone know that,” Brady added. “I think our team has a policy, we don’t show anything that should be private because he feels when we are inside our stadium, inside the walls, there has to be a degree of privacy that we have. What’s done in the locker room should stay in the locker room.”

Either way we spin it, this is sure to hype up Brady and Co. The quarterback has been playing with a chip on his shoulder all season long after being suspended for his alleged role in Deflategate. And the Patriots themselves have to be feeling that respect for their organizational model around the league isn’t what it used to be. If you don’t think this will play a role come Sunday in New England, we’re not sure what to tell you.

6. The Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount dynamic

Blount was a key cog in the Patriots’ offense during the regular season. He took on a huge role early in the season with Brady suspended, putting up 352 yards and four touchdowns in the first four games. When all was said and done, Blount finished the regular season with a league-leading 18 rushing touchdowns en route to putting up a career-best performance.

Blount ended up falling out of favor as Lewis returned from his devastating multitude of injuries and Blount himself tailed off. Over the course of the past four games, Blount has tallied a grand total of 163 rushing yards and is averaging 2.8 yards per rush.

Meanwhile, Lewis has gained 277 total yards and is averaging 4.3 yards per touch. This led to Lewis seeing action on twice the amount of plays as Blount last week.

It might be a different dynamic come Sunday at Gillette Stadium. Sure Lewis is coming off a three-touchdown performance against the Houston Texans. We can also expect a physical game between the Steelers’ defensive line and New England’s offensive line. If so, look for Blount to play a larger role than anticipated.

Surely Lewis will be involved in the offense. He provides a dynamic out of the backfield that has made New England’s offense whole again. That much is not lost on Josh McDaniels and Co. However, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Blount out-touch him. After all, he did put up 127 yards and two touchdowns against the Steelers back in Week 7.

7. Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers

By now, it appears that Shanahan will be the next head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. The writing seems to be on the wall here. It just really depends on when the team can make it official. Should Atlanta lose to Green Bay in the NFC Championship game, that could come as early as Monday.

On the other hand, if the Falcons were to advance to the Super Bowl it would push the 49ers’ decision back a couple weeks. With other teams filling out their coaching staffs while the brass in San Francisco has remained patient, there’s definitely an interesting dynamic to look at here.

Should the Falcons lose on Sunday, the entire makeup of their coaching staff could change dramatically. That’s no small thing considering just how dominant the team’s offense was in 2016. Add in the fact that head coach Dan Quinn is of the defensive-minded ilk, and this is magnified even further.

As we’ve seen through the history of this process, coaches tend to bring those close to them with them to their new team. For the Falcons, this could have wide-ranging ramifications, even more so than losing their offensive coordinator. Raheem Morris (assistant head coach), Bryan Cox (defensive line coach), Jeff Ulbrich (linebackers coach), Marquand Manuel (secondary coach) and Matt LaFleur (quarterbacks coach) could potentially follow Shanahan to San Francisco.

While not projecting future doom on the Falcons, it’s readily apparent that this coaching staff has had a heck of an impact on the success of the team. It also stands to reason that Atlanta would be best served getting that initial Lombardi trophy before its broken up. That’s an underrated storyline heading into the team’s NFC Championship game matchup against Green Bay.

8. Big Ben or Brady will continue to make history 

Brady already boasts the NFL record for the most Super Bowl appearances for a quarterback in NFL history. If he were to hoist the Lombardi next month, Brady would then hold the record for the most Super Bowl wins for a signal caller in league history, besting both Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw.

Interestingly enough, Big Ben is also looking to make history in his own right. A win on Sunday would mark his fourth Super Bowl appearance, matching Bradshaw for the most in Steelers history. It would also prevent Brady from breaking a long-standing record Bradshaw shares with the aforementioned Montana.

This is only the second time that Brady and Roethlisberger have squared off in the playoffs. The first time saw New England take out the Steelers by the score of 41-27 in the AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh back in 2005.

Brady passed for 207 yards with two touchdowns while Big Ben put up a mistake-filled three-interception performance. You better believe Pittsburgh’s franchise quarterback wants to exact revenge more than a decade later.

9. Aaron Rodgers’ spotlight performance 

If Rodgers and the Packers were to win on Sunday, it would mark the culmination of the greatest run for a quarterback in the modern history of the NFL. We’ve seen Tom Brady and Peyton Manning go on absolute tears over the years. We’ve also seen lesser known quarterbacks such as Joe Flacco dominate for one postseason run. That’s fine. But we’ve never seen something quite like what Rodgers has done over the past two months.

While Rodgers did throw his first interception in over 300 pass attempts last week against Dallas, he’s been on a roll we’ve never seen from a quarterback in modern history. Here’s a guy that’s thrown 24 touchdowns compared to that one pick in his past nine games. That very same span of action has seen him average over 300 passing yards per game en route to leading the Pack to an 8-1 record.

He’s also averaging 359 passing yards in the Packers’ first two playoff games while leading the team to a grand total of 72 points. That’s just absurd.

Better news for Packers fans here? They are taking on a Falcons defense that gave up a 64.4 percent completion mark to go with 31 touchdowns and an average of nearly 270 passing yards per game during the regular season.

If Rodgers is able to outperform Ryan while leading the Packers to another Super Bowl appearance, his latest run will go down as one of the greatest in league history. Add a Lombardi to that, and it will become Joe Montana-level legendary.

10. Patriots personnel choices under a microscope 

The New England Patriots may be well positioned to contend for the foreseeable future. This, despite Tom Brady’s advanced age. However, the team did forfeit some potential dominance this season by trading away both Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones over the past calendar year.

Without Collins in the mix, the Patriots have struggled covering running backs in the passing game. As mentioned above, New England yielded the fifth-most receiving yards to running backs during the regular year. More than that, they gave up an absurd 77 percent completion mark to that position. Tasked with going up against Le’Veon Bell on Sunday, Collins’ absense could come back to haunt the Patriots big time.

Equally as important, the trade of Jones could also play a major role here. Trey Flowers led the team with seven sacks during the regular season. Only Jabaal Sheard recorded as much as five sacks behind Flowers on the totem pole. With the Pats taking on a Steelers offensive line that gave up just 21 sacks throughout the season, and this is magnified further. Add in Antonio Brown’s domination of Malcolm Butler recently, and there should be some concern here.

New England is always thinking about the big picture. It’s one of the primary reasons that they’ve had sustainable success over the past near two decades. Unfortunately, this mentality could potentially come back to haunt the team on Sunday.