-- The four teams left in the NFL playoffs have had an enormous advantage for the vast majority of the season.
Barring injuries, that enormous advantage is about to disappear. Because for as good as they've been, those four remaining teams are going to need to find a new way to win football games as opposed to overwhelming the opposition with a huge edge at one critical component.
That advantage: Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers?and Ben Roethlisberger. The four teams left standing in the postseason picture were able to roll out a mismatch at the most important position in sports on a near-weekly basis this season. Even in the divisional round, Brady and Roethlisberger were visibly and unsurprisingly a step above the quarterback on the other side of the field. Rodgers and Ryan faced game competition in Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson, but while Prescott and Wilson finished the week third and fourth in QBR, respectively, Rodgers and Ryan went 1-2. They continue to sprint in a dead heat during Rodgers' "run the table" stretch that started in Week 12, a run of eight games for Rodgers and seven for Ryan:
The difference now? None of these teams are going to have a significant advantage at quarterback in their respective conference championship games or in the Super Bowl. Ryan, Rodgers and Brady are all MVP candidates with viable cases for the nod. Roethlisberger might not be quite on their level this season, but there's little reason to doubt his pedigree or ability to compete at the highest level when healthy. I suspect everyone has their respective opinion on how to order them one through four, but in the bigger picture, all four of these quarterbacks are among the very best in football.
So, when these teams can't count on their signal-callers to separate from the opposition, where can they differentiate themselves and stand out? What is their calling card if they're not calling upon their quarterback to make magic happen? Let's look at each team and figure out what it might do to stand out in the weeks to come.
<a href="http://www.espn.com/nfl/team/_/name/ne/new-england-patriots">New England Patriots</a>
Most of the metrics suggesting the Patriots have one of the best defenses in football are subject to contextual whims. The Pats did allow a league-low 250 points this season, but they finished the season just 16th in defensive DVOA. The gap emerged when the Patriots played the easiest schedule of opposing offenses in football and inherited the league's best average starting field position, thanks to excellent work on kickoffs and an offense which turned the ball over just 11 times all season.
While the Patriots don't have a group of big names along their defensive line, they were excellent by any measure against the run in 2016. Pick one: They were fourth in the league in DVOA; they allowed a league-low six rushing touchdowns while forcing eight fumbles on running plays, which was second in the league behind Oakland; they were one of just three teams in the league to not allow a single 100-yard rusher, joining the Chargers and Cowboys.
The Texans put on a solid effort against the Patriots in the divisional round, but the Pats held lead back Lamar Miller to just 73 rushing yards on 19 carries. Houston narrowly made it over 100 yards as a team thanks to an 18-yard scramble from Brock Osweiler, whose running style vaguely resembled Princess Peach from "Super Mario Bros. 2." They only had that much success by virtue of the Pats spending most of the time in the nickel with five defensive backs on the field, basically daring the Texans to run.
The challenge: That run defense is about to become a lot more meaningful with Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell coming to town Sunday. Bell was a one-man wrecking crew in Sunday night's 18-16 win over Kansas City, carrying the ball 30 times for 170 yards against a quietly subpar Chiefs run defense which only got worse after Derrick Johnson went down in December. The Patriots probably won't be able to stop Bell completely, but they'll need to contain him and avoid big plays, which is more plausible. The disciplined Patriots allowed only one run of 30 or more yards this season, tied for the fewest in football.
<a href="http://www.espn.com/nfl/team/_/name/pit/pittsburgh-steelers">Pittsburgh Steelers</a>
Missing for most of the season, the Steelers' pass rush has suddenly roared back to life over the final quarter of the regular season and the first two weeks of the playoffs. Since Week 14, the Steelers have terrorized opposing quarterbacks to the tune of a 7.8 percent sack rate, the fifth-highest rate in the league over that time frame. That's the best sack rate of the four remaining playoff teams over that span by a comfortable margin; the Falcons, Patriots and Packers are all below the league average, coming in between 5 percent and 5.5 percent.
The Week 14 cutoff coincides with the ascension of second-year linebacker Bud Dupree to the starting lineup. The 2015 first-rounder had been relatively anonymous during a four-sack rookie campaign and missed the first nine games of the 2016 season after undergoing groin surgery in August. After getting his feet wet and returning to game shape, Dupree was pushed into the starting lineup to replace the ineffective Anthony Chickillo and hasn't looked back.
Since Week 14, Dupree has recorded five sacks and eight quarterback knockdowns in six games. He has recorded arguably the most memorable defensive play of this postseason so far, absolutely obliterating a scrambling Matt Moore during the wild-card round. And while he didn't record a sack on Sunday, Dupree made a huge play by hitting Alex Smith's arm as he tried to unleash a deep pass, resulting in a duck of a throw and an easy interception for Ryan Shazier. Dupree has also taken pressure off James Harrison, who has 2.5 sacks and four quarterback knockdowns this postseason to go with the holding penalty he drew on Chiefs tackle Eric Fisher on Kansas City's two-point try that would have tied the game.
The challenge: The book on beating Brady in the playoffs begins and ends with getting pressure from your edge rushers, especially for a team with an inexperienced secondary such as that of the Steelers. The Giants wrote the book during their two Super Bowl wins over New England, and the Ravens and Seahawks have also given the Patriots' offense fits by creating pressure up front. The Texans were able to do the same thing this past weekend, with Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus shifting inside and laying waste to Patriots center David Andrews to get big hits on Brady. Dupree needs to put together another big game if the Steelers want to advance to Houston.
<a href="http://www.espn.com/nfl/team/_/name/gb/green-bay-packers">Green Bay Packers</a>
I very easily could have suggested that the Steelers' secret weapon was their offensive line, given how effective it has been in protecting Roethlisberger and creating running lanes for Bell. The Packers' offensive line also deserves credit for what they've been able to do in protecting Rodgers. Lineman Geoff Schwartz called the combination of David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga the the best pair of pass-blocking tackles in football, and they're critical components of what must be the scariest offense in football right now.
Rodgers has had the pleasure of spending virtually all of 2016 with his two trusty tackles on the field; indeed, Rodgers threw just 30 passes during the regular season on plays in which either Bakhtiari or Bulaga were on the sidelines, and those throws generated a dismal 27.4 QBR. The difference has been noticeable over the past three seasons: With Bakhtiari and Bulaga both on the field, Rodgers has been Rodgers, posting a 104.7 passer rating and a 76.7 QBR; with even one of them missing, Rodgers falls off to a 95.4 passer rating and a 64.5 QBR.
It was Bakhtiari's absence that slowed down the Packers for a moment on Sunday. After marching down the field with ease and scoring on each of their first three possessions, the Packers went cold after Bakhtiari went down with a sprained knee on Green Bay's third touchdown. The Packers subsequently went three-and-out on their next drive and then again with Bakhtiari hobbling back onto the field to end the first half. Only after halftime, once Bakhtiari had received additional treatment, did the offense again kick into high gear, with the Packers punting once after halftime.
As incredible as skill position players can be, we woefully underestimate the impact of their lines in creating opportunities for them to look incredible. Bell's patience would go for naught and would look like hesitance if his running lanes never opened up. Instead, when Bell waits for his blocks, a David DeCastro-led line almost always clears out a path. The same is true for Dallas'? Ezekiel Elliott, whose vision is complemented by a line carving out new territory in his path.
The challenge: It'll be simply about keeping it going against Atlanta's rush. Rodgers' ability to extend plays with his absurd footwork and obscenely fast delivery is already legendary, but very few offensive lines would be able to hold up for five seconds or more in pass protection to allow Rodgers enough time to throw. This season, Rodgers has 60 pass attempts in which he had five or more seconds, with nobody else in football getting more than 33 such plays in 2016. And he's getting more time to throw than any other QB in the postseason thus far. As good as Rodgers is, he can't do that without Bakhtiari and Bulaga running interference up front.
<a href="http://www.espn.com/nfl/team/_/name/atl/atlanta-falcons">Atlanta Falcons</a>
Take away the likely league MVP in Ryan, and the Falcons begin to look ordinary. Their defense finished the year 27th in DVOA and looked suspect against Seattle, which self-destructed on offense more frequently than it was stopped by the Falcons' D. You can make the case that Atlanta's a different unit with rookie safety Keanu Neal on the field -- the Falcons allow a 61.6 QBR and 4.2 yards per carry with him on the field and a 74.4 QBR and 5.0 yards per carry when he's on the bench -- but the Seahawks left big plays on the field because of their sloppiness and gave up a safety when backup guard Rees Odhiambo stepped on Russell Wilson's foot at the most inopportune time.
Instead, even ruling Ryan out of the equation, the Falcons probably have to rely on their running game as a secondary form of offense. The combination of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman provided the Falcons a rushing DVOA of plus-1.7 percent, virtually identical to the plus-1.6 percent mark posted by Pittsburgh's 1-2 punch of Bell and DeAngelo Williams. You might argue that the Steelers are likely to be better by virtue of giving Bell almost all of the work in the postseason after he took only about 73 percent of the carries between the top two backs during the regular season, thanks to his suspension. But in terms of production, these backs are in the same ballpark.
From Week 4 to the end of the regular season, once Bell came back from his injury, the Steelers ran the ball 333 times for 1,460 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, averaging 4.4 yards per carry with 24 percent of their runs going for first downs. Atlanta's duo, meanwhile, ran the ball 339 times for 1,520 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. They averaged 4.5 yards per carry and picked up a first down on 25.7 percent of their carries.
The challenge: It will be important for the Falcons to prevent the Packers from getting an early lead, one that will likely force Atlanta into a pass-only approach and remove their running game from the equation. That's what very nearly happened to the Cowboys on Sunday, only for Dallas to get Elliott going after halftime. Zeke had 10 carries for 44 yards at the break, but afterward, his 12 additional carries went for 81 yards, including two key first downs on the drive that generated the game-tying touchdown.
When these two teams played in Week 8, the Falcons fell behind in the first half and didn't run the ball as much as they might have liked. With Coleman injured, the duo of Freeman and third-stringer Terron Ward led the Falcons to 90 yards on 19 carries, producing a respectable average of 4.9 yards per carry that was inflated by a couple of long runs. Freeman was stuffed three times inside the 5-yard line before finally converting on a fourth short-yardage try. That can't happen again.
As always, the running game will be closely affiliated with whatever Ryan can do with the ball in his hands, just as the Packers will be built upon the magic Rodgers creates.
It's impossible to predict who will play the best between these four quarterbacks, but it's also entirely possible that Ryan blows away Rodgers and Roethlisberger outdoes Brady, or vice versa. The variance of a single game in the NFL is just too high. All we can say with some confidence is that we're likely to see some great quarterback play in the semifinals, and the teams that throw the most onto the pile along with their quarterback are likely to be the ones advancing to Houston next weekend.