The Dallas Cowboys will forever lament what should have been yet again in a playoff loss to a Packers team that did most of its damage on Aaron Rodgers' first three drives and which was incapable of holding leads of 21-3 and 28-13. People kept wondering how Dakota Prescott would handle his first playoff game - after early struggle he relaxed and started landing the ball downfield, and to erase a three-score lead and then tie the game twice in the final minutes, there's nothing to be ashamed of.
As for Rodgers his dependence on the Hail Mary throw didn't show up here and he showed a more conventional quarterbacking approach than he showed at times last week. This game also displayed a longtime problem in Rodgers' game - most of his damage was done in the first three touchdown drives and he managed two field goals in the final minutes, highlighted by his spectacular connection to Jared Cook with three seconds to go, certainly clutch a performance and doubly ironic as such clutchness has been rare in his career.
The Steelers escaped from Kansas City in a game where Roethlisberger threw a pick and never once punched it in, having to settle for a new NFL record six field goals. Alex Smith's general unreliability as a playoff quarterback had been an issue in his past but in this game he actually showed ability to step up, as he brought the Chiefs back late - a penalty on a two-point conversion proved controversial and fatal to Kansas City's chances.
So we thus approach the Conference Championships -
Falcons over Packers - The Packers lead the Falcons 2-1 in all-time playoff meetings and Matt Ryan got only his second career playoff win in pounding the Seahawks last week; one of his playoff losses was 2010's 48-21 smackdown to the Packers, the first of four straight Packers wins in the series, a streak that ended earlier this season. The Falcons, though, showed more physicality this go-around against the Seahawks and it should stand them in good stead against the Packers. Seemingly everyone is gaga over Aaron Rodgers but in his earlier game at the Georgia Dome he had one scoring drive in the fourth quarter and had opportunity to get to field goal range at the very end - and threw three straight incompletions.
This game should be high scoring because it's a dome and both offenses are clicking. Rodgers will put up points, but his reputation as just a frontrunner isn't going away even as he pulls off these playoff wins, and it's the first time the Falcons have reached the NFC Championship Game since their immortal upset of the Minnesota Vikings in the 1998 NFC Championship Game.
Patriots over Steelers - The rivalry between the Patriots and Steelers has been lopsided since Drew Bledsoe and Curtis Martin eviscerated the Steelers in the 1996 Divisional Round. The last time these two teams met in the playoffs was yet another lopsided affair, and games between the two have almost never been competitive.
A lot of people are gaga over Antonio Brown and the Steelers passing attack and it has been spectacular, but last week it was largely neutralized and this week it faces a Patriots defense that
isn't getting gashed for points and which has consistently been a second-half defense. The Steelers also have an issue of the deportment of coach Mike Tomlin, criticized for being a cheerleader instead of a real coach by Terry Bradshaw - a criticism Tomlin's recorded tirade against the Patriots would appear to verify.
On offense the Patriots had a serious struggle against the Texans between protecting up the middle and also with Brady lapsing back into the habit of leaning on a binky - here Julian Edelman, as he and Chris Hogan were almost the only people Brady targeted all game; whenever Brady leans on a binky the offense inevitably grinds to a halt. Hogan left last week with a knee issue after four catches for 95 yards but should be good for this coming game; also expected back is Malcolm Mitchell, out for much of the second half of the season with a knee issue. Michael Floyd was targeted just four times and a bad Brady pass bounced off his hands into a pick - Brady needs to keep throwing to Floyd as well as Martellus Bennett, whose own game health nonetheless looked to be an issue last week. Danny Amendola returned last week and had a key rush for twelve yards, so having him as another pass catcher is a plus.
So we await Conference Championship Sunday.