• One way or another, there figures to be a healthy dose of new blood in this year's Super Bowl. Sure, the Colts are the exception to the rule, having won the Super Bowl just three years ago, the last time the game was played in South Florida. But the Saints, in their 43rd season, are one of just five teams to never play in a Super Bowl (along with the Browns, Texans, Jaguars and Lions); the Jets haven't gone to the league's biggest game in 41 years; and the Vikings are trying to return to the Super stage after an absence of 33 years.
On an individual basis, Brett Favre's quest to make another Super Bowl 12 years after his most recent one represents the largest gap for any starting quarterback in the game's first 43 years of history. The Jets have fresh faces galore, with rookie head coach Rex Ryan, rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez and rookie running back Shonn Greene setting the pace so far during their unlikely playoff run. And one of the stories of the year in New Orleans is the addition of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who is still seeking his first Super Bowl ring in this, his 20th season of NFL coaching.
Even the playoff-tested Colts have a rookie head coach in Jim Caldwell. No matter who wins Sunday in Indianapolis, the AFC champion will feature the fifth rookie head coach to make the Super Bowl, joining Baltimore's Don McCafferty (1970), Denver's Red Miller (1977), San Francisco's George Seifert (1989) and Oakland's Bill Callahan (2002).
• Here's our up-to-minute ranking of the four potential Super Bowl matchups, in terms of juiciest storylines:
1. Colts-Vikings:Peyton Manning and Favre both gunning for a second Super Bowl ring -- with Favre trying to become the first starting QB to win with different teams -- would be the NFL's dream matchup.
2. Saints-Colts: Not only would it give us the first matchup of No. 1 seeds in a Super Bowl since the Bills and Cowboys rematch of 16 years ago, but also we'd have Manning facing off against his hometown team, and the franchise for whom his dad, Archie, remains a beloved icon.
3. Jets-Vikings: Favre against the team he played for just last season would be fun, especially the juxtaposition of the graying 19-year veteran quarterback against the kid who replaced him, Sanchez.
4. Saints-Jets: The Jonathan Vilma Bowl anyone? Actually this pairing would give us our only rematch from the regular season, with New Orleans having soundly handled New York 24-10 in Week 4 at the Superdome. It was the Jets' first loss after a 3-0 start, and the first time Sanchez played like a rookie quarterback.
• What a dark and unexpectedly dismal year it has been for some kickers in the NFL this season. And the carnage just keeps right on coming in this year's playoffs. San Diego's Nate Kaeding and Dallas's Shaun Suisham were the latest goats, joining Cincinnati's Shayne Graham and Arizona's Neil Rackers, who missed chip-shots in the first round.
Kaeding is a sad story unto himself. The Chargers kicker was named All-Pro this season, and in his six years in the NFL, his field goal percentage is a sterling .872 (150 of 172) in the regular season. But with three misses on Sunday in San Diego's three-point loss to the Jets, Kaeding is now just 8 of 15 (.533) on field goals in the playoffs.
He missed from 36, 57 and 40 yards against New York despite entering the game with 20 consecutive field goals made, and an NFL record 69 in a row from inside of 40 yards (dating from December 2006). He missed as many kicks in one day as he had all season, given that he was 32 of 35 this year before facing New York.
• Can't remember an offseason where we ever had as much potential news on the retirement front. We're now waiting to hear if we've seen the last of Kurt Warner, Ed Reed, Derrick Mason, Brian Westbrook and LaDainian Tomlinson. Oh, and don't forget about a certain quarterback in Minnesota who practically invented the modern-day retirement watch.
• Anyone else sensing something of a trend here? The 2005 Steelers were a defensively-led No. 6 seed that went on the road to win the Super Bowl, having knocked off the No. 1 seeded Colts in the divisional round. The 2007 Giants were a defensively-led No. 5 seed that went on the road to win the Super Bowl, having knocked off the No. 1 seeded Cowboys in the divisional round.
And under the heading of so far, so good, the 2009 Jets are a defensively-led No. 5 seed that is just one more road win away from the Super Bowl, having knocked off the No. 2 seeded Chargers in the divisional round. (Anybody else pick up on the Colts, Cowboys and Chargers all starting with a C? No, I didn't think so.)
If the Jets beat the Colts, it'll mark the fifth consecutive season a team that played in the first round went on to reach the Super Bowl (Steelers in 2005, Colts in 2006, Giants in 2007, Cardinals in 2008).
• Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan helped the Broncos improve from 29th to 7th in total defense last season, but it now seems apparent that Denver head coach Josh McDaniels saw the opportunity to add ex-Patriots defensive coordinator Dean Pees as a move he couldn't pass up. Pees and McDaniels obviously have familiarity with each other from New England, whereas Nolan and McDaniels really didn't have any background together other than sharing an agent.
Nolan is reportedly about to join Miami as the Dolphins defensive coordinator, replacing the fired Paul Pasqualoni. So if you're scoring at home, Pees goes from the AFC East to Denver, and Nolan goes from Denver to the AFC East. We'll let you know next fall who wound up being the upgrade.
• Nothing against Chan Gailey, but it's a little surprising to me that Bills owner Ralph Wilson is banking on yet another ex-Steelers employee in a position of authority. The last two times Buffalo turned to a former Steelers coach or front office executive, things didn't exactly work out for the Bills. General manager Tom Donahoe and head coach Mike Mularkey both came to Buffalo from the Steelers organization, and things didn't end well for either of them with the Bills.
Gailey hasn't been in Pittsburgh since serving as Bill Cowher's offensive coordinator from 1994-97, but he did reportedly get a big endorsement from The Chin in Cowher's recent talks with Wilson. Based on Gailey's history, I would think Buffalo has just made a sizable commitment to the running game. That isn't exactly pushing the envelope when it comes to the most forward-thinking approach to winning in today's NFL.
• How is it that LaDainian Tomlinson looks so entirely done, and Drew Brees has never been better, and yet both were drafted by San Diego in 2001? Maybe there's no better illustration than that when it comes to the different shelf life of running backs and quarterbacks in the NFL.
• So much for the need for momentum heading into the playoffs. In the last three weeks of the regular season, the four remaining teams in the postseason went a combined 4-8. In Week 15, the Jets, Saints and Vikings lost. In Week 16, the Colts, Vikings and Saints lost. And in Week 17, the Saints and Colts lost.
New Orleans went 0-3 in that span, and is trying to become the first team in league history to advance to a Super Bowl after losing its last three games in the regular season.
• The Jets are the only team in the final four with two playoff wins, and the last time New York put together consecutive wins in the postseason was 1982, when the league went with a 16-team Super Bowl tournament in response to a two-month players strike that reduced the regular season to nine games.
The Jets were coached by Walt Michaels and they won at Cincinnati and at the Los Angeles Raiders in the first two rounds of the playoffs, losing at Miami in the AFC title game. The Jets this year won at Cincinnati and at San Diego (once again in Southern California), and with one more upset they'll punch their ticket for another trip to Miami.
Ah, symmetry. Or thereabouts.
• If you're into playoff history as an indicator of what will unfold this weekend, get ready for a Jets-Vikings Super Bowl. Not only did the Jets hand the Colts the most legendary upset in Super Bowl history -- see Namath, Joe, guarantee -- but also there was that 41-0 humiliation that New York dished out to Indianapolis in the first round of the 2002 playoffs, the most lopsided loss in Colts postseason annals. That rout came in Tony Dungy's first season as the Colts head coach, and it also marked Manning's third consecutive one-and-done playoff trip, a failure that cranked up all the can't-win-the-big-one talk to new decibel levels.
The Saints and Vikings, fresh off twin 31-point blowout wins last weekend, have also met twice in the postseason. Both times Minnesota triumphed in grand fashion. In 1987, which was New Orleans' first winning season ever, the 12-3 Saints were dismantled 44-10 by the 8-7 Vikings in a first-round game at the Superdome. In 2000, the Saints were coming off their first playoff win ever -- against St. Louis in the first round -- when they traveled to Minnesota for a divisional round game. The Vikings rolled 34-16 to earn their second NFC title game berth in three years.
All that said, I like the Colts and Saints this weekend.
• After Norv Turner won three playoff games in his first two seasons on the job, I thought he had turned a corner with his talented Chargers in San Diego. But Sunday's horrible loss at home to the Jets was positively Schottenheimer-esque in its ugliness. (And you know I mean Marty, rather than his son, Brian, who helped execute the upset as the Jets offensive coordinator).
Three times in the past six seasons the Chargers have now ended the year by losing a three-point game at home to a sizable underdog in their playoff opener: 20-17 to the Jets in overtime in 2004; 24-21 to the Patriots in 2006, and 17-14 to the Jets on Sunday. Those losses ruined glorious regular seasons of 12-4, 14-2, and 13-3 for San Diego, which was seeded second, first and fourth in those AFC playoff fields.
• Despite their glaring playoff failures over the weekend, Turner got his three-year contract extension from the Chargers on Monday night, and Wade Phillips is expected to get his option for 2010 picked up byDallas. I'm sure neither move is all that popular among the hometown fans about now, but I can see where in these two cases you don't let one galling loss obscure the accomplishments of an entire season.
Maybe Norv and Wade can commiserate a bit and celebrate a bit at the Pro Bowl, which is not the trip to Miami they were seeking. Turner and Phillips will coach this year's Pro Bowl teams, because in this year's revamped format, those jobs fall to the coaches of the higher-seeded divisional-round loser in each conference.
• Speaking of the Pro Bowl, with cornerback Antoine Winfield named to the NFC team on Tuesday, the Vikings now have an NFL-high 10 players headed to the Pro Bowl. And the Colts have an AFC-best six. That means we're still on track for the possibility that a whopping 16 players from the 86-man Pro Bowl rosters will have to be replaced the week before the game, if Minnesota and Indy win their way to the Super Bowl this coming weekend.
Pro Bowl Fever. Catch it.