DENVER -- Ray Lewis was sick Saturday night, 90 minutes after the Ravens had stunned the Broncos here, and he was waiting in a stadium anteroom to be connected with Deion Sanders for an NFL Network interview. "Flu?'' someone asked him. He nodded in the midst of a coughing jag, said he'd had it all week, sounding like a
"I'm missing a great warrior right now," Lewis said to no one, a sense of urgency in his voice.
After eight minutes, the interview was over and Lewis was unhooked and he walked back into the nearly deserted Ravens locker room. There was Manning, waiting in a charcoal suit with his wife, Ashley, and their 21-month-old son, Marshall. Hugs all around.
Ashley Manning, hugging Lewis, said: "I'm not very happy, but I'm happy for you,'' and she sounded like she meant it.
Peyton and Lewis talked quietly, out of earshot, for four minutes. It's right that no one would hear it. Manning had a sad smile most of the time, and Lewis a wide one.
Over the years, I've seen a few of these postgame meetings between friends or stars with admiration for each other. Most often it's a handshake, a few whispered words, a hug, and one is off to his team bus and the other off to his life. This was longer. This was one of the greatest linebackers of all time, in the last month of his football life, and one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, after one of his toughest losses, who had to say goodbye to Lewis. I heard only one word out of either man, standing a few yards away, and it was Lewis saying, "Respect.'' Not sure of the context, but come on. Connect the dots.
The buses were waiting for Lewis, and he had to go, but Ashley said, with a touch of the fan in her, and knowing that Marshall Manning one day would appreciate it, "Can I get a picture?"
Peyton Manning, Ray Lewis, Marshall Manning. Smiling for the iPhone.
A powerful, cool moment on a weekend full of them. None quite like this one.
In the NFL's 93rd regular season just completed, the average game featured 45.6 points and 694.4 yards of offense. This is what the four games this weekend gave us:
Baltimore 38, Denver 35: 73 points, 877 yards.
San Francisco 45, Green Bay 31: 76 points, 931 yards.
Atlanta 30, Seattle 28: 58 points, 908 yards.
New England 41, Houston 28: 69 points, 877 yards.
Ray Lewis in, Peyton Manning out. Colin Kaepernick in, Aaron Rodgers out. Tony Gonzalez in (more importantly to a very fidgety fandom, Matt Ryan in), the ridiculously charismatic Russell Wilson out. Tom Brady in, Arian Foster out. No Brady-Manning XIV this weekend, but who won't watch Lewis chase the Brady hurry-up offense. And Seahawks-Niners III would have been a San Francisco treat, but I'll take the NFL's fastest-rising star since Tebow, Colin Kaepernick, on the fast track of the Georgia Dome. The championship weekend lineup's pretty good, even without Manning.
This game could well turn on the Patriots secondary's ability to prevent big plays from Joe Flacco, who went right after Champ Bailey Saturday night and twice burned him with deep touchdowns. And, of course, Flacco threw the 70-yard answered prayer of a touchdown to Jones to force overtime. Pittsburgh has the Immaculate Reception. Baltimore, it's on you now: Name that play.
"I definitely watched him play on Saturday,'' safety Devin McCourty said of Flacco Sunday night. "He did what he's done all year. He's made big plays and big throws for them. He has a calmness about him, a demeanor that the team follows. I thought he did a great job against the Broncos. Most people thought that game was over, and to deliver that ball down the field -- in a situation where everyone knows that's what you have to do -- he threw the perfect pass.''
In their last three meetings, New England's beaten Baltimore twice, but Flacco has five more touchdown passes (seven to two) than Brady, and has thrown for 107 more yards. Flacco's a good road quarterback. So the seventh conference title game in the Belichick-Brady Era sets up to be a dramatic game, even without the specter of it being -- for the third straight week -- Ray Lewis' last football game. "He's like the godfather of football,'' Vince Wilfork said.
The asterisk, of course, is that Denver safety Rahim Moore made one of the all-time dumb plays in a playoff game. His job, as one of the three deep safeties on the field with 40 seconds left and a seven-point lead and the Ravens 70 yards from the end zone, was to make sure he didn't let anyone get behind him. And Moore did. He was either lazy or had a lapse in concentration, and Jacoby Jones beat cornerback Tony Carter and Moore for the 70-yard touchdown that led to a six-quarter game, the fourth-longest in NFL history.
And while we're at it, Denver coaches, you've got 3rd-and-7 at your 47 at the two-minute warning. Baltimore's out of timeouts. You've got one of the greatest third-down-conversion quarterbacks ever, with two tight ends he trusts implicitly. And you run your third tailback into the middle of the line? Seriously? Then, with 31 seconds and two timeouts left at your 20, the game now tied, Manning kneels? Double seriously? I'm serious: Either Peyton Manning was injured and the Broncos told no one, or that's Coaching Negligence 101.
"That was an audible,'' Manning said of the 3rd-and-7 Hillman run. "Don't put that on [offensive coordinator] Mike McCoy.'' Okay. I still don't like it. Hillman ran it 22 times Saturday. Four times he gained seven yards or more. I want the ball in Manning's hands there.
Fourteen minutes into overtime, Manning had a 2nd-and-6 at the Denver 38. He rolled right, looking for good friend and first-down security blanket Brandon Stokley, and he slightly pivoted to throw back across his body. Now, raise your hand if you thought what I thought when Manning's arm was in motion and he looked to throw back across his body ... Brett Favre, 2009 NFC title game, aiming for Sidney Rice, and Tracy Porter steps in front of him and picks it off. Here came Corey Graham, the Baltimore cornerback, in front of Stokley, and he wrestled the ball into his gut for his second Manning interception of the day. Six plays later, the Ravens won it with a field goal.
In the quiet of the Ravens' locker room, after Manning saw Lewis and Lewis walked out of the room, Manning saw me and we briefly re-lived the fateful throw. All season, he's been telling people his arm strength was a work in progress, and it certainly still is. He beat himself up for making a throw that an aging quarterback probably shouldn't have tried, and certainly not an aging quarterback coming off four neck surgeries in this comeback season.
"I should never have thrown that ball,'' he said.
He had plenty of help, but the fact is, Manning's a 9-11 playoff quarterback with one Super Bowl victory who turns 37 in March, and he knows there aren't going to be many more chances. It's going to be a painful offseason for him.
Rob Gronkowski, the most dangerous tight end currently playing the game, won't be playing the game anymore this season. He re-broke his formerly fractured forearm Sunday, per Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com, and he's lost until next season. Gronkowski missed five full games in November and December with the original break, and this is probably why you won't hear a discouraging word around the Patriots this week:
Pats in the 11 regular season games with Gronkowski: 35 points, 433 yards a game.
Pats in the five regular season games without Gronkowski: 34 points, 417 yards a game.
Brady and Wes Welker (126 catches in 17 games) are as in sync as any quarterback and receiver can be. Aaron Hernandez was targeted 51 times by Tom Brady in the five games Gronkowski missed; he's simply interchangeable with Gronkowski, even though they're different players.
And the fact is, Brady wouldn't care who his weapons are. He's going to find receivers. In New England's 10-1 run, Brady's thrown 27 touchdown with just five interceptions, and his command of Josh McDaniels' offense is at an all-time high. Blitz him, he kills you. Play seven in coverage, he'll take the checkdown and move the chains. Get his favorite receivers hurt (Gronkowski's out now, and Danny Woodhead, with a thumb injury, might be), he'll find Shane Vereen five times for 83 yards and two touchdowns.
"He's our leader,'' Belichick said of Brady after the game. I wonder if in his entire coaching career Belichick has bestowed those words on any other player. He's our leader. Brady, playing as well as ever, won't have many more chances this good to win a fourth Super Bowl.
Keep these things in mind after Kaepernick's eighth NFL start, the 14-point rout of the Packers, in which he set the NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback (181) in a game:
? Blaine Gabbert was chosen 26 picks ahead of Kaerpernick.
? The following players were chosen ahead of Kaepernick: Jake Locker, Adrian Clayborn, Anthony Castonzo, Danny Watkins, James Carpenter, Jonathan Baldwin, Jimmy Smith, Gabe Carimi, Cameron Jordan, Cameron Hayward, Derek Sherrod, Ras-I Dowling and Aaron Williams.
? Buffalo passed on him twice, and Arizona, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Minnesota, Miami, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Kansas City and the Jets once apiece. Buddy Nix, Rod Graves, Mike Reinfeldt, Gene Smith, Rick Spielman, Jeff Ireland, Tom Heckert, Howie Roseman, Scott Pioli and Mike Tannenbaum -- the GMs who passed on Kaepernick in the 2010 draft -- must be asking themselves, "Maybe we should have seen this trend coming."
Notice one thing about those 10 draft-day deciders: Six have been fired since the day Kaepernick was chosen 36th overall by the Niners in April 2011.
Atlantans since the 2008 draft have seen a quarterback who said and did all the right things ... except win a playoff game. He'd lost three, and played poorly, overall, in them, and so the pressure was on him in a very big way to win this one. But he did something different this year: In the past, he'd still watched college basketball and the occasional
"What'd you watch instead?'' a few scribes wondered in a small cluster with the natty Ryan Sunday.
He seemed embarrassed for a second. "
But he liked the sports ban. He liked not hearing the public outcry about do-or-die for this current iteration of the Falcons. "Sometimes,'' he said, "it's good to be naïve."
For much of the second half, in a game against Seattle the Falcons, obviously, had to have, he was not helping his cause. He threw an interception to Earl Thomas -- poor decision, lofting one up with one of the best free safeties in the game patrolling that side of the field -- that helped the Seahawks come back from a 27-7 third-quarter deficit to take a 28-27 lead with seconds to play. There were 25 of them left when Ryan got the ball at the Falcons' 28, needing about 40 yards to feel good about the chances of Matt Bryant making a field goal.
He hit Harry Douglas for 22 to midfield, then considered his options on the next snap, with 19 seconds left. As Ryan surveyed his options at the line, he noticed strong safety Kam Chancellor, who'd been successfully (mostly) jousting with Tony Gonzalez most of the day, off Gonzalez. Instead, Seattle matched a linebacker on Gonzalez. "I felt good about that matchup,'' Ryan said. "Felt real good.'' Gonzalez went up the seam and Ryan nailed him with a perfect strike. Gain of 19. The Bryant 48-yard field goal won it.
"I'm happiest for Matt,'' said Gonzalez. "People talk about the pressure for people to win a playoff game, and when they'd mention me, I'd think, I'm on the bottom. Matt Ryan needed this, and he went out and did it.''
The quarter-by-quarter scoring line at Denver:
Baltimore played 45 men; backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor was the only active player to not play.
Denver played 45 men; backup quarterback Brock Osweiler was the only active Bronco to not play.
The game was tied at 7, 14, 21, 28 and 35.
The 2013 season will be Bill Cowher's seventh in a row without coaching in the NFL.
On Tuesday, at a CBS Super Bowl media event,
On Saturday, on
That's what I love to see: a man dispelling a rumor about himself that he started.
There's so much happening around the league, and my notebook is so full of stuff I couldn't get to this morning, that I'll do a mini-MMQB on Tuesday this week. Among the topics:
? Andy Reid speaks.
? A GM tree grows in Buffalo.
? What kind of coach Cleveland's getting in Rob Chudzinski.
? The Seau/CTE aftermath.
? Meet David Caldwell.
I'll have it up Tuesday morning, and, as always, will send the link to you via my Twitter feed, @SI_PeterKing.
The Deep End
"The most surprising note of a great weekend of football? Denver cornerback Champ Bailey played his worst game in five years and really hurt the Broncos Saturday in their 38-35 loss to Baltimore. The look on Bailey's face as time and again he was beaten deep by Torrey Smith made the Broncos plan of matching him up, one on one, with the speedy wideout seem like the height of optimism. Clearly it didn't work. What led Denver coaches to believe that this was going to be a viable option?
"On the evidence of a full season of play. Bailey had gone one-on-one with the best receiver of nearly every team Denver had faced. And, until Saturday it had worked every time. Bailey had a superb season. We voted him our 2nd Team All-Pro corner (an honor that was replicated in the AP All-Pro team released on Saturday) because he stood out on tape and this was reflected in the numbers too.
"In terms of giving up first downs/touchdowns per coverage snap he was ranked fourth overall among corners, and of those above him, no one was given the same coverage responsibilities he had. On balls that traveled over 20 yards in the air he allowed only three to be completed all year, with none of these going for touchdowns. Covering the likes of Vincent Jackson, Andre Johnson, A.J. Green, Roddy White and Brandon Lloyd, Bailey gave up only 17 completions of more than 10 yards and a single touchdown all year.
Then there was the small matter of how great a job he did in Week 15 against the same Ravens team; allowing only three passes to be completed on 46 coverage snaps, for 26 yards. In the rematch Saturday, the numbers were brutal enough (five receptions, 128 yards and two touchdowns, with the other three catches also going for first downs) but could have been worse; you could add on another 65 yards and another TD but for Flacco overthrowing Smith with Bailey badly beaten.
"This wasn't a risky gamble. It was made on the back of a whole season of evidence of him performing a similar role and doing it very well. Nothing is ever guaranteed in football."
Text Message of the Week
"The Seahawks are my new favorite team."
The Award Section
It was a 3rd-and-13 pass to tight end Dennis Pitta that flipped the field. Instead of the Ravens having to punt from the back of their end zone in overtime and giving Peyton Manning a short field to work with, with only a field goal needed to win the game, Flacco hit Pitta for 24 yards. And by the time Baltimore punted, the Ravens pinned the Broncos at the Denver 7 ... and soon, Manning would throw the interception that put a dagger through Colorado's heart.
Quote of the Week I
"Y'all tell Richard Sherman to get some humble pie! And you tell him I said it!''
Quote of the Week II
"I don't want to be categorized."
Quote of the Week III
"It is my fault. When the play was on the line, I didn't make it for our team. If I would have made that play, we'd have been in here rejoicing. I'm speechless right now. I don't even know what to say."
Quote of the Week IV
Knight is the chairman of Nike, in Eugene, where the University of Oregon is. The coach I quoted is among many who think Knight made it financially advantageous to Kelly, or his program, to stay.
Quote of the Week V
"Do I know that Sean Payton got the raw end of that deal? Yes he did, because I know from reading each and every page of that transcript that what the National Football League said occurred never occurred."
Quote of the Week VI
"If I want to see self-serving behavior, warped decision-making, dangerous rationalizations and chuckleheads mortgaging the future, I can go back to watching Congress.''
Stat of the Week I
Stat of the Week II
On Saturday, one of the craziest days of football we've ever seen, consider that Baltimore-Denver and Green Bay-San Francisco each saw this scoring progression:
7-0... 7-7... 14-7...14-14....21-14....21-21.
Stat of the Week III
Another sign of the times that the NFL game is changing before our eyes: The Patriots ran 205 more plays in the regular season this year than they did in 2010 -- an increase of 13 offensive snaps per game.
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me I
Included in the New York Jets' contract package being prepared for David Caldwell last Monday -- the day the club gave him a tour of the area and was wooing him to be the team's next general manager -- was a $1 million housing allowance.
In the annals of Perks Given to NFL General Managers, I would say that takes the cake.
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me II
John Clayton's terrific ad spot on ESPN -- "Hey Ma! I'm done with my segment!" -- is obviously the greatest commercial of all time. I saw John in the press box Sunday in Atlanta, and I asked him how many takes he had to do of turning and jumping into bed backward before he began chowing down on the Chinese.
"Twenty-two,'' he said.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
I have this reaction to getting back out on the NFL road for the playoffs after a season mostly in the NBC studios: Road, I've missed you.
Had a chance to see daughter Mary Beth, happily ensconced in the Lower Queen Anne neighborhood ... Took her dog Lucy for a long early morning walk around Kerry Park, which overlooks downtown and the Space Needle. First four people I saw said, "Good morning." ...
Happily squeezed in time for a couple of Manny's Pale Ales, my second-favorite beer in the world ... Passing an elementary school with kids out on the playground, I saw one boy with a "You Mad Bro?" t-shirt. Told Richard Sherman. He said, stunned: "No!!!!'' And of course, the most nettlesome cornerback in the NFL's Final Eight was delighted ... SeaTac grows on me. The halibut takeout at Ivar's is not to be missed on a list of airport fast food.
First Taurus rental in years. Nice space-age control panel with SiriusXM Radio ... A pleasure to eat a bison burger with Lindsay Jones and Robert Klemko of
OK, so I'm not in half-marathon shape right now. But running three miles on the treadmill at my hotel downtown was, well, altitudinous. A killer ... When my wakeup call came Sunday morning, I heard, "Good morning. It's 4:10 a.m., and it's four degrees.''
Tweet of the Week I
"Once more, Keepernick!''
Tweet of the Week II
Tweet of the Week III
"A Notre Dame source tells me that the expected result of Kelly's NFL flirtation is a raise and an extension."
See why I like having Pete Thamel on my team?
Tweet of the Week IV
"Hiring Mike Martz seems like such an Al Davis thing to do."
See why I like having Tom Mantzouranis on my team?
Ten Things I Think I Think
a. Saturday. Wow. Incredible theater in Denver, and Kaepernick runs wild in San Francisco. That was about six straight hours of captivating football.
b. The Niners offensive line, re-emphasizing its stature as the unquestioned best line in football.
c. FootballZebras.com with educational speculation that Terry McAulay and Bill Leavy will be reffing the conference title games this weekend.
d. ProFootballTalk.com's Mike Florio breaking the Rob Gronkowski re-break of the forearm.
e. Seventeen tackles for Ray Lewis. Now, he's the not the sideline-to-sideline force he used to be; we can all see that. And he gets beat on simple crossing routes now. But he shows up with a ferocity the Ravens will struggle to replace next year.
f. Joe Flacco's complete and utter disregard for caring about his contract -- at least publicly. Refreshing.
g. Torrey Smith taking his place among the best deep threat receivers in the game.
h. The class of John Harbaugh. You can see how much he respects the game and is thrilled to be a part of the big games.
i. Baltimore director of media relations Chad Steele, for having the presence of mind to take an iPhone photo of the private postgame meeting between Peyton Manning and Lewis, sending it to media outlets like ours, and tweeting it so people could share what was a special moment.
j. The physicality, within the rules, of San Francisco's secondary.
k. Greg Roman's credentials. The San Francisco offensive coordinator continues to take that offense to new heights.
l. Tony Gonzalez getting the monkey -- "no, it's a gorilla'' -- off his back, finally winning a playoff game in his 16th starry season.
m. Everything about Russell Wilson, particularly having the presence of a 10-year vet when it comes to knowing when to run and when to buy time to find a receiver.
n. The way Bill Belichick won't be a slave to the running back position. If BenJarvus Green-Ellis wants to make $3 million a year somewhere, God bless him. Belichick just figures he can find a good back. On Sunday it was Shane Vereen, and he gave the Pats three touchdowns.
p. Earl Thomas. What range, what hands and what production out of the Seattle safety. Two playoff games, two big interceptions.
a. I realize that everyone is in the habit of calling them the "Divisional Playoffs" and that this column is even labeled as such, but I think the name is dumb. Pick something better. "Conference Semifinals'' or "Final Eight." Anything but "Divisional Playoffs.''
b. Houston releasing Trindon Holliday in Week 6. All he's been since is the most productive return man in football, with four touchdowns.
e. Some Baltimore players' hooting and hollering disrespect of
f. Denver turning more arch-conservative than Bill O'Reilly Saturday.
g. The pass-interference call on Champ Bailey on the first series of overtime, on what was almost a game-changing third-down call.
h. Arian Foster: 29 touches, 75 Houston plays. Not enough.
i. Matt Schaub's inconsistency. Not time to throw him out -- particularly after signing him to a new contract in September -- but time to worry about his play.
Rohatgi got Cutcliffe to share the practice video from his sessions with Manning, including the one in which Cutcliffe scripted the exact plays Manning ran in an Indianapolis playoff game, so he could play a simulated game and throw to receivers at the depth he threw a couple of years earlier. "The way they simulated that playoff game was maniacal, but that's Peyton,'' Rohatgi said. "I think David really wanted to tell the story and share the footage, because, well, it obviously doesn't hurt his program. But he wanted everyone to see the incredible work Peyton put into this."
NFL Network aired it Saturday, and the story, camera work and video Rohatgi got -- all very good. Here's the piece if you want to see it.
I understand the vagaries of college coaches interviewing for jobs, and how some of them (most, maybe) want to use the interviews to better their lots in college. But the Eagles have averaged 10.4 wins a year, with nine playoff appearances since the turn of the century. That's about as good as it gets, aside from the Super Bowl drought, in a highly competitive league. But now, this could be a team trending downward.
Owner Jeffrey Lurie said in a club statement: "There is no question we spent a considerable amount of time and effort looking at who we thought were the best collegiate candidates for our head coaching job. We did so knowing that there was a remote chance that these coaches would leave their current posts. We understood that going into the process, but we wanted to leave no stone unturned while trying to find the best head coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. We have no regrets about the effort we made in that direction and we will continue to proceed as planned in our search."
b. No clue how Best Picture will be chosen this year. Brutally difficult. I've seen four of the nominees, and this is the order I'd have them in: 1.
c. Best actor among the four? I'd have Daniel Day-Lewis edging Bradley Cooper.
d. OK. That's the end of amateur hour at the movies. I'm no Rotten Tomatoes.
e. Quirkiest NHL schedule fact: The Los Angeles Kings have a two-game homestand against Phoenix on March 18 and 19. Never seen two straight games in one town on consecutive days in the NHL.
f. I know there has to be something missing when you cut the hockey schedule to 48 games per team. But I don't like scrapping the East versus West games.
g. Every time I see Liz Merrill of ESPN.com at a game I'm covering -- and there she was, outside the Ravens' locker room Saturday night in Denver -- I think: I wish I could write as well and insightfully as she does. She is fantastic.
h. Coffeenerdness: Thanks, Caffe Fiore, in my daughter's Seattle neighborhood, for the great latte Thursday morning. Excellent espresso. Jolting.
i. Beernerdness: The Great Divide Brewing Company gave me my new beer of the road trip: Denver Pale Ale. Crisp, hoppy, smooth. With a great slogan: "Great minds drink alike."
j. Re the Baseball Hall of Fame: I'm just a fan of the game, so I can't tell you my vote would be qualified for anything but an argument at a bar. But I'd probably have voted for Mike Piazza and Craig Biggio, at least. It does bug me when guys who've drawn suspicion for using PEDs but never had anything proven-- like Piazza -- get nixed despite having a good Hall of Fame resume. What country are we in anyway? And I've just always loved the speed, the consistency, the approach to the game that Biggio brought for so many years.
k. But ... and this is a big "but" ... the voters, at least most of them, know things I don't about the players. It's their province, not mine.
l. Off to Atlanta for the NFC game later this week. Mike Nolan's a smart man, and I expect he'll have some good theories on how to pen in Kaepernick. But that's a game I can't wait to see. It'll be fun to be in Atlanta for a few days. I've got tremendous respect for the architects of these two teams, Trent Baalke and Thomas Dimitroff. Should be fun.
The Adieu Haiku
Peyton and playoffs. Nine and eleven. That hurts. But numbers don't lie.