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Blanket Coverage: Odds of Manning-Brady meeting hinge on one player

It’s possible that we could get a Tom Brady-Peyton Manning rematch in the AFC title game this year, but one man is the key to that scenario unfolding—and it's neither of the quarterbacks.

And then there were eight. We’ll touch on all the NFL news, from Nick Saban’s future, to the Packers’ chances, to the structure in Cleveland, to the Rams in Los Angeles, to Joey Porter. We’ll also tip our cap to a Titan for his charitable efforts, and give our thoughts on the divisional round matchups. But we start in New England, where one man will determine whether or not the entire country goes mad over two aging quarterbacks. 

You just know that CBS is frothing at the mouth about the potential matchup and secretly rooting for it. It’s hard to blame them, since the ratings would be through the roof. And as much as you and I will complain about how the hype over the two players is out of control, we won’t be able to look away if it happens.

Of course, we’re talking about the possibility of Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning XVII in the AFC championship game: One more time—pending Manning’s health—for all the marbles.

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But what are the chances it becomes a reality? Considering Ben Roethlisberger’s shoulder injury, which should limit his ability to throw deep against Denver’s top-ranked pass defense, the odds seem to be strong that the Broncos will be hosting the AFC title game next weekend. And though the Chiefs haven’t lost a game since Week 7, the Patriots are favored to move on and play for a spot in Super Bowl 50.

For New England, all of it hinges on one crucial factor: receiver Julian Edelman needs to return to the lineup at near peak ability and stay healthy. If not, the Chiefs could end up spoiling everyone’s must-see TV event.

The Chiefs, winners of 11 straight, are a very good team. They rarely give the ball away (second only to the Patriots in that category this season), but they finished the season 27th in total yards and ninth in points per game. If Jeremy Maclin’s high-ankle sprain keeps him off the field on Saturday, the Chiefs will be punchless by the time the Patriots get done banging around athletic tight end Travis Kelce. The only place I see the Chiefs doing any real damage is on special teams, where they hold a distinct advantage, and with quarterback Alex Smith, if he can keep a handful of drives alive with his legs. The Patriots will sell out to stop the run and make Smith beat them with his arm. I just can’t see a Bill Belichick team letting Smith beat them with his feet. If he does, something has gone terribly wrong.

That means it will be up to the Chiefs’ defense to keep this game low scoring, a task it is equipped to handle.

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Kansas City’s defense has impact players at all three levels. You could make the case that the Chiefs have seven elite or near-elite players on defense: free safety Eric Berry, cornerbacksSean Smith and Marcus Peters, outside linebackers TambaHali and Justin Houston, inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and nose tackleDontari Poe. That’s a boatload in today’s NFL, and we’re not even touching some of their other good players.

The Chiefs are fourth in the league in sacks, tied for third in takeaways and first in defensive passer rating. They’re a problem for any offense, even one quarterbacked by Brady. Kansas City’s defensive coordinator Bob Sutton runs Rex Ryan’s scheme, which has given Brady problems over the years.

The Patriots, losers of four of their last six regular-season games, are not entering the playoffs on a roll. But they can return to the form of their 10–0 start if Edelman comes back strong from a broken bone in his left foot. Edelman’s slot position is the entire key to the Patriots’ offensive scheme with its option routes. In theory, Edelman should have an answer for everything a defense throws at him because he can have up to four options for how to run a single route. Danny Amendola is a good player, but he can’t run the slot as well as Edelman (even without Amendola’s balky knee, which was an issue when Edelman was out).

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I expect the Chiefs to keep Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski moderately in check. After the Patriots appeared to limit his exposure to injury by keeping him out of the middle of the field for long stretches over the final four games, Gronkowski will be allowed to run his full route tree, but the Chiefs can match up with Berry, a safety with corner coverage skills, or even leave Smith or Peters on Gronkowski when he lines up wide.

I would expect the Patriots to do that a lot in this game. Having Gronkowski out wide would open the middle of the field up for their best offensive advantage against the Chiefs: quickness over size. Kansas City’s defense can defend anyone, but it is big. I think the Patriots will try to use Edelman, Amendola and running back James White in space on short and quick routes, the way they did to expose the Seahawks in last year’s Super Bowl, to gain leverage on the Chiefs.

For this to work, and for Brady and Manning to face off for the 17th time, Edelman has to be the explosive player that caught 61 passes in the Patriots’ first 10 games. They converted 50% of their third downs with Edelman in the lineup, compared to 33% when he was not. There’s a reason they haven’t lost yet this year with their top slot weapon in the lineup.

Wet Blanket Report

Settle down

Saban is staying: I think Nick Saban is one of the best football coaches on the planet, and I think he’d be a great success if he was given a second chance in the NFL and had a quarterback in place. I would love to see it. It’s just not happening unless a team is willing to start the conversation at $10 million. I still don’t think he would go (even though, despite what he says, Saban’s lack of success with the Dolphins irks him). His wife Terry drives the bus in that family, and she hated the NFL’s often cold business life. Plus, the Sabans have a grandson she often helps with in Birmingham. Life is good for the Sabans in Tuscaloosa, even if Saban himself rarely enjoys it.

Jackson’s energy, offensive insight will be tough for Bengals to replace

The Packers aren’t back: Everyone’s going nuts because Green Bay’s offense finally showed a pulse against Washington. Everyone’s missing that it wasn’t Aaron Rodgers and his receivers getting their grooves back. He still missed passes, and the receivers still had trouble getting open until the running game got going. It won’t be so easy against the Cardinals’ defense, which presents an entirely different challenge. A win over Arizona would be something. Beating a Washington team that finished the season winless against teams over .500 was not.

Jackson in Cleveland: I really like the hiring of Hue Jackson as coach of the Browns. He’ll bring some much-needed swagger to that organization. But it’s still a bit of mess. They’ve hired all these people, including vice president of football operations Sashi Brown and chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta, and they’re all very smart in their realms. But guess what’s missing? A general manager, the guy who has to work well with the coach and find the lifeblood of any team: talent. I just don’t get it.

Go nuts:

Greed is absolute in the NFL: St. Louis, a great market, has its viable stadium plan trashed by owner Stan Kroenke and commissioner Roger Goodell, and now the Rams are moving to Los Angeles. Why? Because Kroenke is going to build a palace and entertainment area, including a spot for NFL Network, that will make money hand over fist for the other owners. It’s always about the money. Good for St. Louis, burned twice by the Cardinals and Rams, saying that it won’t try again for an NFL team.

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Joey Porter: It’s not an excuse for Pacman Jones losing his mind, but there’s no way that Steelers outside linebackers coach Joey Porter should have been in position on the field to interact with (or instigate) Bengals players.

Trouble follows: It happens every year, but it’s really amazing all the celebrated reclamation projects of troubled college or pro players that eventually go south at some point. Players, for the most part, are who you thought they were. They just learn to hide it, or teams cover it up. The Bengals have been playing with fire for years bringing in talented yet troubled players. Sure, they behave most of the time during the off-season and regular season, but stress and pressure inevitably cause players like Jones and Vontaze Burfict to revert back to what they essentially are: trouble.

Humanitarian of the Week

Delanie Walker, TE, Tennessee Titans

Walker’s aunt and uncle were killed by a drunk driver, shortly after he took a picture with them on the field before Super Bowl XLVII. Since then, Walker has been an advocate and national spokesperson for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. He frequently travels to share his story and hopes to influence others about the dangers of drunk driving.

Last year, Walker established the Delanie Walker Gives Back Foundation to help inner city and low-income at-risk youth receive educational opportunities to reach their potential.

10 thoughts entering the divisional round

1. It should be the game of the weekend, but I think the Seahawks are going to have a tough time containing the Panthers’ excellent and diverse running game. They do everything from traditional two-back looks to read options and power sweeps for Cam Newton, and it’s exactly the type of attack Seattle has trouble with. Carolina rushed for 135 yards, the most given up by the Seahawks this season, in their regular season meeting.

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Russell Wilson

3. Speaking of the ground game, it was good to see Packers coach Mike McCarthy embrace the run in the second half. Washington’s defense had all sorts of problems matching up and lining up. The Packers hit on something with their formations that got Washington into huge line splits, and it created angles for James Starks to slash through. Still, it would be a surprise if Arizona has as much trouble with that.

4. The Packers should receive a huge boost with CB Sam Shields (concussion) back in the lineup. If he can eliminate Cardinals WR Michael Floyd, especially in the red zone, the Packers can cover John Brown and Larry Fitzgerald.

5.Antonio Brown got the best of Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. in their first meeting this season. If Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was smart, he’d have his defense sit on the short routes and make Ben Roethlisberger prove he can beat them over the top with his bum shoulder.

6. The Steelers could really use DeAngelo Williams’s strong running and receiving in this game. But it looks like Williams (foot) will be out again.

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8. Really like the pairing of coach Adam Gase and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph with the Dolphins. Widely known as two of the smartest assistants in the league.

9. Likewise, I think Chargers coach Mike McCoy struck gold by bringing back Ken Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator. Now they just need some linemen.

10. Lesson No. 1,237 on why franchise running backs are completely overrated: Adrian Peterson’s game-changing fumble against the Seahawks. This is the same Peterson who in the 2010 NFC championship game fumbled twice (lost one) and was so out of control he was benched. Exactly what are they paying him for? Why is he so significant?