Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we digest a wild, favorites-rule NFL Divisional playoff weekend....
• So, they meet again. Naturally. As if pre-ordained by the league office or an even higher power, for the 17th and most likely final time we’ll have a Brady versus Manning matchup to hype this week in the build-up to next Sunday’s AFC Championship Game. And you really thought we were going to sit the 2015 season out on that front, missing our annual Tom-and-Peyton-palooza?! No chance.
The faint hope, of course, is that they’re saving the best for last, and the final chapter of this epic quarterback rivalry is a summation for the ages. But honestly, I’m not too optimistic about that. Not after watching the Denver Broncos and Manning squeak past an injury-depleted Pittsburgh Steelers squad 23–16 late Sunday in an AFC divisional playoff game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Making his first start in 63 days, Manning did little to inspire confidence that he’s ready to trade touchdown passes with Brady and a Patriots offense that suddenly looked back in form Saturday in a 27–20 win over visiting Kansas City in the other AFC semifinal.
Yes, Manning hung in there against the Steelers and gritted out a crucial 13-play, 65-yard fourth-quarter touchdown drive to win the game. But five field goals and just one touchdown drive—Denver’s first in the postseason in 23 possessions—won’t cut it against New England. Manning will have to summon a performance that would represent by far his best of the season if the Broncos are going to upset the defending Super Bowl champions and earn their second trip to the big game in the past three years.
Manning may feel refreshed from missing seven starts, but the Broncos still have a lot of the same offensive problems when he’s under center that they experienced earlier this season. Defenses crowd the defensive front and dare Manning to beat them deep, confident that his passing arm can’t consistently make magic any more. And it sure doesn’t help No. 18’s cause when his receivers let him down, like they did for most of Sunday, with at least eight drops recorded by Denver.
Broncos backup Brock Osweiler faced and helped defeat the Patriots this season in Denver in Week 12, but don’t count on seeing Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak try to turn the clock back to late-November with a Super Bowl berth on the line. This feels like it was fated to come down to these two future Hall-of-Famers in a big-game setting that could obviously wind up becoming Manning’s final playing appearance anywhere. That it would come against Brady, his friend and foe who has cost him plenty of glory over the years, seems entirely fitting.
I’ll take the Patriots next week, and comfortably, but on this Sunday at least, Manning and the Broncos persevered and found a way to avoid another galling one-and-done playoff loss, which would have been Manning’s mind-boggling 10th of his career, and third in four seasons in front of the good folks in Denver. He was just 21 of 37 for 222 yards, but there were those drops, and he took good care of the football, throwing no interceptions and no touchdowns.
The Broncos offense seldom overcomes mistakes any more, and some drives seem over as soon as one miscue surfaces, be it a sack, a drop or a penalty. Manning’s passes are uglier than ever these days, but they were never really works of art to begin with. At best he’s a grinder who can beat defenses with his mind, savvy and experience, making up for what he lacks in arm strength and accuracy.
On Denver’s almost-seven-minute winning drive, which was set up when cornerback Bradley Roby forced Steelers running back Fitzgerald Toussaint to cough up a killer fumble with just less than 10 minutes to go, Manning threw just four times in 13 plays. But he had one pivotal 3rd-and-12 completion to receiver Bennie Fowler, and with Manning at the controls, the ground game came to life on that drive, with C.J. Anderson fighting his way in from 1 yard out to give the Broncos a lead with three minutes remaining.
Brady has owned Manning in their high-profile head-to-head series, winning 11 of 16 games, but at least Manning can claim a 2–2 record against his rival in the playoffs, including a 2–1 mark in three previous AFC title games. But all of that sounds like ancient history now, and the reality of January 2016 is that one of these quarterbacks remains at the top of his game, and the other is barely hanging on to whatever is left of his career.
Maybe Brady-Manning 17 will surprise us and give everyone a competitive and entertaining showdown to remember. One last classic to savor. But that seems like wishful thinking after watching this weekend’s AFC action unfold. I’ll settle for anything that isn’t memorable for all the wrong reasons, with Manning overmatched and bidding the game’s premier rivalry farewell in humbling fashion. If that’s how it’s destined to end, I’d just as soon hang on to the past and skip this final, unexpected episode of the NFL’s most popular long-running drama. In seven days, we’ll find out if there’s a conclusion that nobody saw coming.
• The NFC Championship Game is a tremendous coaching matchup, and one you can root for on either side. Both of them definitely paid their dues, Bruce Arians and Ron Rivera. They waited longer than they should have for coaching jobs, but at least the NFL knows now what they were missing. Score one for the coaching veterans, because Arians, 63, and Rivera, 54, have the Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers advancing to next Sunday’s title game, giving them both their first chances as a head coach to play for a Super Bowl berth.
Both coaches are perfect fits for their teams. Shoot, Arians and Arizona are such a good match that their names have five letters in common. As for Rivera, his players revere him, especially after he led them through the trial by fire that was the 2014 season, when the Panthers started 3–8–1 and still rallied to win four in a row and claim the NFC South title. Since that winning streak started, Carolina is a ridiculous 21–2 in its past 23 games.
Arians and Rivera both treat their players like men, and allow them to be themselves. And the players respond to that trust and implied self-accountability. It sounds easy, but it’s a tricky high-wire act in today’s NFL. At the moment, no coaches in the league have stored away more capital with their teams than the guys who lead the Cardinals and Panthers.
• You’ve got to like the Carson Palmer-Cam Newton symmetry. Here are some fun facts about the NFC title game quarterbacking matchup: Palmer and Newton won the Heisman Trophy. Both Palmer (2003) and Newton (2011) were the No. 1 pick in the NFL. And both Palmer and Newton will be playing in the first conference title game of their careers on Sunday in Charlotte, in the first ever NFC or AFC Championship Game matchup of starting quarterbacks with Heismans to their credit.
• Every postseason should have a sentimental favorite (think Jerome Bettis 10 years ago in the 2005 playoffs), and I’ve decided this time it has to be Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, one of the league’s most respected and popular players. Fitzgerald had that fabulous spotlight moment in overtime in the Cardinals’ jaw-dropping win over the Packers on Saturday night, with his 75-yard reception and cross-field scamper setting up his own five-yard game-winning shovel pass touchdown reception.
But the thought of Fitzgerald getting back to the Super Bowl to win the ring that he so narrowly missed after Arizona’s last-second loss to Pittsburgh in early 2009 would have to be one of the feel-good stories of the year in the NFL. Fitzgerald has done almost everything the right way in his Hall of Fame–bound career, and he deserves to take that big confetti shower at least once.
And besides, I have my own neat little personal story with him, having known him since he was an early-teen Vikings ball boy at Minnesota’s training camp in Mankato every summer. I was one of the beat writers covering those Vikings teams, and Fitzgerald was one of the most polite and thoughtful kids I ever met, never failing to address me as “Mr. Banks,” even when I told him that was way too formal for a mere football writer.
• Ben Roethlisberger was hurt? Could’ve fooled me. Then again, maybe that was point. The Steelers quarterback showed no signs of his right shoulder injury, but I’m not buying what Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib said after the game, accusing Roethlisberger of jaking it.
That’s going too far, but I will say that Big Ben plays better with an injury to his throwing arm than a lot of quarterbacks do completely healthy. Games like Roethlisberger’s on Sunday—24 of 37 for 339 yards, no interceptions or touchdowns—aren’t all that common in the playoffs, especially against a defense the quality of Denver’s.
• Between Arizona letting Green Bay off the mat late in regulation on Saturday and the Panthers struggling to protect a 31–0 halftime lead on Sunday, next week’s NFC title game could double as the Can’t Quite Finish Bowl. Each team needs to work on its respective killer instinct this week, giving special attention to protecting a lead. Maybe the week off robbed the Cardinals and Panthers of some of their intensity and edge, but they at least survived, and lived to tell.
• For the first time since 2004, form held in the NFL’s divisional round, with all four home teams and highest seeds advancing. That’s a good omen for New England, because the Patriots won the Super Bowl that season, and they’re also the only final four team that has returned to this year’s conference title round. Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Philadelphia were the other three teams to make the AFC/NFC title games in 2004.
That makes it five consecutive seasons in which three or four of the highest seeds all advanced to the conference championship games. Put another way, only four of 20 home teams have lost in the divisional round in the past five years, a streak that started in 2011. In the six previous seasons, from 2005 to ’10, there were 12 of a possible 24 home teams that went down in defeat in the divisional round.
Those high seeds are like gold again.
• Carolina has been in the NFL for 21 seasons as a franchise, but this will be the first time Panthers fans ever get to witness an NFC Championship Game in Charlotte. The Panthers made the game in 1996 (at Green Bay), 2003 (at Philadelphia) and ’05 (at Seattle), but have never played at home for a berth in the Super Bowl.
Even Carolina’s 1995 expansion sibling Jacksonville had managed that feat, playing host to the 1999 AFC title game, which it lost to Tennessee.
• Without fail, every time there’s an overtime game that ends without both teams having a possession, i.e. Saturday night’s Green Bay-Arizona instant classic, the whining starts anew about how patently unfair the overtime rules are.
To that I say: blah, blah, blah. Why is playing defense never considered part of the equation when it comes to the events that unfold in overtime? The always-vocal crowd that demands both teams have at least one possession seems to think that offense is really the only thing that matters in football.
Making a stop on defense is as much a part of the game as making a play on offense, and the only thing I knew for sure when the league tweaked the overtime rules in 2012 was that some people would never be happy until there was no possible way to end a game without their sense of “fairness” being validated.
Fair is 11 players on each side, offense and defense. And the refs calling everything on the level. That’s a fair game. What the overtime critics want is more like perfection, with offenses always having the ability to match any score their opponent makes. And they want to relegate the defense’s role to an afterthought.
What’s so fair about that? The Packers showed remarkable resilience in tying the game with those bombs from Aaron Rodgers late in regulation, including the unbelievable Hail Mary. But that was just their offense. On defense, Green Bay didn’t get it done in overtime and let the Cardinals mount a quick-strike touchdown drive thanks to a blown coverage. That’s football. The Packers shouldn’t be rewarded with another possession just because they accomplished half of what they set out to do. It’s a fantasy football mindset that elevates offense above all else.
• And how exactly has the act of the coin toss become such a complicated and controversial matter? I grew up watching the NFL from 1970 on, but until the Phil Luckett-Jerome Bettis snafu in Detroit on Thanksgiving 1998, I can’t ever remember a coin toss getting tricky. Now? It’s like a once-a-month occurrence in the league.
Part of it fits under the heading of how everything in the NFL has become so ridiculously important that great significance gets attached to things that were once considered relatively trivial. And as I’ve said and written many times, when everything’s important, nothing’s really important.
Bottom line? No, I don’t think the Packers got jobbed by referee Clete Blakeman not getting good rotation on his overtime coin flip Saturday night. It was Arizona that beat them, not the guy in the white hat. But why has a coin toss turned into something that seems ripe for chaos and confusion?
• Jeff Janis had a nice career Saturday night for the Packers. Against the Cardinals, when his receiver-depleted team needed him most, the little-used Janis turned into Chris Matthews in last year’s Super Bowl. Or maybe a latter-day Max McGee.
Janis entered Saturday with four catches all season, but he was almost uncoverable on the Packers' desperation drive at the end of regulation. He caught those two Rodgers prayers for 101 yards on the drive (there were penalty yards involved), and finished with a remarkable 145 yards on seven receptions.
I always wonder how mixed the emotions are for a player who just turned in the game of their life in a losing situation? The Packers didn’t win, but Janis was a revelation.
• I suppose there’s a Peyton Manning precedent or example to be cited, but Carson Palmer had one of the shakiest playoff game performances I’ve ever seen from a quarterback after he turned in an MVP-level regular season. His two interceptions were forced passes that looked tentative from the second he released them, and his deflected go-ahead 9-yard touchdown pass that bounced into the arms of Michael Floyd was possibly his worst decision of the night. Palmer was erratic and sailing passes all over the field.
I can’t prove it, but Palmer played as if he was very much feeling the pressure of being without a playoff victory into his 13th NFL season, and of leading one of the Super Bowl favorites in the NFC. Cardinals fans better hope he got his mulligan out of his system, because if he repeats that performance next week at Carolina, the Panthers defense will eat his lunch. His next game is the biggest of his career.
• Andy Reid tried to defend his clock management skills in his Sunday wrap-up news conference in Kansas City, but when he took that hourglass out of his pocket to make his point, he lost me.
All kidding aside, I get it that NFL coaches are frequently damned if they do and damned if they don’t by all of us critics when it comes to their clock management. When to use timeouts and how to best maximize and preserve the time on the clock when your team is trailing is in fairness probably harder than it looks from our vantage point.
But it’s never too much to ask for a team that’s trailing by two scores—as the Chiefs were at 27–13 with 6:29 remaining in Foxborough—to show a serious sense of urgency in everything they do. And that’s where Kansas City obviously failed, looking almost lackadaisical in its decision making and tempo once it drove to a first down at the Patriots 1 with 2:33 left. The Chiefs had all three timeouts left, but wound up using a whopping 5:16 of the available 6:29 remaining on the touchdown drive that made it 27–20. When New England recovered Kansas City’s onside kick, the Chiefs’ comeback hopes essentially died, but Reid’s long history of struggles with the clock came back to bite his team once again in a critical situation.
• The feat of going to five consecutive conference title games in the salary cap era is astounding, but that’s what New England has accomplished, matching the 1973-77 Oakland Raiders as the only teams to turn that trick in the post-merger era.
And the Raiders largely wasted a good bit of their most dominant period, losing four of the five AFC Championship Games they played in, winning an AFC title and then the Super Bowl in the 1976 season. By comparison, the Patriots are 2–2 thus far in AFC Championship Games during this five-year run, with a Super Bowl loss to the Giants in 2011 and last year’s upset win over Seattle. If New England can make it to a third Super Bowl during this window, possibly winning a second consecutive ring, it’ll add even more luster to the Patriots’ AFC domination.
• Speaking of five-year windows, it has now been five full seasons since Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay won their Super Bowl together, besting Pittsburgh in Dallas in early 2011. The conventional wisdom was, and I subscribed to it, that Rodgers and the Packers were going to win multiple rings in the coming years, such was the depth and talent of their roster.
But not so much. The Packers have made the playoffs seven consecutive years, but since they won the Super Bowl, their postseason record is a middling 3–5, which is one fewer playoff win than they logged in the 2010 postseason alone, going 4–0 as the NFC’s No. 6 seed.
The Packers haven’t won more than one playoff game in any of the past five postseasons, three times losing in the divisional round, and once each in the wild-card and NFC title-game rounds. Green Bay’s window of Super Bowl opportunity was nowhere near as promising or productive as many of us presumed.