(Peyton Manning cover photo courtesy of Denver Broncos)
By Clark Judge
Talk of Fame Network
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell constantly reminds us that it’s his job to “protect the shield,” but he just got help in that department … and it’s called Brady-Manning XVII. Nobody protects or promotes the shield more than these two guys, and having them face off once more … maybe for the last time … takes the heat off a league that turned its back on St. Louis, put Greg Hardy in uniform, can’t get a weekend off from officiating screwups and tarnished the reputation of Tom Brady. When it bungled “Deflategate,” the NFL office tried to change the conversation to games on the field, and it just got its wish -- with two of the its greatest quarterbacks deciding which goes to another Super Bowl. Just one question: If, as Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said, Manning is "the ultimate play caller," what does that make Brady?
2. What makes the Brady-Manning showdown so intriguing is how many times these two met: This will be the fifth time in the playoffs, an NFL record for two QBs. By contrast, John Elway and Dan Marino squared off just three times in 16 years.
3. One of the weekend’s biggest winners never suited up. I'm talking about columnist Gary Myers of the New York Daily News. He’s the guy who wrote Brady vs. Manning: The Untold Story of the Rivalry that Transformed the NFL. Guaranteed, sales jump this week.
4. Of the four quarterbacks left in the playoffs, three were the first picks of the draft … and one was the 199th. Tom Brady, come on down.
5. Next time someone insists that defense doesn’t matter, tell him to shove it. The four remaining teams rank in the top nine of defenses, including No. 1 Denver and No. 5 Arizona. What’s more, all rank in the top 10 in points allowed.
6. I’ll say it again. I want to see Brady and the Pats in the Super Bowl so Goodell has to swallow hard and hand the Lombardi Trophy to them. And after what we witnessed Sunday from Manning and the Broncos, I like my chances.
7. That’s the first time since 2004 that the top two seeds held up in both conferences. The winner then? New England. Play it again, Sam.
8. There’s a reason home-field advantage is such a big deal, and look no farther than this weekend. Home teams were 4-0. A week ago they were 0-4.
9. Adios, Marshawn Lynch. I can’t imagine the Seahawks bringing him back … not with Thomas Rawls waiting in the wings.
10. My respect and admiration for Ben Roethlisberger as a quarterback just grew another yard. The guy plays with torn ligaments in his right shoulder, without his top receiver and top two running backs and has to win in Denver. Yet he comes within a Fitzgerald Toussaint fumble of pulling off the improbable. Big Ben is tough, resilient and, yes, another candidate high on the Hall-of-Fame radar.
11. Memo to Bruce Arians: Make sure your players have some of that Russell Wilson recovery water before going to Carolina. It can help in the second half.
12. If I’m Arians I welcome playing the second game next weekend. Reason: Wake-up calls won't be the issue they might've been for a Seattle team that didn’t come around until it was too late. Now, there are no excuses. The Seahawks and Panthers tee it up at 6:40 p.m. Eastern, or 4:40 p.m. Arizona time.
13. If you’re a Patriots’ fan, this is what you like about that defeat of Kansas City: No sacks of Brady. That has plenty to do with the offensive line, but it has plenty to do with the return of Julian Edelman, too. Nobody had more sacks this season than Denver, and keeping pass rushers like DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller off Brady is critical to New England’s chances of returning to the Super Bowl for the seventh time with Tom Terrific and third time in five seasons.
14. There's a report out there that if Chargers don't join the Rams in L.A. this year, Rams' owner Stan Kroenke can't charge for PSLs until 2017. I think he just got his incentive to play nice with Dean Spanos.
15. You gotta feel for Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy. That’s five playoff losses on the last play.
16. Class move by Peyton Manning to give a game ball to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who, in turn, handed it to his Mom. It was the first time she'd seen her son play.
17. Just a hunch, but when Arizona meets the Panthers it targets cornerback Robert McClain.
18. Just a hunch, but Carolina won’t have McClain anywhere near Larry Fitzgerald.
19. Really, really sad news about the passing of Ted Marchibroda. He was a marvelous coach, but he was a better man. When it comes to gentlemen in this game, he was at or near the head of the class, and don’t take it from me. Listen to Bill Belichick. “I wouldn’t be here if not for Ted Marchibroda,” he said. “I learned so much from him. A lot of Xs and Os, but it really wasn’t the Xs and Os. It was a lot more about just being a football coach.”
20. I’ll be honest: Even though Arizona won, my confidence in the Cardinals was shaken by three factors: 1) Their pass defense looked vulnerable; 2) they didn’t have a running game and 3) even though Carson Palmer threw for three touchdowns and 349 yards, he looked shaky.
21. Hard to believe, but Palmer vs. Cam Newton in the NFC championship game is the first time two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks have squared off in the playoffs.
22. All seven head-coach openings were filled by offensive assistants, and I know it’s a passing game. But I also know the last two Super Bowls were won by defensive coaches (Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll), and the team with the best record this season (Carolina) is headed by a former linebacker.
23. Hue Jackson: “It’s my opinion we need a quarterback.” Translation: Hasta la vista, Johnny Vegas.
24. I know someone who’s happy with the Mike Mularkey hire: The rest of the AFC South.
25. Memo to Doug Pederson: When you take over in Philadelphia, lose the Five-Minute Offense.
THIS WEEKEND'S HALL OF FAME
(Aaron Rodgers photo courtesy of the Green Bay Packers)
Denver cornerback Bradley Roby. It was his strip of Fitzgerald Toussaint that short-circuited what could have been a game-clinching drive by the Steelers and led to Denver’s game winning score.
Carolina RB Jonathan Stewart. Nobody in 27 consecutive games had run for 100 yards on the Seahawks. Then Stewart shreds the Seahawks for 106, including a 59-yard sprint through everyone on the first play from scrimmage, and scores twice.
New England TE Rob Gronkowski. His knee isn’t right. No, it’s his back that’s hurting. We’re not sure what it is, but this is what we do know: Nobody can cover the guy. He scores twice on a defense that should be locked and loaded for him.
Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers. Next time I play Powerball, I’m taking him with me. Two Hail Marys in one season? Remarkable.
Green Bay WR Jeff Janis. Before last weekend, he had 95 career yards in receptions. He had 101 on the Packers’ last scoring drive and 145 for the game – plus two TDs.
New England QB Tom Brady. That makes him 22-8 in the playoffs and a conference-championship game participant for the fifth straight season.
THIS WEEKEND'S HALL OF SHAME
Pittsburgh RB Fitzgerald Toussaint. Yeah, I feel bad for him, too. The only reason he’s playing is because Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams are not, and he did well until ... well until ... that fumble. He made the one mistake that mattered, turning what could have been a game-clinching drive into a playoff exit with his fourth-quarter mistake. Trust me, no offseason will be longer than his.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll. Never, ever, ever serve decaf at breakfast again when you're playing a 1 o'clock game in the East. That first half a disgrace.
Kansas City QB Alex Smith. I love him, too, but what in the world were he and the Chiefs’ offense doing down the stretch? He and his teammates should have been ticketed for loitering. Sometimes, Alex, it’s good not to be Donovan McNabb.
Referee Clete Blakeman. In a season where officiating reached an all-time low, Blakeman was right on cue – failing to flip a coin when a coin flip was necessary. Actually, this is one instance when being all thumbs actually would've been a good thing.
Arizona coach Bruce Arians. So he plays “to win.” I get that. But don’t take unnecessary risks when you don’t have to – and that’s exactly what he did when he had Carson Palmer throwing the ball in the last two-and-a-half minutes when killing the clock was necessary. It gave the Packers another 40 seconds and, in the end, allowed for that last-second Hail Mary. People tell me that's Bruce; that you take the good with the bad, and I understand. But this was the bad.
THIS WEEKEND’S HALL-OF-FAME ENSHRINEE
(Larry Fitzgerald photo courtesy of the Arizona Cardinals)
Arizona WR Larry Fitzgerald. This one’s easy. Forget wide receivers. There aren’t many players … period … better when it comes to the playoffs. In eight postseason games he has 53 catches for 912 yards and 10 TDs. “Whenever we need an uplift, we’ve got to get him the football,” said coach Bruce Arians.
THIS WEEKEND'S HALL-OF-FAME QUOTE
"This team is being powered by the defense, let's be honest." -- Denver QB Peyton Manning
2-6 -- Tom Brady in Denver
3-5 – Aaron Rodgers’ playoff record since winning Super Bowl XLV.
5 – Brandon McManus field goals
7-1 -- Arizona on the road this season
11-5 -- Tom Brady's record vs. Peyton Manning
16-10 – NFC top seeds in divisional playoff games since 1990
20-5 -- Ron Rivera's record in December and January
22-4 – AFC top seeds in divisional playoff games since 1990