The Carson Palmer that Brian Billick watches now -- the one who has led the Arizona Cardinals to this Sunday's NFC Championship Game -- is an evolution of the quarterback he faced in his years as the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. When Palmer first became Cincinnati's starter in 2004, the Bengals had Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Kelley Washington -- and they were a no-huddle, three-wide downfield passing offense.
"He was very good at it," Billick said. "And then they evolved into 'We're never going to get away from the run again.' That was his frustration before, as explosive as they were, it wasn't yielding the wins. What we're seeing in Arizona is the culmination of a guy who has experience and says, 'If I've got to throw 40 times, I've been there. And if I can turn around and hand it off, I know how to do that, as well.'
They have seen plenty and on Sunday they -- and the youngster among the graybeards, Carolina's Cam Newton -- will see something more, maybe something they'd prefer not to see. The conference championship games feature four teams in the top 10 in scoring defense, the four defenses separated by an average of just 1.2 points allowed per game, none having yielded an average of even 20 points per game in the 2015 regular season.
And yet it is the offenses, the quarterbacks, that will draw the spotlight on Sunday. The Cardinals and Panthers have the two highest scoring averages in the league this season, creating the first playoff game of the Super Bowl era with teams that averaged at least 30 points per game in the regular season. Manning and Brady are meeting for the 17th (and likely final) time in a rivalry that has spanned an extraordinary era in the NFL.
Ed Reed faced them all in a 12-year career that almost certainly will lead to his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In March, Reed will join Rex Ryan's Buffalo Bills staff as an assistant defensive backs coach. But this Sunday, he will watch like a very well-informed, extremely astute fan. And he -- and his former coach, Billick -- had more thoughts on the quarterbacks who will star on Sunday.
Reed and Billick faced Palmer most frequently because they were in the same division with the Bengals. Reed said chasing Palmer was more about studying schemes and studying his play caller than about studying Palmer himself.
"He's going to go where the ball is supposed to go," Reed said. "He could throw every ball. But at the same time, he can rely on some tendencies that they will follow. You have a chance of getting interceptions against Carson, more opportunities against Carson than Brady and Manning. He's probably closer to Manning. Carson has got all the ability, but at the same time, you will have your opportunities."
Which is the opposite of Brady.
"Brady is more meticulous with the ball," Reed said. "He's going to work the pocket. He's going to be patient. He's going to look you off. He's going to go fast. A little more thinking goes into it. They line up so fast. He'll wait for Julian Edelman to get to the second area of the route, he'll wait until he gets behind someone. He has more mobility in the pocket."
Perhaps most disconcerting for defenses facing the Patriots is that, while they can't run the ball, that is, in part, because they don't even want to. Last week against Kansas City, the Patriots ran a total of 14 times, and not once on the rapid-fire opening touchdown drive that was 11 passes long. The Patriots ranked 30th in rushing offense this season. Whatever. As Billick pointed out, Brady is an astonishing 46-26 when he has attempted at least 40 passes in a game, turning on its head the conventional wisdom that a team must have some offensive balance. By comparison, Manning is 46-49.
Reed sees Manning playing with happy feet and attributes some of his receivers' drops to the fact that, he thinks, Manning's passes are wobbling unpredictably.
Billick believes what Manning has lost most this season is timing, because he was never the strongest-armed quarterback.
"Have his skills diminished? Sure," Billick said. "Have they diminished to the point where he can't get done what he needs to get done? No, I don't think so. But I think the analogy is that Peyton has come down to an Alex Smith level. That sounds terrible. What I'm saying is Kansas City was on an 11-0 run. I like Alex Smith, but he's never been consistently a guy who can put it down the field. High efficiency, but not particularly explosive.
"Denver looks eerily similar to Kansas City. They will be efficient, they are playing great defense, but it's hard to beat Tom Brady going blow for blow. The efficiency can get you in the playoffs and win you a game. But you're not going to win a championship. Can they find it? With Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas? Yes, if they'll catch it. They are not running the ball.
"It's a proven offense. But it's not Peyton Manning. At the end of the day, this may be all they can really do because maybe Peyton can't do anything else. Maybe if they start catching the ball and run the ball a little better."
Said Reed: "Peyton is making plays almost like Andy Dalton. He's getting stats, but it might be that one play that you're like, 'What are you doing right now?' Peyton is not Peyton right now. He's managing the game for the most part. Peyton understands the game mentally. He understands he's not throwing the best ball."
Reed has the least experience against Newton, having played him in just one game, and Newton is the only one of the remaining four quarterbacks whom Reed has not intercepted.
Billick admits he has had to come around about Newton, because he was concerned about whether the athletic marvel would be able to beat teams from the pocket. The Panthers' 26-year-old QB has proven he can, although while Billick said Newton is as brilliant a line-of-sight thrower as he's ever seen, he'd like to see Newton develop more touch on the deep ball. And he points out that Newton has still not had to throw 550 or 600 times in a season, as Manning and Brady have done for much of their careers.
That, of course, is because the Panthers also rely on a running game of which Newton is a critical component.
"Being that he's such a run threat, that makes you struggle as a defensive back," Reed said. "You might have to cover a little longer than usual with a quarterback. I would be more inclined to talk to my coordinator about keeping him in the pocket -- let him throw the ball. Let him become a pocket passer. If it's Peyton or Brady, move them off their spot, you want to get those guys to get their eyes down, you need them to peek at the rush."
With that thought in mind, which of the quarterbacks would Reed be most eager to face if he were playing this Sunday?
Manning and Palmer would be Reed's first choices. That's not surprising. Reed had six interceptions in 12 games against Palmer and four interceptions in 10 games against Manning.
"I probably wouldn't want to face Cam with that run threat," Reed said.
But despite two interceptions in seven games against Brady, Reed has the same feeling so many opponents have.
"Who wants to face Brady at this time of year?"