They will, apparently, also play a conference championship game on Sunday in the NFC. It's very possible the Carolina Panthers and the Arizona Cardinals, the NFC's top seeds, are the two best teams in the entire NFL right now, with the first- and second-ranked scoring offenses, respectively, and the sixth- and seventh-ranked scoring defenses. Cam Newton and Larry Fitzgerald are worthy recipients of our rooting interests, and Ron Rivera and Bruce Arians have done two of the finest coaching jobs this season in guiding their respective teams to the penultimate game.
But for the annual rotation of the television schedule, that game will be the undercard.
Throughout the season, there was an air of inevitability about the AFC Championship Game we will get. Maybe the matchup we ended up with was not always the way we thought it would be, but it was the way we always felt it should be. In the middle of the season, with Peyton Manning on the bench nursing a painful foot injury, it seemed possible we would never see him play again, let alone participate again in the greatest individual rivalry the game has known. When the New England Patriots lost to the Denver Broncos during the regular season, it was Brock and Brady, Part 1, after all.
Through a remarkable series of ups and downs, injuries, losses and comebacks, though, Manning returned, the Broncos and Patriots wound up as the top-seeded teams in the AFC, Tom Brady got all his weapons back and we will get the 17th -- and almost certainly final -- installment of Brady vs. Manning. You can lament the lack of variety here -- Brady is appearing in his 10th conference championship game, the Patriots' fifth straight, a staggering testament to the excellence he and Bill Belichick have force fed the rest of the AFC -- and you can correctly note that Manning is clearly in the twilight, the darkness closing in on his career, and this will be much more Brady versus the Broncos' superb defense.
Or you can just sit back and appreciate a rivalry that we might never see the likes of again.
So, now that the table is set for a Championship Sunday feast, let's quickly examine each course:
Really, none of the past is prologue here. When the Osweiler-led Broncos beat the Patriots in Week 12, Tom Brady was without Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, although he still threw for 280 yards and three touchdowns. And Manning's formidable gifts, at least the physical ones, clearly have faded even since the middle of the 2014 season, the last time he faced the Patriots. In perhaps the most startling statistic, Manning has thrown just one touchdown pass and eight interceptions at home this season.
But this is the most complete team Manning has been on in Denver, maybe even in his entire career, led -- as Manning himself said Sunday night -- by the defense all season and with a running attack. Manning is -- it is weird to even say this -- a complementary player. An exemplary manager of the action, but less and less often the person who will make the biggest play. The Broncos have scored at least 30 points just twice in 17 games this season. Manning falls down under a pass rush by the Steelers and it becomes a metaphor.
Except Manning also got up and completed a pass for a 34-yard gain on that play. He can still occasionally drive a pass downfield, as he did Sunday to Bennie Fowler for a clutch, 31-yard gain on third-and-12. But those moments are the exception rather than the rule. What has not changed, what has never abandoned Manning, is his command over the mental part of the game. He can still get defenses to jump with his cadence, can still detect where the blitz is coming from and direct the play the other way.
Brady, in the meantime, remains stunningly surgical. And on Saturday, with his full complement of weapons around him again, he was releasing the ball in a blur, so quickly that it helped his patchwork offensive line manage the Chiefs' pass rush. He placed passes perfectly to Edelman, he rifled shots to Rob Gronkowski. It was Brady in full, a throwback to how the Patriots' offense operates when it is at full strength. That four-losses-in-the-final-six-games skid, when the Patriots were trying to get healthy, is a distant memory already, consigned to the past along with those lengthy injury reports. This is the statistic to remember: The Patriots have scored at least 30 points seven times in 17 games, six of them coming in the first half of the season, when Gronkowski, Edelman and Danny Amendola were all available.
To ward off Denver's pass rush of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, Brady will have to be decisive and quick with his passes. To puncture the Patriots, the Broncos will have to run as they did against New England in the regular season, when they went for 179 yards, including 113 and two touchdowns from C.J. Anderson. And Broncos receivers cannot drop Manning's passes, no matter how much they flutter, as they did against the Steelers.
It is not the rivalry we remember from even a few years ago, and it will never be again. But if this is indeed Manning's final season, it is the right way for the AFC to be decided.
What a weird weekend for these two teams.
The Cardinals withstood two Hail Mary passes by Aaron Rodgers, a head-scratching decision to throw when trying to run the clock and some boneheaded Carson Palmer mistakes to prevail over Green Bay in overtime -- largely because Larry Fitzgerald refuses to behave his age and Bruce Arians is the most entertaining play caller in the game, with Arizona opting to blitz Rodgers on one of the Hail Marys and to call for a shovel pass to Fitzgerald for the winning touchdown. Still, the Cardinals seem to have slipped a bit in their last two games.
And Carolina continued a disturbing pattern of looking like Superman in the first half -- and Clark Kent in the second. The Panthers team that took a 31-0 lead over Seattle in the opening 30 minutes on Sunday would demolish any opponent left in the field. The Panthers team that let up so dramatically in the final two quarters that it was shut out and allowed Seattle to score 24 points would get beaten by anybody left.
It's hard to imagine that trendlet continuing against Arizona, in part because the Cardinals' defense is too good to allow the Panthers to build up such a huge lead. But also because it is unfathomable that the Panthers would take their feet off the gas with the Super Bowl in reach.
The weird stat of this matchup is that it is the first postseason meeting in NFL history between two starting quarterbacks who won the Heisman Trophy.
As critical as Newton and Carson Palmer have been to their respective teams this season -- they could finish first and second in MVP balloting -- they belong to the NFL's two most complete, balanced teams. Throw out last year's playoff result, in which the Panthers beat the Cardinals 27-16 on Wild Card Weekend, because Palmer was out. With Palmer, Arians will be able to deploy his plentiful cadre of receivers. Although, after watching Green Bay's pressure get to Palmer, the veteran QB might not have much time to throw deep against a Panthers secondary that is thin beyond Pro Bowl CB Josh Norman.
The Cardinals undoubtedly will try to blitz Newton, because they blitz everybody, sending extra rushers on 44.5 percent of opponents' pass plays this season (the highest percentage in the league). Newton had 18 touchdowns against the blitz, the most in the league. Keep an eye on the Panthers' running game. Jonathan Stewart, playing for the first time in a month, ran for 106 yards and two touchdowns against the Seahawks, who boasted the NFL's top run defense. The Cardinals are vulnerable there, having given up 381 rushing yards in their last three games.
All season, it had seemed the NFC had the better teams in the league than the AFC. This game, coming on the heels of the marquee quarterbacking matchup, should give us an early look at whether the assumption that the AFC team will merely be Super Bowl 50 cannon fodder for the NFC will hold up.