Some things you see coming, and some things you don’t. New England beating Kansas City because Andy Reid’s heroic lifelong struggle against the clock is a Sisyphean quest, as doomed to failure as any human who tries to fight time? That’s not a surprise, really. That’s like watching reruns.
But not every rerun is created equal. This weekend in the NFL had its share of chaos, of the weird. Green Bay-Arizona felt like a series of rolling heart attacks and adrenaline needles. Seattle’s loss to Carolina was, for a time, deeply strange. Peyton Manning hadn’t thrown a ball on a Broncos touchdown drive since Week 9, so of course he led one that won the game, sure.
And after all the bad calls, the no-calls, the great plays, the injuries, the vagaries and the Hail Marys, it seemed simple. The two best teams in each conference won. Either Tom Brady or Peyton Manning is going to the Super Bowl. There’s an order to it, if you squint.
Nobody pretends it’s classic Brady-Manning, though. Brady’s still in his prime, just a year younger than Peyton, still humming with his vegetable-and-lean-meat diet and his shady body coach. Manning can barely throw the ball anymore, after his four neck surgeries and his all-over breakdown, and when he tries to push a pass more than 15 yards, he probably doesn’t know where it’s going. His biggest throw on Sunday came after he had slid in the pocket, as if he was giving up the play, and then got up and threw without being touched. He planned it, because that’s what he has to do now.
He’s got a defence to die for, at least. That helps. Denver did beat New England in OT in Week 12, but Brock Osweiler was the QB. And New England’s weapons are back.
“It’s going to be the Broncos versus the Patriots,” Manning told CBS after the game, when asked about another Brady-Manning meeting.
Pittsburgh, of course, was beatable largely because Cincinnati smashed Ben Roethlisberger’s throwing shoulder and concussed his best receiver the week before. Similarly, the Seahawks were only available to fall behind 31-0 to Carolina because Minnesota’s Blair Walsh missed a short field goal to get them there. Seattle’s six losses this year came by a combined 33 points; their 19 losses over the past four seasons, regular season and playoffs, had come by an average of 5.4 points per game. They had never lost a game by more than 10 points in Russell Wilson’s four-year career.
So, they were down 31-0 at the half, and clawed back to within a touchdown, and finally ran out of miracles. The team Carolina will play, the Arizona Cardinals, still have miracles to burn. They won Saturday despite their own quarterback, Carson Palmer, getting so jumpy he bounced the go-ahead touchdown pass off a Packers defender. The Cardinals won despite Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers throwing a 61-yard pass on fourth-and-20, and a 60-yards-through-the-air Hail Mary to tie the game.
And they won because the coin didn’t flip to start overtime. I mean, the coin hovered up there like a Frisbee or a B-movie UFO or well-thrown pizza dough, and they had to flip it again. Arizona won that toss, and Larry Fitzgerald caught a pass and ran and ran, and Rodgers lost for the second straight year in the playoffs without touching the ball in overtime. Green Bay lost its fifth playoff game on the final play under head coach Mike McCarthy. Coin flips, man.
We’re not even getting into the missed pass interference calls, or the ball that Brady popped off a helmet to a receiver, or any of the other bursts of chaos that punctuated the four games. In the end, maybe it was predictable, for some. Carolina and Arizona were the two best teams in the heavyweight NFC this season, Seattle’s lurking presence notwithstanding. New England closed with a limp, but is now in the AFC championship game for the 10th time in 15 seasons in the Brady-Belichick era.
And since the 2001 season, here is the list of quarterbacks who have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl: Tom Brady, six times; Peyton Manning, three times; Ben Roethlisberger, three times. That’s 12 of 14 — Rich Gannon with Oakland in 2002 and Joe Flacco with Baltimore in 2012 were the other two — plus one more this year. Not everything is near-random chance.
If there’s one thing the NFL is good at delivering, aside from a creeping sense of moral ambivalence, it’s delivering something you don’t expect. In the best games, the improbabilities pile up, one after another: incompetent calls, unbelievable mistakes, plays that had every reason not to happen, but did. The best games are an accumulation of genius and catastrophe.
But some players, and some organizations, can cut through that chaos better than others, year after year. There’s not a lot of Peyton Manning left, and we might see his NFL career end next week, by Belichick’s hand. It would be fitting, really. They have a long history, those two.
But hey, Denver’s defence is still capable of chaos, and New England has lost to them already. Hell, maybe Osweiler starts. It’s the NFL, so the possibilities are endless.