Patriots advance, playoff performances and more

The New England Patriots have reached their sixth consecutive conference title game, something never accomplished before in NFL history.

Before the juggernaut known as Best Buy took over the electronics/entertainment retail industry, there was The Wiz. Back in the 1980s and 90s, it was a brand name in the northeast, with the brand taking off following a campaign that championed “Nobody Beats The Wiz.” Hell, just ask Joe Namath.

Fast forward to the present, and a certain northeastern football team has take on the same credo. Absolutely nobody beats the New England Patriots.

After beating the Houston Texans, 34-16, New England has reached its sixth consecutive conference title game. Despite dynasties of yore, nobody has even accomplished such a feat before. The Patriots are playing in the ultimate era of parity. The NFL is designed to pull teams toward the middle, whether it’s the salary cap, draft position or schedule structure.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have defeated the system, almost as soundly as they defeat opponents. The Patriots have not had a losing season since 2000, the first of Belichick’s legendary tenure in Foxborough. This run has seen six Super Bowl appearances and four championships. It’s the greatest stretch of play we have seen in any of the four major North American sports when all factors are included.

Arguing against Brady as the best quarterback to ever put on pads is an increasingly flimsy one. Joe Montana is the common retort, but even he struggles to compare. Forget about the passing yards and touchdowns, because the eras in which both played are wildly different. If Montana played today, his numbers would belong in a video game.

The measurements that should be accounted for are division titles, Super Bowl appearances and championships. Montana won his division nine times, with four Super Sundays and an equal amount of rings. Brady has amassed 14 AFC East titles, with the aforementioned half-dozen Super Bowls and four championships.

Some will point to New England’s easy division, giving Brady the leg up. When Montana was with the 49ers from 1981-90, the NFC West produced nine playoff teams outside of San Francisco (six times being the Rams). In 1993 with the Chiefs, Montana went 11-5 and won the AFC West, despite the Broncos and Raiders both qualifying as wild cards.

Brady’s AFC East has seen eight teams reach the playoffs since 2001, not including the Patriots. However, Brady has had to defeat the likes of Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger repeatedly to reach the Super Bowl. Montana’s biggest competition in the NFC was typically Phil Simms.

Regardless of whether you love – or ore likely – hate the Patriots, you can’t deny their brilliance. They are a monolith in cleats, with a walking hoodie affixed to a headset. New England doesn’t care about excuses or tolerate them. It is a team without peer and seemingly on a higher level, in a league far superior of the NFL.

On Sunday, the Patriots have a chance to reach the franchise’s ninth Super Bowl and seventh in the new millennium. No other franchise has been to more than three in that time.

One note of caution: eventually, somebody beat The Wiz.

Power rankings

Top 10 playoff performances of all-time

1. Kellen Winslow, AFC Divisionals, San Diego Chargers (13 rec., 166 yards, TD, blocked FG)
2. Steve Young, Super Bowl XXIX, San Francisco 49ers (24-of-36, 325 yards, six TDs)
3. Ed Podolak, AFC Divisionals, Kansas City Chiefs (350 all-purpose yards)
4. Jerry Rice, Super Bowl XXIII, San Francisco 49ers (11 rec., 215 yards and TD)
5. Lynn Swann, Super Bowl X, Pittsburgh Steelers (4 rec., 161 yards, two TDs)
6. Phil Simms, Super Bowl XXI, New York Giants (22-of-25, 268 yards and three TDs)
7. Vernon Perry, AFC Divisionals, Houston Oilers (Four interceptions)
8. Timmy Smith, Super Bowl XXII, Washington Redskins (22 car., 204 rush yards and two TDs)
9. Keith Lincoln, 1963 AFL Championship, San Diego Chargers (329 all-purpose yards, two TDs)
10. Kurt Warner, NFC Wild Card, Arizona Cardinals (29-of-33, 379 yards, five TDs)

Quotable

“Don’t tell me I didn’t do my job, m—–f—–,” Bennett added. “Get the f— out of my face. Like I said, get out of my face. Don’t play with me. Don’t play with me. I just put my heart on the f—ing field.”

Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett after Seattle’s 36-20 loss at Atlanta

This quote was indicative of the Seahawks during their blowout defeat in the NFC Divisionals on Saturday to the Atlanta Falcons. Seattle lost its cool, starting going after players, and ultimately got embarrassed in every way imaginable. It’s one thing to lose. It is another to look like punks while doing it.

Atlanta was the better team, and has been all year. The Falcons dominated after an early score by Seattle, at one point going on a 36-6 run. Seattle needs to figure out how to fix the offensive line and bolster a suddenly vulnerable secondary. As for the Falcons, they are leaving the Seahawks – and Bennett – in the dust as they head to the NFC Championship Game.

Random stat

In NFL history, there have been 18 playoff games with a quarterback eclipsing 400 passing yards. One game, the 1982 AFC Divisional between the Chargers and Dolphins, saw both Don Strock and Dan Fouts hit the mark.

Of those contests, the team with the gaudy passing stats went 8-11. Drew Brees, Dan Marino and Peyton Manning were the only quarterbacks to do it multiple times.

Nobody has ever thrown for 500 yards in a postseason game. Bernie Kosar came the closest when the Browns beat the Jets in double overtime of a 1986 AFC Divisional thriller, totaling 489 yards.

Info learned this week

1. Packers-Cowboys provide instant classic

Green Bay is going to the NFC Championship Game after a duel for the ages in Dallas. The Packers led 21-3 and looked for the blowout, but Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott came back in brilliant fashion for a 31-31 tie. Elliott rushed for 125 yards while Prescott threw for 302.

Yet, it was Aaron Rodgers in the end. Rodgers, on 3rd and 16, made a spectacular 36-yard throw on the run to Jared Cook, setting up Mason Crosby’s 51-yard game-winning field goal. Now, it’s Green Bay to take on Atlanta, while the top-seeded Cowboys go home.

2. Steelers deal Chiefs another home playoff loss

Pittsburgh didn’t score a touchdown, but found a way to win. The Steelers gashed Kansas City on the ground in their 18-16 win, with Le’Veon Bell rushing for over 100 yards in the first half. Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t great, but didn’t need to be in the upset win.

The Chiefs continue to show why people sing their praises, but deep down don’t believe in them. Alex Smith missed multiple touchdown opportunities and finished 20-of-34 for 172 with a touchdown and interception. Ultimately, this is Kansas City’s ceiling with Smith at quarterback. Very good, but limited against great players at the position come the playoffs.

3. Jim Irsay is toying with his employees

According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, Colts owner Jim Irsay has been trying to cajole Jon Gruden out of the broadcast booth and back onto the sidelines. Gruden, 53, who won Super Bowl XXXVII with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, remains intriguing because of his resume and age.

However, it appears Gruden won’t bite. In addition, rumors continue to swirl about Irsay going after former Colts and future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning to run the team as a de facto general manager. This is all incredibly awkward, with Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano still in their positions. If Irsay fails to acquire his targets – and he has thus far – the dysfunction in Indianapolis is at an all-time high.

4. Wade Phillips’ move impacts entire league

Phillips was not a terrific head coach, although his career record of 82-61 speaks to a better career than some give him credit for. This week, it was announced that Phillips would be leaving the Broncos in his defensive coordinator role to take the same spot on Sean McVay’s staff with the Rams.

Phillips is one of the best defensive minds in NFL history. He won a Super Bowl in Denver last year, and now inherits a unit led by Aaron Donald. Los Angeles will immediately reap the rewards, while Denver has to find a new identity under Joe Woods, Phillips’ successor. Nothing against Woods, but he will have a tough time living up to the past two years, which saw Denver rank fourth and first, respectively.

5. Quarterback situations murky across league

Typically, the only place to find a big-name quarterback is in the NFL Draft. That won’t be the case this offseason. The Bears are likely to cut Jay Cutler, considering he’s owed $16 million. If Chicago releases the veteran, it saves $14 million. Another big name will be Tony Romo, who likely gets traded or released by the Cowboys. Look for a litany of suitors to line up for Romo’s services, including the Cardinals.

Then there are the Vikings. Minnesota owes Sam Bradford $18 million next year, but owe nothing if he’s cut. If Teddy Bridgewater is declared healthy, Bradford could well hit the market. Finally, Tyrod Taylor could be a very intriguing name. He’s 27 years old, multi-talented and in the right offense, could be a star. The Bills may move on, considering he’s owed $27 million if Taylor remains on roster in the new league year.

Two quarterbacks who won’t be hitting the market are Blake Bortles and Brock Osweiler. Jacksonville’s hire of Doug Marrone means ownership believes Bortles can be salvaged, while Osweiler is a numbers game. Osweiler counts $19 million against the cap in 2017 and $25 million if released. He’s not going anywhere.

History lesson

The Buccaneers played at Tampa Stadium from 1976-1997. The Saints have inhabited the Superdome since 1975.  In those combined 63 seasons, the two stadiums have seen 10 playoff games from their tenants, with seven victories from the home team.

In that same span, the Super Bowl has been hosted by those two venues nine times. More champions have been crowned there than the Saints and Buccaneers have accumulated wins.

Parting shot

It’s going to be a fun conference championship weekend. One could argue the three best quarterbacks in football will be on the field come Sunday, with the notable exception of Drew Brees. Then you have Matt Ryan, who is a frontrunner for MVP and a heck of a player in his won right.

The NFL can’t lose with these games, and whoever wins them. There is a very good chance that the Patriots reach a seventh Super Bowl under Belichick. If not, Roethlisberger makes his fourth appearance. On the NFC side, we either get the continued brilliance of Rodgers or Ryan gets his first shot at a title. Regardless, commissioner Roger Goodell has to be thrilled.

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