NFL loyalists know the Tom Brady storyline: Essentially a draft afterthought, Brady advances to become one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.
Brady is back in the AFC Championship game that has become such familiar territory for him, but joining him in the quarterback club for championship weekend are three other quarterbacks that were the furthest thing from an afterthought on their respective draft weekends.
While Brady stands as the exception to the rule that drafting a quarterback in the first round is still a wise way to the playoff path, the three other starting quarterbacks on championship Sunday show that it is still a quarterback league.
Welcome back to the old-man’s quarterback rivalry, Peyton Manning, No. 1 overall pick of the 1998 NFL Draft.
Welcome to your first NFL playoff win, Carson Palmer, No. 1 overall pick of the 2003 NFL Draft.
Welcome to conference championship weekend, Cam Newton, No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft.
With three of the four starting quarterbacks on conference championship weekend former No. 1 overall picks, it underscores the importance of the position. But it also shows that patience often runs out. Newton is the only one of the three still with the team that drafted him.
Manning left Indianapolis because of concerns over a neck injury and the Colts didn’t want to eschew the opportunity to draft Andrew Luck. Understandable.
Manning won Super Bowl XLI and was the MVP in that 2006 championship season, but he’s become one of the most decorated quarterbacks in NFL history with 14 Pro Bowls to his credit, seven first-team All-Pro selections, five AP NFL MVPs and the list continues from there.
But his rivalry with Brady has been a special one. They have met 17 times in their NFL careers. Manning has the records; Brady boasts the rings.
Manning has directed his teams to the Super Bowl three times and is the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns. But he has only one Super Bowl ring.
Brady, who has paired with head coach Bill Belichick as the winningest quarterback-coach playoff duo, has four Super Bowl rings. And Brady has dominated the series between him and Manning with an 11-5 record, although their playoff meetings have produced two wins each for them.
But if Manning is going to get the better of Brady this time around, he’ll have to find a rhythm with his offense that has been missing. The Broncos found the end zone for the game-winning touchdown with three minutes to play against Pittsburgh, but the Broncos had gone 22 consecutive postseason drives without a touchdown prior to that.
The day before, Brady showed that a running game can be overrated when an elite quarterback is operating the offense. The Patriots’ first drive against the Kansas City Chiefs went 11 plays – all of them passes – for a touchdown, and it was only the fourth time a team won a playoff game throwing at 75 percent of the time – Brady owns two of those four instances.
The NFC blood is newer than Brady-Manning, especially to the championship stage. Palmer spent his first eight years with the Cincinnati Bengals after winning the Heisman Trophy with USC in 2002. He earned three trips to the Pro Bowl with the Bengals but couldn’t buy a playoff win before he was replaced by Andy Dalton.
Newton is a three-time Pro Bowl pick, earning first-team All-Pro this season and is a likely MVP favorite. On Sunday, he opened up a 31-0 halftime lead against the Seattle Seahawks, but the Panthers didn’t score again and held on for a 31-24 win in which Newton was held to 3 yards rushing on 11 carries.
The NFC matchups of quarterbacks couldn’t be much different. Newton is the athletic, expressive specimen who irks some and elates others with his celebrations. Palmer is the pocket passer operating with operated-on knees.
Palmer’s patience with Cincinnati grew thin six years ago. Indianapolis was willing to take a gamble a gamble on Luck and let Manning walk. Newton, easily the youngest of the quarterback quartet in the conference championship games, remains with the Panthers. And Brady, of course, will forever be stamped with the Patriots.
It doesn’t really matter how they got to the precipice of the Super Bowl this time around – with or without Super Bowl rings on their résumés – but it’s crystal clear how important the quarterbacks are to their respective teams.