The NFL gave us one of the great sports days in quite some time this past Sunday. The NFC Championship game went into overtime and the AFC title game at least should have. For seven thrilling hours, fans across the country, if not the world, were glued to their television sets awaiting the outcomes of the respective contests. But lost in the hysteria of both title games was that the way we would view the careers of several players, especially the four quarterbacks, were going to be defined by how they played on Sunday.
I know that it is not fair to define an athlete based on one game, but a number of the Conference title games participants found themselves at the crossroads of their careers. The spotlight was on Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Alex Smith, and even Tom Brady, to see how they were going to respond to the moment and see if they were going to answer the bell.
Considering what was at stake, Manning officially catapulted himself into the elite quarterback category, although his numbers did not indicate it, and conversely, Flacco answered his critics, to a certain degree, with a solid performance against the heavily favored New England Patriots, although he did not win. Alex Smith earned an incomplete grade with his nondescript performance against the New York Giants, despite throwing for two touchdowns. Brady will be going to his fifth Super Bowl, despite turning in perhaps his worst post season performance of his illustrious career.
What does this all mean for these four young men? As for Manning, folks sneered when he proclaimed that he thought he was among the current elite quarterbacks. Nobody is laughing now. If you did not think he was among the elite quarterbacks before, you would be hard-pressed to argue that he is not now. Eli Manning put the Giants offense on his back and carried a unit that many felt would not make the playoffs a month ago to the cusp of winning their second Super Bowl in four years. He threw for nearly 5,000 yards this season, throwing to a receiving unit that the experts felt was raw and inexperienced at best. And if you did not believe in Manning before Sunday’s 20-17 overtime victory over the San Francisco 49ers, then his performance in that game should be exhibit A.
No he did not have his best statistical game. The stout 49ers defense and the elements saw to that. But he showed the guts and the guile that legends are made of. He took a licking and kept on ticking. He was sacked six times and knocked to the ground at least twenty more times. In the first half, he and Victor Cruz were an unstoppable combination. Although it appeared that San Francisco applied the breaks on the Giants offense in the second half, he took advantage of the two Kyle Wilson gifts, converting them into 10 points, including Lawrence Tynes’ game-winning field goal in overtime.
With a victory in Super Bowl XLVI, Manning will solidify his position as one of this era’s best. A couple more seasons like this, he can be mentioned among the best to play the game, including his older brother Peyton.
Now his adversary’s play on Sunday yielded more questions than answers. Yes, Alex Smith did throw for two nice long touchdown passes to Vernon Davis. However, both of the scores were the result of blown coverages. Take away those blown assignments and the Giants virtually shut down Smith and his Band of Merry Men. Yes, like Eli, he was facing a ferocious defense in poor conditions, but there was not anything in Smith’s play that remotely compared to his breakout performance last week in the Divisional Playoff game.
Flacco had one tumultuous week. It began with defensive teammate Eric
Reed calling him out, and ended with his offensive and special teams
associates letting him down. During an interview with the NFL Network, Reed had suggested that Flacco needed to step up his game if the Ravens were going to do anything in the Playoffs. Flacco was 7-1 against teams with winning records this season, including 2-0 vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers. But the many members of the Ravens defense silently questioned whether the Baltimore signal caller had what it took to lead them to the Promised Land. Well against the Patriots, he put them in a position to score but his receivers could not seal the deal.
On one play, he laid out a beautiful, long pass that the intended receiver could not locate. Then in the closing moments, he put a perfectly thrown ball into Lee Evans’ bread basket, and Lee failed to secure the ball, allowing a defensive back to strip him of the ball in the end zone. Had Lee held onto that ball, the Ravens would be on their way to Indianapolis this week. Then, to add insult to injury, Billy Cundiff missed the subsequent field goal that would have sent the game into overtime. Like I said, at least on this afternoon Flacco did his part. Some of the same teammates that questioned his heart let him down.
Finally, you had one Tom Brady. With three Super Bowl victories on his resume, one would think that no one should be questioning his legacy. However, he has not won a playoff game in four years and some so-called experts are questioning whether he can win, not only another Super Bowl, but even a playoff game. It should not have been if he would have won another playoff game, but when.
Brady put that playoff part to rest with an eye-opening, impressive performance against the Denver Broncos. He made quick work of the Tim Tebow-led Broncos with a six-touchdown performance. Now he has hissights set on his fourth Super Bowl ring, which will silence any talk about if he still has it, and cement his legacy as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. With back-to-back 13-game winning regular seasons, you would think the critics would give the Golden Boy abreak, but he and the Patriots have set such a high standard that it is Championship or Bust in New England. And not winning a playoff game in four years has the folks in New England antsy, especially with them losing to the Jets last year in the Divisional Playoffs game last year. Sunday’s victory over the Ravens should silent those who are questioning Brady, although he had a less-than-stellar game (no touchdowns and 2 interceptions).
Now Manning and Brady will duel for all of the marbles in two weeks. Brady will be playing for the title of one the game’s greatest of all time, while Eli will be trying to emerge from his brother’s shadow and put his name in the conversation of today’s best quarterbacks. Winning on Sunday gives Manning and Brady a chance to enhance their resumes, while questions still linger for Flacco and Smith