Time to break out the iThink for a special football final four edition. I’m sharing a few football thoughts while wondering if John Denver was ahead of his time when he wrote “Rocky Mountain High” in 1972.
■ I think I would feel better about the Patriots’ chances if the AFC Championship game were being played at sea level. Regardless of the edifice or its Mile High moniker, Denver was a House of Horrors, long before Peyton Manning was in an orange uniform. The Patriots won their first 10 playoff games with Brady and Belichick, until they lost in Denver in the 2005 AFC Divisional round. That was the game in which Benjamin Watson chased down Champ Bailey to prevent a 101-yard interception return.
The throw by Tom Brady was quite possibly the worst of his career. The Patriots are 0-2 all time in the playoffs in Denver and 9-18 all time on the road against their former AFL brethren.
■ I think at least one local TV station had “Quarterback Contagion” ready to go after Brady missed practice Wednesday because of an illness. There is a better chance of Aaron Hernandez suiting up for the Patriots Sunday than Brady missing the AFC title game. Just remember Brady played brilliantly in the 2004 AFC Championship with a 103-degree fever, as chronicled in an excellent Sports Illustrated piece by Michael Silver that still gives you febrile chills just reading it. Brady’s biggest problem isn’t being sick. It’s the feeling he’s being sent into a drag race driving a Prius.
■ I think it’s quotes like this one from LeGarrette Blount that sometimes cause the Patriots’ approach with the media to draw eye-rolls. Blount was asked if it was different not having Brady at practice. He toed the company line, which is expected. But then he left reality in his wake, like Indianapolis Colts defenders.
“Nah. There’s nothing any different,” said Blount. “We’re going to go out there and operate if Tom’s there or not. Ryan [Mallett] knows just about everything Tom knows, I’m pretty sure, and he went out there and executed the practice the same as Tom would.” Next Man Up has limits, and replacing Brady with Mallett, even in practice, is well beyond those limits.
■ I think the dichotomy between the teams in the AFC and NFC title games is a fascinating litmus test for the league. Is it simply a quarterback league or does defense still reign in the most important part of the season? The AFC championship features the two most accomplished quarterbacks in the league, Manning and Brady, and two defenses that are in the bottom half of the NFL in total defense.
The NFC title game participants, the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers, sport two talented young quarterbacks and two of the stingiest defenses in the league. The teams finished first and tied for second, respectively, in turnover differential. Seattle was plus-20. San Francisco was plus-12. We’ll find out just how much of a quarterback league it really is by Super Bowl XLVIII.
■ I think that Denver overcame injuries to reach this point, too. Much has been made, rightfully so, of the Patriots’ injuries this season. But Denver has put Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady; its best defensive player, Von Miller; its most consistent cover corner, Chris Harris; a pair of starting defensive lineman in Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe; and safety Rahim Moore on injured reserve this season. (Moore was designated for return, but is not looking good for the AFC title game). Bailey also missed 11 games.
■ I think if Brady does have enough weapons to duel with Manning, it will be because Danny Amendola delivers a big game. One of the lost stories from the Patriots’ 43-22 victory over the Indianapolis Colts was how well Amendola performed in his first career playoff game. Amendola made three catches for 77 yards, including a huge 53-yarder in the third quarter, when the Patriots were backed up on their 12 and Indy had made it a 6-point game.
■ I think there is still one thing I don’t get about the Wes Welker-Patriots contract negotiations. The Patriots declared Welker was their first choice all along, and owner Robert Kraft made it clear the Patriots’ offer would have paid Welker $8 million in year one of the deal. Guess who was guaranteed to make a minimum of $8 million this year between signing bonus ($6) and guaranteed base salary ($2 million)? Amendola. Normally, you’re willing to pay a little more for your first choice.
■ I think the first game between the Patriots and Broncos was an instant classic, but it has no bearing on the AFC title tilt. Brady-Manning XIV was essentially a draw. Both teams decisively won a half and the OT was a windy stalemate, until Welker failed to field a punt and it took a fortuitous Foxborough bounce off another ex-Patriot, Tony Carter, to set up the winning field goal.
The Patriots had Rob Gronkowski and the Broncos didn’t have their Pro Bowl tight end, Julius Thomas, that night. It was also the coldest regular-season game in Gillette Stadium history, which started the Manning-isn’t-a-cold-weather-QB story line. It’s supposed to be downright balmy in Denver Sunday.
■ I think it’s funny that Jim Harbaugh’s wife called into a San Francisco radio station to disavow herself from the sartorial disaster of his pleated khakis. Harbaugh’s wife, Sarah, called KMVQ-FM, according to the station, to say that she has pleaded with her husband to drop his signature pleated pants from his sideline attire. How can Harbaugh not have an endorsement deal with Dockers, produced by San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co.?
■ I think the AFC Championship game is one of the toughest games to pick in recent years. Picking games is an occupational hazard for any sportswriter, but Brady-Manning XV has proven particularly vexing. Like the Patriots, I’m going to have to defer on this coin flip. Check back Friday for a prediction.