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tara sullivan

It’s the clash of the titans in the NFC, the next-gen showcase in the AFC, and other championship Sunday observations

Young star Deshaun Watson could be on the move out of Houston.
Young star Deshaun Watson could be on the move out of Houston.Sam Craft/Associated Press

Only two Sundays left in an NFL season we couldn’t be certain would reach the end, and the road that has taken us toward the Super Bowl has certainly had its share of potholes, hurdles, and interruptions. The 2020 experience is one that won’t soon be forgotten, yet as much as the COVID-19 pandemic has hovered over everything, the season should be remembered for another reason.

Legendary quarterback play.

The two games upcoming Sunday feature two aging legends in Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers and two rising talents in Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. Each of them threw at least 35 touchdown passes this season. Rodgers’s 48 led the way, followed by Brady (40), Mahomes (38), and Allen (37).

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At the risk of sounding corny, don’t miss the moment.

The clash of the titans in the NFC Championship game, the next-gen showcase in the AFC Championship game. So many amazing possibilities — a record 10th Super Bowl appearance for Brady, a coveted second Super Bowl win for Rodgers, a first appearance for the most improved QB of them all in Allen, or a second appearance and second title for what would be the youngest QB in history in Mahomes.

And last weekend brought us the apparent finales of two more veteran standouts in Drew Brees (still mulling retirement) and Philip Rivers (announced his retirement), and showcased two more rising talents in Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield.

A great time to be watching football.

As we wait, a look around at some NFL tidbits:

▪ Have we also seen the last of another lion in Ben Roethlisberger? Rivers, Roethlisberger, and the retired Eli Manning will stand as one of the best QB draft classes ever, as they entered the league together in 2004.

Yet it’s a guy who was shut out of this year’s playoff picture who is the most fascinating offseason story line of them all.

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If Adam Schefter is right and Deshaun Watson is done with Houston, someone is about to land a franchise QB they never dreamed possible.

What does the future hold for Deshaun Watson?
What does the future hold for Deshaun Watson?Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

No doubt the Patriots would love Watson, but there’s no way to see them having the capital in draft picks and young talent to make a deal. And with Watson needing to waive a no-trade clause for any swap to go through, it’s hard to think he’d approve of New England, former home to Nick Caserio, Jack Easterby, and Bill O’Brien, all of whom he feels have failed him in Houston.

▪ Best heartfelt moment of the week: Did you see the viral video of Brees and Brady meeting on the field after the divisional game in New Orleans? Caught by NFL Network’s James Palmer, the moment closes with Brady tossing a pass to Brees’s son, joking that he could have used the youngster out on the field.

The entire sequence was a lovely exchange, filled with mutual respect, friendship, and admiration between the parents and a nifty, sure-handed catch by the youngster. I couldn’t help but wonder if Brady will still be out there by the time Brees’s son makes it to the NFL.

▪ Dan Campbell’s hiring as coach in Detroit understandably has been met with skepticism, his lack of coordinator experience (though he did have an interim head coaching gig) and a six-year contract showing an awful lot of faith. A personal recollection reminds me that this is not the first time people reacted with a wide-eyed, “Who the heck is Dan Campbell?”

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My second year on the Giants beat for The Bergen Record in New Jersey happened to be 2002, also the rookie year of tight end Jeremy Shockey, the team’s first-round draft pick who joined incumbent tight end … Dan Campbell.

Shockey was a beast from the outset, his stunning debut in the preseason Hall of Fame Game seeing him drag tacklers a la Mark Bavaro. It sent the fan base into a tizzy, and prompted the legendary Bill Parcells, then an ESPN analyst, to quip that the Giants might just leave Shockey in Canton, Ohio, for all the publicity he was already getting. In other words, don’t put him in the Hall of Fame just yet.

Parcells was right, of course, and Shockey’s volatility off the field combined with too many injuries on it curtailed a potential Hall of Fame career. He did, however, win the fan-voted Pepsi Rookie of the Year in 2002, which put him at a press conference during Super Bowl week. His acceptance speech included an ode to his little-known teammate Campbell, whom he lauded over and over again for his help in every facet of the game, including blocking.

Half the room kept looking around with that same wide-eyed wonder: “Who the heck is Dan Campbell?”

Guess the NFL at large is about to find out.

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▪ Very cool news that Sarah Thomas was named to the Super Bowl officiating crew. Eventually (hopefully) these types of announcements will be neither necessary nor unique, but in breaking another glass ceiling, Thomas deserves kudos.

Sarah Thomas signals during a game last month.
Sarah Thomas signals during a game last month.Brian Westerholt/Associated Press

As the down judge, she will be the first woman to officiate a Super Bowl, the reward for a career that began when she was hired as the NFL’s first full-time female official in 2015.

▪ Back to Rivers for a moment. His lack of a Super Bowl will always leave a Dan Marino-like hole on his résumé, but his career numbers still might land him in Canton (63,440 yards, 421 TDs).

He is, by all accounts, a Hall of Fame guy, and his farewell statement revealed a little bit of why. In expressing his appreciation for opposing defenses who made his life so difficult, he also pointed how much he enjoyed the verbal back-and-forth with his foes.

Rivers, who does not utter curse words, then added this: “I appreciate the referees for putting up with all my fussing. I think I was right most of the time dadgummit!”

Well played.

▪ The offensive fumble through the end zone/touchback rule deserves the debate that engulfs it every time it happens, as it did when Cleveland lost to Kansas City last weekend. Count me among those who believe the punishment far outweighs the crime, and the rule should be changed to give possession back to the offense along with a significant yardage penalty.

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But my favorite part of the in-game debate came in a tweet from Devin McCourty, who revealed yet again how Bill Belichick always has his Patriots coached up.

“Every guy who has played for Bill started screaming at the tv ‘DONT REACH IT’ ” McCourty tweeted, followed by five laugh-out-loud emojis.

Belichick allows offensive players to reach for the pylon only on fourth down. Smart.

▪ One element that has been underplayed but has made a significant difference for some teams? Home crowds.

The NFL left decisions on fan attendance to individual states, and I’m not sure it would have had the authority to ban fans across the board. But man, those 6,700 people in Buffalo last weekend sure sounded like a whole lot more, and there’s no doubt their presence buoyed the Bills as they advanced past the surging Ravens.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.