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The AFC and NFC Championship games on Sunday aren’t just a battle for a trip to the Super Bowl. They’re a battle of generations — of old guard vs. new, yesterday vs. tomorrow, aging stars vs. the next wave.
Tom Brady and Drew Brees have been starting NFL games and lighting up scoreboards since the early 2000s. Two decades into their careers, they are still on top — Brady, 41, has the Patriots in the AFC Championship game for the eighth straight time, while Brees, who turned 40 on Tuesday, is an MVP finalist and led the Saints to the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
But staring across at them Sunday will be the future of the NFL. Brady faces Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the likely league MVP who became just the third player in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in a season.
Brees faces the Rams’ Jared Goff, 24, who quarterbacked the No. 2 offense this season and has won 24 games in two years.
“I was that age at one point, too,” Brady quipped on Friday. “It goes fast, and I’m sure it will go fast for them in their young career.”
Mahomes, only 23 years old, was born in September 1995, when Brady had just enrolled as a freshman at Michigan. Goff was born in October 1994, when Brees was a sophomore in high school.
“He’s just tremendous,” Brees said of Goff. “There’s not many guys that are just better pure passers, throwers. I think he creates great timing and rhythm in the passing game and obviously he had a phenomenal season last year, but he’s had an even better season this year. Future is really bright for him.”
Mahomes tried to downplay the whole Brady passing-the-torch narrative this past week, noting that Brady isn’t really showing signs of slowing down.
“I’m a young guy. He’s done so much in this league and he’s still doing it today. He’s going to play for some more years to come,” Mahomes said. “I’m going to strive to do some of the things he’s done, the Super Bowls he’s won. He’s not trying to pass the torch any time soon. He’s playing at a high level this year and I expect him to keep playing at this level for at least another couple years.”
But Mahomes’s first season as a starter has been unprecedented, with his eye-popping stats and an incredible collection of highlight-reel plays.
Mahomes, who sat for his entire rookie season, can join Kurt Warner and Colin Kaepernick as recent quarterbacks to make the Super Bowl in their first season as a starter.
“Quite frankly he’s a very exciting player. I haven’t seen a guy come into the league like this,” former longtime coach Bill Parcells said on SiriusXM. “He’s just got a unique skill set. He’s not what you call the conventional quarterback. I mean, he has those skills and then he has the ability to maneuver, and he gets the ball out of his hands on all different planes and he seems to be pretty accurate when he’s doing that. And he has very, very high production.”
Mahomes can top Brady with the “wow” factor, but Brady is still the industry standard in terms of winning. A “down” year for Brady included 4,355 yards, 29 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, and he beat Mahomes in the first matchup this year, a 43-40 Patriots win in Foxborough.
Former Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel doesn’t want to hear that Mahomes has overtaken Brady as the best quarterback.
“I have a lot of debates with my friends about who is the greatest,” Samuel said by telephone. “I explain to them guys might be more athletic, have a stronger arm, but you don’t understand the differences of a winner. When it’s time to execute and make a play, or it’s time to get this done, or it’s time to get your teammate to do this, that’s the difference at quarterback of being a winner and being great. You control the whole team. It’s not about those stats or how far you can throw and all that stuff.”
Samuel said the Chiefs have a “special kid” at quarterback, but is betting on experience winning out Sunday.
“This is my motto — I will not bet against Tom,” Samuel said. “I’ll bet against Bill [Belichick], but I won’t bet against Tom.”
Related: Chad Finn’s Unconventional Preview: Patriots-Chiefs is the one we expected, and it should be a thriller
Brees, meanwhile, will become just the third 40-year-old in NFL history to start a playoff game, joining Brady and Brett Favre. Brees is looking for his second trip to the Super Bowl, but is excited for Goff and other up-and-coming quarterbacks.
Goff, looking to bring the Rams back to their first Super Bowl since the 2001 season, said this past week that Brees was great to be around at the Pro Bowl last January.
“You see just how professional he is and why he’s been doing it at such a high level for so long,” Goff said. “I think he’s not necessarily prototypical with size, speed, strength and all that, but what he has is his professionalism and the way he approaches the game. I have so much respect for him and was able to be around him at that Pro Bowl and pick up a little bit from him.”
The NFL has had a banner season of exciting games, emerging young stars, and improved TV ratings, and the league’s good fortune continues with these championship games: the four top offenses in the league, led by two established superstars and two up-and-comers. No matter what, the NFL is guaranteed to get a Super Bowl that will either pair two legends, two of the top young stars, or one of each.
“Jared and Patrick have had great seasons, great offenses,” Brady said. “And you know, still here, plugging around, me and Drew, doing our thing, having a lot of fun doing it.”
POINTS WELL TAKEN
Top four offenses are left standing
■ This year marks the first time in the 53-year Super Bowl era that the top four scoring offenses from the regular season all reached the conference championship game. But the No. 1 scoring offense hasn’t won a Super Bowl since the 2009 Saints.
■ There were only three games this season in which two playoff teams each scored 35 points against each other: The Patriots’ 43-40 win over the Chiefs in Week 6, the Saints’ 45-35 win over the Rams in Week 9, and the Rams’ 54-51 win over the Chiefs in Week 11. Two of those games are rematches this weekend, and the third could be a Super Bowl rematch.
■ What do Rams coach Sean McVay and Saints coach Sean Payton have in common? Both got their first NFL jobs working under Jon Gruden. Payton was the Eagles’ quarterbacks coach in 1997 when Gruden was their offensive coordinator. And McVay was the Buccaneers’ assistant wide receivers coach in 2008 when Gruden was their head coach.
■ The NFL Films microphones caught Patriots defensive line coach Brendan Daly pumping up his players on the sideline last Sunday in regard to Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. “We got him where we want him! He’s bitching to the official on every snap!”
■ A few Did You Know stats, courtesy of STATS LLC:
1. The Patriots were one of the best deep-ball defenses in the NFL. They allowed a passer rating of 74.1 on passes traveling at least 21 yards in the air, fourth lowest in the NFL. They also allowed a league-low 8.67 yards per attempt with five interceptions.
2. The Patriots are 59-1 under Bill Belichick when they have an individual 100-yard rusher. The one loss was a 29-28 loss to the Dolphins in 2004, with Corey Dillon rushing for 121 yards.
3. The Patriots allowed an average of just 17.5 points over their final eight regular-season games, third fewest in the NFL behind the Bears and Colts. The Chiefs were 27th in that time frame (27 points per game).
4. NFL teams had a .305 winning percentage this season when turning the ball over two or more times in a game, but the Patriots were 5-0. Teams had just a .192 win percentage when turning the ball over three or more times, but the Patriots were 3-0 (Texans, Bears, second Bills game).
COMINGS AND GOINGS
DeGuglielmo sent packing by Colts
A few notes about some of the assistant coaches getting hired and fired in the past couple of weeks:
■ Former Patriots offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo was one of the coaches who went to Indianapolis last year to work with Josh McDaniels, only to find out that McDaniels wasn’t coming. New Colts coach Frank Reich kept DeGuglielmo on staff, and the Colts’ offensive line had a banner year, allowing the fewest sacks in the league (18) a year after allowing the most sacks in the league (56).
But that wasn’t enough for DeGuglielmo to keep his job, and Reich ended the arranged marriage by firing him this past week.
“It was really odd dynamics the way that he and I got connected, and it’s no reflection on him or anything,” Reich said. “It’s just when I had envisioned getting this position, there’s certain things that you just are looking for, in ways that you just want to have ‘my guy,’ for lack of a better way to say. You always envision bringing in the guy that you had envisioned bringing in. But certainly appreciate the contribution Guge made, and I told him that, and love and respect him.”
■ Matt Patricia fired offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, a holdover from the previous staff, and hired Darrell Bevell, who was the Seahawks’ offensive coordinator from 2011-17. Hopefully Patricia’s first question in the job interview was, “So, why did you call a pass on the 1-yard line instead of handing off to Marshawn Lynch?”
■ Look at the names being hired for offensive coordinator jobs around the league: Bevell got his third coordinator job with the Lions; John DeFilippo, just fired by the Vikings, resurfaced with the Jaguars; Todd Monken was fired in Tampa Bay and hired in Cleveland; Greg Roman, the ex-49ers OC, was promoted in Baltimore; Nathaniel Hackett, fired by Jacksonville, got the Green Bay OC job; Dirk Koetter, fired as the Buccaneers’ head coach, got the Falcons’ OC job; Gary Kubiak is taking a senior level job with the Vikings, and brought his son, Klint, as the new quarterbacks coach; Ben McAdoo, Tom Clements, and Cooter have all interviewed for the Cardinals job.
It’s one giant merry-go-round of retreads, with teams choosing to recycle familiar names instead of finding someone new or fresh. This is why the NFL has a problem with a lack of diversity among its head coaching and coordinator ranks. The only minority offensive coordinator hired this year is the Buccaneers’ Byron Leftwich, who was fired by Arizona.
Gruden’s next QB may be on display
Derek Carr’s future with the Raiders is no guarantee, and Jon Gruden will be in a prime position to draft another quarterback if he so chooses this year. The Raiders have the fourth, 24th, and 27th picks, and will get a hands-on look at some of the best quarterbacks in the draft this coming week when they coach the North team at the Senior Bowl.
The 49ers’ coaching staff will coach the South team.
The Senior Bowl has an intriguing roster of quarterbacks. Gruden’s North team has Missouri’s Drew Lock, N.C. State’s Ryan Finley, Duke’s Daniel Jones, and Penn State’s Trace McSorley. The South team has West Virginia’s Will Grier, Washington State’s Gardner Minshew, Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham, and Buffalo’s 6-foot-7-inch Tyree Jackson.
Gruden and his coaches will not only get to see up close how these quarterbacks perform in practice, but also how they handle themselves in meetings and take to coaching. This also applies for the other 100 or so prospects in Alabama for the week.
The guess here is Rosen stays put
It sure is fun to speculate about the Cardinals trading Josh Rosen and taking Kyler Murray with the No. 1 pick, especially with new coach Kliff Kingsbury saying this past season that he would, in fact, take Murray with the No. 1 overall pick if he had the opportunity. But I have my doubts.
First, the Cardinals would have to pay Murray a $24 million signing bonus, a year after giving Rosen an $11 million bonus. But even if money were no object, I don’t believe the Cardinals want to trade Rosen. I spent some time with owner Michael Bidwill at the fall owners’ meetings, and he made it clear how much he liked Rosen and how excited he was about his potential. And as much as I like Murray, do the Cardinals really want to use the No. 1 pick on a quarterback who stands 5-10 in cleats? The far more realistic scenario is the Cardinals trading the No. 1 pick for a haul of picks to a team that is more desperate for a quarterback.
The Jaguars have suddenly emerged as the top landing spot for Nick Foles this offseason, with the hiring of John DeFilippo as their offensive coordinator. DeFilippo was Foles’s quarterbacks coach in 2017 when the Eagles won the Super Bowl. Foles won’t have too many options if and when he hits free agency this March — most teams with a quarterback vacancy would rather just draft and develop one — but Foles should get interest from the Jaguars, Dolphins, Redskins, and Broncos . . . Alshon Jeffery picked the wrong time to get the dropsies. Per Pro Football Focus, last week’s drop-turned-interception at the end of the Eagles’ loss to the Saints was Jeffery’s first career drop in 35 postseason targets . . . You don’t see this often — Mike Munchak was one of two finalists for the Broncos’ head coaching job, lost out to Vic Fangio, then joined Fangio’s staff as the offensive line coach. Munchak, the Titans’ head coach from 2011-13 and the Steelers’ line coach the last five seasons, said he wanted to live near his daughter and granddaughter in Denver . . . The best fact learned from all of the news conferences this past week introducing the new head coaches — Browns coach Freddie Kitchens’s wife is named Ginger Kitchens . . . The assignment that no coach wants — the Cowboys and Chargers staffs will be coaching in the Pro Bowl.
Quote of the week
“Wes is a young offensive coach who knows Sean McVay, if anyone is looking for a head coach.”
— Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, doing some PR for his son, Wes, and noting how anyone even remotely connected to McVay seems to be getting NFL head coaching jobs.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.