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NFL playoffs: Previewing a battle of NFC’s best; potential final chapter of Brady vs. Manning

Tom Brady is set to play in his 10th AFC title game. (Elise Amendola/Associated Press)

Each week, The Washington Post’s Mark Maske provides in-depth Monday morning NFL analysis with “First and 10,” a dissection of the league’s most important developments from a weekend of action.

First and 10: Jan. 18

First thoughts on the conference finals

1. Field conditions in Carolina | 2. Manning’s slide
3. Fitzgerald’s “catch” | 4. Coin toss fiasco
5. McDermott and McDaniels | 6. Ranking the hirings
7. Jackson and Manziel | 8. Lions stay course with Caldwell
9. Chargers and Raiders | 10. Olsen’s shoulder


CHARLOTTE — The quarterback matchup that everyone will be talking about takes place in the AFC title game this coming Sunday, with New England’s Tom Brady and Denver’s Peyton Manning squaring off for perhaps the final time.

But the two best NFL teams still playing this season will be matched up here later Sunday in the NFC championship game, with the Carolina Panthers hosting the Arizona Cardinals.

Here are some quick early thoughts:

Patriots at Broncos

Brady-Manning XVII comes in Sunday’s early game in Denver and one would think the odds are that there won’t be a Brady-Manning XVIII.

From Brady-Manning XVI in November 2014

Brady has won 11 of the 16 matchups so far, and he and the Patriots were the smoother-operating team this weekend. Brady had some key members of New England’s offense back in the lineup Saturday and the Patriots resembled the team the went 10-0 to begin the regular season, not the injury-plagued version that went 2-4 down the stretch and twice lost with chances to secure the AFC’s top seed.

The Patriots beat the Kansas City Chiefs, 27-20, with Brady throwing for 302 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Julian Edelman celebrated his return to the lineup with 10 catches for 100 yards and tight end Rob Gronkowski had seven catches for 83 yards.

Manning and the Broncos faced a Pittsburgh team Sunday that had quarterback Ben Roethlisberger playing with an ailing right shoulder and minus his top receiver, Antonio Brown, and running back DeAngelo Williams. Yet it was a struggle for Denver before it rallied late to prevail, 23-16. Manning avoided what would have been a 10th career playoff one-and-done. He followed his injury-plagued regular season with a 21-for-37, 222-yard passing performance against the Steelers. He didn’t have a touchdown pass or an interception.

From last season’s playoffs when Brady reached his ninth AFC title game while Manning suffered his ninth career postseason one-and-done

Manning contemplated retirement last offseason before deciding to return, and it often has appeared this season that he has hung on for one season too many. The storybook ending is for Manning to secure a second career Super Bowl title with two more Broncos wins and then walk away from the sport gloriously, as Denver front office executive John Elway once did. But he and his pass-dropping receivers must play far better than they did against the Steelers.

Manning has beaten Brady in two of three previous meetings in AFC title games. But really, this is Brady’s time of the year. He plays in his 10th AFC championship game and seeks what would be his fifth Super Bowl triumph in tandem with Coach Bill Belichick. The Patriots are on the road this coming weekend but it certainly feels as if they’re the favorite to represent the AFC in Santa Clara, Calif.

Cardinals at Panthers

Neither team was at its absolute best this weekend.

The Panthers, after a nearly perfect regular season, were virtually flawless for a half Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks in building a 31-0 lead. But Carolina, as was the case a few times during the regular season, grew tentative with a big lead and had to hang on for a 31-24 win.

One nearly perfect half is enough for the Panthers to move on

The Cardinals were victimized by a game-tying Hail Mary touchdown pass by Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers at the end of regulation Saturday night but got a first-possession touchdown in overtime to beat the Packers, 26-20. Quarterback Carson Palmer threw two interceptions but also had three touchdown passes and threw for 349 yards.

Don’t be fooled by this weekend’s less-than-dominant performances. These are the two best, most complete teams left league-wide. Whichever team wins the NFC title game should be the favorite in the Super Bowl.

The Panthers know the task is formidable against the Cardinals.

“I’ve seen them,” cornerback Josh Norman said Sunday. “They’re on the TV so I’m not gonna say we don’t have our eyes on what they do. Yeah, they’re a good team. They really are. They’re not making it this far for no reason [or] by chance. They played a great game last night. I know the Packers had them down towards the wire and they made a few plays that got them into overtime. And they ended up capitalizing with [Larry] Fitzgerald running that crazy play. That’s what they bring to the table. We’ve got to know that, understand that and be ready for them come Sunday.”

Seahawks’ comeback saves their dignity but not their Super Bowl hopes

Said Panthers Coach Ron Rivera: “It feels good. It really does. I’m not gonna lie about that. This is awesome. It’s a great feeling. It’s everything that you drive for, you work for. It’s part of our vision. We haven’t accomplished what we want yet. We played some very good football teams along the way, Seattle being one of them and in all honesty, they’ve been the watermark here in the NFC. And we’ve got an opportunity we want.

“Now we come to the next one against Arizona. They’re the two seed for a reason. They’re a very well-coached football team. They’ve got a dynamic quarterback. They’ve got some play-makers, as we saw last night. And then they’ve got an aggressive defense…. We’ve got to be on our game as well.”

Quarterback Cam Newton said the Panthers need to keep the Super Bowl talk in check.

“We’re not worried about the Super Bowl,” Newton said. “That’s irrelevant. Right now we’re focused on the Arizona Cardinals…. We’ve just got to put it together and find a way to win.”

Tight end Greg Olsen said the Panthers have put themselves in an enviable position and now must take advantage of that.

“We understand we’re gonna enjoy this,” Olsen said. “We deserve it. We’ve worked our tails off to get to this point. But we still have a lot of [work]. We’re one game from the Super Bowl at home. That’s a pretty special position to be in.”


1. Turf talk

There was some talk about the condition of the field Sunday in Carolina, so that is likely to be a topic of conversation again this week.

Rivera made the relevant point: Neither team was put at a disadvantage.

“All I know is both teams played on it,” Rivera said. “It’s also kind of what happens when you play outside on natural turf. It’s gonna get wet. It’s gonna get soggy. That’s just the way it is. I thought the turf looked pretty good. Some guys did slip a couple times. It’s part of it.”

2. Manning’s slide

Manning appeared to get away with one during the fourth quarter Sunday when, under pass-rush pressure in the pocket, he slid to the ground feet-first. Manning was not touched but, under NFL rules, he probably should have been declared down for giving himself up willingly and the play should have been declared over.

But that didn’t happen, and Manning got to his feet and threw a completion to wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.

“I feel Peyton should have been ruled down as it is my opinion that he gave himself up,” former NFL official and officiating supervisor Jim Daopoulos, now a rules analyst for ESPN, wrote on Twitter.

Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin attempted to throw a challenge flag but was prohibited from doing so.

“Not reviewable,” Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating, wrote on Twitter: “Could challenge he was touched and down by contact. He was not touched.”

3. Fitzgerald’s “catch”

The NFL’s ever-elusive definition of what is a catch and what isn’t came into play during the third quarter Saturday in Arizona.

Fitzgerald was awarded a catch for a play on which he made a grab, took a few stumbling steps toward the sideline but then lost control of the football while tumbling to the turf out of bounds.

Officials ruled that Fitzgerald had made a legal catch and had established himself as a runner before losing control of the ball, so the requirement that he maintain control of the football while on the ground to be given a legal catch did not apply. That requirement applies to a catch being made in the process of going to the ground, before a receiver has legally established himself as a runner.

Blandino wrote on Twitter: “On Fitzgerald play ruling on field was that he was a runner before ball hit the ground. Not enough to change.”

It was extremely difficult (to be kind with the wording) to tell the difference, however, between the Fitzgerald “catch” and the non-catch by the Dallas Cowboys’ Dez Bryant during last season’s NFC playoffs.

Bryant, too, made a catch, and took a few stumbling steps before losing the football while on the ground. Bryant even reached with the football toward the goal line. Bryant also was awarded a catch by the officials on the field.

But that call was overturned via the replay review and called an incompletion.

The inconsistent rulings by the NFL on such plays have gotten beyond ridiculous. The defenses by the league of the current rule and the way in which it is applied ring ever more hollow.

The competition committee did nothing last offseason to fix the catch rule in a meaningful way. It would be egregious if the committee fails to act again this offseason. The rule must be streamlined and simplified.

Roger Goodell forms new committee to address NFL’s catch rule

There is no perfect catch rule, perhaps.

But there is a version out there far better than this one.

4. Coin toss fiasco

The NFL avoided an embarrassment when the coin-toss gaffe before overtime of the Cardinals-Packers game did not affect the outcome.

Clete Blakeman, the referee, decided to re-toss the coin after it did not flip in the air on the initial toss. The Cardinals won the toss, took possession of the football and prevailed in the game with a touchdown on the opening possession of overtime. Arizona also had won the first coin toss deemed improper.

There’s obviously nothing the league can do to ensure that a coin toss goes smoothly. But in a season in which so much has happened to create doubts about the ability of NFL officials to handle even simple tasks without a glitch, a botched coin toss determining the outcome of a playoff game would have further eroded confidence in the officiating.

NFL makes changes to officiating procedures for postseason

5. McDermott and McDaniels

Last year, the Atlanta Falcons waited for the Seahawks to be done playing the Super Bowl to hire Seattle’s defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn, as their head coach.

This year, no NFL team with a coaching vacancy waited until even the end of the conference championship games.

That leaves Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, among others, staying put.

Some of those teams that hired coaches this year could end up regretting that.

McDaniels had a failed head coaching experience in Denver but has restored his reputation with his recent work in New England and seems deserving of another chance.

McDermott has the Carolina defense playing at an extremely high level, even with the second-half let-up Sunday. He is in line to get his first NFL head coaching chance and would have made sense in Philadelphia, in particular, given that he is a former Eagles assistant coach.

McDaniels, in particular, has been picky about his next head coaching opportunity and which interviews he will accept. But he and McDermott are highly qualified candidates, and they could be atop the wish list for teams searching for head coaches a year from now.

6. Ranking the hirings

NFL teams completed this year’s hiring cycle for head coaches, barring any unexpected changes by teams being eliminated from the postseason, and their mindset was clear: They wanted offense-minded coaches.

The Tennessee Titans’ promotion of Mike Mularkey from interim coach to full-time head coach and the Eagles’ choice of Doug Pederson with the Chiefs being eliminated from the playoffs kept the trend intact.

Of the seven head coaches hired, there were five offensive coordinators (Adam Gase, Hue Jackson, Pederson, Dirk Koetter and Ben McAdoo), and two offense-oriented head coaches (Mularkey and Chip Kelly).

NFL teams sure loved offensive coordinators in this head-coach hiring season

Some of the moves eventually will work out. Some won’t. Coaches are hired to be fired, after all.

But here’s a quick ranking of the moves that were made, based on present circumstances:

1. Hue Jackson, Browns: He has some head coaching experience in Oakland and was deserving of another chance after being fired by the Raiders following a single season in which he went 8-8. He knows the division, having faced the Browns as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator. He must get a quarterback and expectations should be modest early on. But things should get better in Cleveland if the Browns are patient and properly supportive of their new coach.

Jackson and Gase topped our list of best-available head coaching candidates

2. Adam Gase, Dolphins: Gase becomes the league’s youngest head coach, at 37, but he’s ready. The 49ers should have hired him a year ago. If they had, they wouldn’t be starting over now. He worked well as an offensive coordinator with Manning in Denver and with Jay Cutler in Chicago, and now he must coax some more consistent productivity out of Ryan Tannehill.

3. Chip Kelly, 49ers: There are some reasons to be wary. Kelly inherits a mess in San Francisco after leaving one of his own making in Philadelphia. He was criticized for a supposedly abrasive manner in dealing with players while with the Eagles and now must try to make things work with CEO Jed York and General Manager Trent Baalke, who could not continue to co-exist with Jim Harbaugh. But Kelly can coach; he demonstrated that in his first two NFL seasons with the Eagles. If he stays out of the roster-construction business and if York and Baalke provide him with an environment in which success is possible, Kelly just might make it work. Perhaps he can get quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s career headed back in the right direction, if he and the 49ers indeed keep Kaepernick around.

Will Chip Kelly’s arrival get the 49ers’ house in order and will it keep Colin Kaepernick in S.F.?

4. Ben McAdoo, Giants: It is a bit curious that the Giants didn’t want the status quo—they certainly didn’t seem to encourage Tom Coughlin to stay—and yet they promoted Coughlin’s offensive coordinator to head coach and likely will retain Coughlin’s defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo. But this is a stable, patient organization that gets the benefit of the doubt. McAdoo is a no-frills hard worker in the mold of his former boss in Green Bay, Mike McCarthy. He has worked well with quarterback Eli Manning and, his ill-fitting suit for his introductory news conference aside, he was a solid although less-than-exciting choice.

5. Doug Pederson, Eagles: Spurned by Coughlin, the Eagles instead are attempting to re-create the Andy Reid era in Philadelphia by hiring Reid’s offensive coordinator. If they wanted Reid, they should have just kept him around. The foundation of the Chiefs’ success was their defense, not Pederson’s offense.

6. Dirk Koetter, Buccaneers: The Buccaneers can promote this hiring as providing stability for young franchise quarterback Jameis Winston if they choose. But this isn’t continuity. Winston has lost his first NFL head coach, Lovie Smith, who was inexplicably fired. Koetter must learn a new job and his relationship with Winston necessarily will change. Smith never should have been dismissed and the Buccaneers should have taken their chances that Koetter would stay, with so many other highly regarded offensive coordinators also available to other teams in this head-coaching market.

Buccaneers, Titans are undermining Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota

7. Mike Mularkey, Titans: See above. The Titans didn’t need to get rid of Ken Whisenhunt during the season. Whisenhunt once coached the Cardinals to a Super Bowl. Even if he wasn’t winning in Tennessee, he wasn’t the problem. Prized young quarterback Marcus Mariota, like Winston, deserved better.

7. Jackson and Manziel

It quickly has become clear that quarterback Johnny Manziel probably doesn’t have a future in Cleveland now that Jackson has taken over as coach.

Jackson told Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM that Manziel’s reported trip to Las Vegas during the final weekend of the regular season, with Manziel sidelined for the Browns’ finale because of a concussion, would be a “non-starter” to him if corroborated.

He also said the Browns are in need of a quarterback and must consider taking one with the second overall selection in the NFL draft.

“If there is a quarterback there at pick number two or at pick number 32 that we feel is a best option, the best fit for our organization, our football team, then we need to go get him,” Jackson said during the satellite radio interview. “I do believe that this team does need a quarterback.”

What if Johnny Manziel, RG3, Colin Kaepernick and Peyton Manning all are available this offseason?

Jackson said he hadn’t spoken yet to Manziel and would give Manziel, like every other player on the team, a chance to be evaluated with a fair opportunity to stay.

But he also said that while veteran Josh McCown played well this season when healthy, the Browns need to make their quarterback-related decisions this offseason with an eye toward the future.

It all seems to point toward the Browns likely moving on from Manziel after two seasons.

8. Lions stay the course with Caldwell

The Detroit Lions and their new general manager, Bob Quinn, made the right choice in sticking with Jim Caldwell as the team’s coach.

Yes, the Lions were a disappointment and missed the playoffs. But they played better in the second half of the season and were undone in part by a pair of missed calls, the illegal batting penalty not called against the Seahawks and a questionable facemask penalty that set the stage for a Hail Mary defeat to the Packers.

There was room to wonder when owner Martha Firestone Ford fired Tom Lewand as team president and Martin Mayhew as general manager during the season whether the housecleaning that was under way eventually would lead to the exits of Caldwell, quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson.

The Lions have begun cleaning house. Will anyone, including Matthew Stafford or Calvin Johnson, be safe?

Johnson is said to be contemplating retirement and still could leave. But Caldwell deserved another chance to prove himself, and Quinn was wise to give it to him.

Would Calvin Johnson really walk away from the Lions the way that Barry Sanders once did?

9. Chargers and Raiders

The Chargers are still in San Diego, at least for now.

The Raiders are still in Oakland, at least for now.

And they and the NFL must deal with it.

The sport left some loose ends untied with last week’s vote by the owners to authorize the Rams to move immediately from St. Louis to Los Angeles while giving the Chargers an option to join the Rams in L.A. The one-year option, if not exercised by the Chargers, would transfer to the Raiders.

NFL owners were dazzled by Inglewood but still wanted to try to do right by Dean Spanos, Chargers

If nothing changes, the Chargers and Raiders face the prospect of trying to sell tickets and sponsorships for next season in cities they just tried desperately to leave, while also dealing with politicians on new-stadium issues. It is a less-than-desirable arrangement.

Of course, it is not expected to remain this way for long. The Chargers are poised to begin negotiations with the Rams on the terms by which they would share the new stadium in Inglewood, Calif., scheduled to open in 2019. It appears that both teams could play at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in the meantime. Several people within the sport said last week they believe that if the Chargers think they are being treated fairly by the Rams, they probably will join the Rams in Inglewood.

The Raiders have plenty of non-Oakland options, from San Antonio to St. Louis to potentially San Diego.

Much remains to play out for the two franchises not sent immediately to L.A.

10. Olsen’s shoulder

The Panthers can ill afford to be without Greg Olsen or even to have their gifted tight end at less than full strength. He is the best receiver on a team without a true No. 1 wideout.

So it was an issue when Olsen hurt his right shoulder Sunday on a jarring hit by Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor.

Olsen left the game temporarily and was said to have suffered a pinched nerve. He later returned to the game and the Panthers were dismissing the injury afterward as no big deal.

“He’s fine,” Rivera said.

Said Newton: “Greg did an unbelievable job battling his tail off all game finishing runs. We knew it was gonna be a physical game. For him to come back–I’m not sure what the injury was. He never would disclose [that] to me. He just kept saying something was wrong with his hands. To make the bigger catch [late in the fourth quarter] for the first down to keep the clock going, that was big for us.”

Olsen’s value also was on display Sunday with a terrific touchdown grab in the second quarter.

“I always tease those guys [receivers] in the film room,” Newton said. “No matter how good or great the catch is, I say plus [grade] on the throw, subpar plus on the catch. But I think I concur when I say [on that play] plus on the catch, okay on the throw.”

Newton was in a playful postgame mood Sunday. He also acknowledged he is among the players who give grief to linebacker Thomas Davis for being on the onside kick recovery (so-called “hands”) team.

“I did,” Newton said.

Davis made the onside-kick recovery to preserve Sunday’s victory.

The quarterback went on to lobby for himself to be included on that special-teams unit in the future.

“I was always wondering why I’m not on the ‘hands’ team,” Newton said. “I catch the ball every single shotgun snap. I’ll put a case in. But I don’t know. I’m telling you, these hands are tailgate approved, much appreciated. No gloves, either. You know what I’m saying? No artificial. Just straight organic hands. You don’t see that a lot of times in this day and age.”