This is about to get very interesting.
Eight dynamic teams are going to war over a piece of sterling silver that represents the hopes and dreams of everyone who’s ever put on a football jersey.
The playoffs are only a few days old, and we’ve already taken a few unusual turns in the road. Big-time stars are making big-time plays, and it's time to acknowledge the key guys that demand your attention right now.
Here are seven stars who are shining brightly.
When throwing 466 yards in a playoff game is just another day at the office, you know something special is happening. And what Drew Brees is doing right now is truly special.
To say Brees is elite is an understatement. His mental focus is unshakable. His courage to launch high-risk throws is astounding. His accuracy is deadly. And because of the fantastic protection he gets from his offensive line, coupled with his ability to maneuver and scramble, he’s physically invincible.
Like Aaron Rodgers, Brees has an incredible knack for making football look easy. He makes it seem like anyone can do his job, which is the true mark of greatness.
Only Rodgers stands between Brees and Indianapolis.
He’s the Marshawn Lynch of the playoffs.
But while Lynch relies on his brutal strength to break tackles, Foster uses his lean frame and silky smooth footwork to slip away from danger.
Foster has grace in his legs and lightning in his torso. His arms are live wires, and his football IQ is sublime. He’s at once a scientific fluke and the embodiment of perfection.
Arian Foster is the guy teams spend a decade trying to find.
Signed as an undrafted free agent, his dominance in the NFL makes the entire draft process seem questionable. And he gives hope to every player who thinks they’ll never advance from the practice squad.
Like Sugar Ray Robinson, Foster displays his savagery through his elegance. He's unquestionably one of the most powerful players of his time.
We’re lucky we get to see him play another game.
Victor Cruz has established himself as one of the preeminent threats in the NFL.
He’s joined Rob Gronkowski, Jordy Nelson, Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston in an exclusive club of young players who have earned the trust of their Super Bowl winning quarterbacks.
The image of Cruz salsa dancing in the end zone likely gave Mike Smith nightmares in the week leading up to the Wild-Card Weekend. And Mike McCarthy is probably having similar visions this week.
Cruz presents a ridiculous challenge for opponents. Single coverage isn’t enough. Problem is, the Giants have enough weapons to make teams pay for taking Cruz out of the game. Sunday’s game against the Falcons was proof of that.
You only have two choices when you play against the Giants. You either let Cruz be Cruz, or you neutralize Cruz with multiple coverage and let Mario Manningham and Ahmad Bradshaw dominate.
The Packers know that Cruz is Eli Manning’s favorite target. You can bet they’re already preparing for him.
The Hakeem Nicks' situation in New York reminds me of the Wes Welker situation in New England.
Everyone expected these guys to be the primary offensive threats of their respective squads, but they were both a little upstaged by fellow teammates this season.
But it’s worked out well for both the Giants and the Patriots. Victor Cruz has taken a lot of pressure off Nicks’ shoulders, just as Gronkowski has done for Welker.
With 115 yards and two fantastic touchdowns, Nicks was the undisputed star of the Falcons' game on Sunday. The guy knows how to be in the right place at the right time and make big plays.
The Giants are a team of underrated superstars, and Hakeem Nicks is arguably the single-most underrated shining star on the team.
He’s one of the most dangerous men in the playoffs.
Tim Tebow prepared for the Steelers' game with an unusual commitment to throwing the ball. It was clear the Steelers weren’t expecting that approach, and they certainly weren’t expecting him to nail those throws.
But late in the second quarter, he started developing an awful habit of handing it off on first down for garbage gains, then launching long balls on second and third down.
This was destined to be the hole in his radical plan, because it was so easy to detect his method.
It felt like only a matter of time until the Steelers figured out his pattern and made the Broncos pay for it. That, coupled with a key Denver fumble late in the game, is why the Steelers roared back.
When Tebow caught the first snap in overtime, I assumed he would simply revert back to his pattern and hand it off for minimal gain. The Steelers expected that too. But instead, Tebow did the opposite. He launched it for a strike on first down, and that’s what won the game.
Don't let his good guy image fool you; this was psychological warfare in its most sadistic form.
Tebow has two kinds of fans: the ones who love Tim Tebow, and the ones who love how Tim Tebow plays football.
On Sunday, finally, his true football fans saw what they knew was there all along. They'd seen him do it in college. This, at long last, was the vicious competitor they had been waiting for.
Tim Tebow made terrific decisions in this game. He dictated the flow of the offense and kept his team on attack mode. The Steelers never had control of the game.
Tebow rose to the challenge. During the regular season, he threw an average of 123.5 yards per game. Against the Steelers on Sunday, he threw 316 yards. He doubled his average against the top defense in the NFL, and he did it in the playoffs when it counted most.
The most intriguing aspect of Tebow’s performance was that he didn’t win the game on emotion. For the first time in his professional career, he won the game by outsmarting his opponent and using real football skills. It was a gigantic leap forward for a quarterback who has endured the highest levels of scrutiny in the history of the sport.
Tebow’s performance on Sunday didn’t quite establish him as a reliable leader for the ages, but it did put him on the road towards being Denver’s franchise quarterback. In a way, that in itself was a huge victory. At the very least, he earned another season of starting for the Broncos.
It’s disingenuous to use Ben Roethlisberger’s ankle as an explanation for Pittsburgh’s defeat. Big Ben earned his nickname by making big plays, many of which occurred while he was struggling through some kind of nagging injury. His ability to play hurt is the very thing that made his reputation as a tough steel-town guy.
The basic fact is that the Broncos wanted this game more than the Steelers.
The body language on Pittsburgh’s bench in the second quarter reeked of defeat. Troy Polamalu looked ready to pack his bags and spend the offseason with his family. Even Roethlisberger looked deflated during the second quarter. The team looked broken.
While it isn’t totally appropriate to give Tebow all the credit for an incredible team win, it seems fair to let the guy enjoy a positive spotlight for once. After all, he shouldered the bulk of the blame all year. The least I can do is take my hat off to him now.
Easily one of the five best quarterbacks in the history of football. One of the top three, in fact. And depending upon who you ask, he’s the greatest of all time.
Brady banked two MVP awards in the last five years, one of which he won unanimously for the first time in history. By all accounts, he’s only improved as a quarterback with each passing year. Impressive, considering he won three Super Bowls before he turned 28.
But he hasn’t won a Lombardi trophy since 2004. This, as they say, is the fly in the ointment. When debating the best quarterback of all time, Brady’s name is always met with a skeptical response akin to, “Yeah, he’s great, but...”
The "but" never seems to go away.
There’s two reasons why many are hesitant to accept Brady as the greatest. First, his Lombardi drought. And second, the Lombardi trophy that could’ve been but wasn’t.
This is why Brady demands our attention right now.
As an individual athlete, there’s nothing new for him to achieve. He isn’t chasing a dream that’s eluded him for his whole life, because he’s already won everything.
It’s a question of his legacy. That’s what’s at stake here. Is he in the top three, or is he No. 1? That’s the question, and he only has a few more years to answer it.
Nobody can truly know how much that No. 1 title matters to Brady. If you asked him about it, he'd probably tell you he doesn't care about anything except winning with his team, and trying to be the best he can be.
How much he cares about being the greatest of all time, no one can say. Only Brady knows how much it means or doesn't mean.
But given New England’s bye and their home-field advantage, now seems as good a time as any to give us a definitive answer.
If you consider the historic season Drew Brees is having and you couple that with the fact that Rodgers is still on pace to win MVP, that should tell you why the Packers are the most-feared team in the NFL.
Aaron Rodgers is one Super Bowl win away from joining Tom Brady on the list as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. And to do it, he may have to prove his worth against the Patriots. It’s a storyline that demands your attention.
A Patriots vs. Packers Super Bowl wouldn’t just be a quest for the trophy, it would be a quest to be the best. Not only the best this season, but possibly of all time.
Right now, Aaron Rodgers is the most important player in the NFL.
He's the MVP and still the man to beat. Any king can be dethroned, but taking his crown will be one of the most daunting tasks in the history of the game.