Can you imagine the indignity for Manning's legacy if the prodigy that replaced him in Indianapolis went up to Denver and eliminated him and his Broncos in the greatest statistical year for a quarterback ever?
Which AFC title game do you want to see most?
The catcalls for Manning being a regular-season stat monger and not a "true winner"—whatever that means—would be unbearable. Those arguments always disgust me as trite and childish.
That is not to say it wouldn't be tremendous theater. Popcorn-worthy stuff.
Manning has already endured enough criticism for having won just one Super Bowl, so let's not get too crazy after Luck finally won his first playoff game in his second try.
Indianapolis Colts defensive back Darius Butler, impressed with Manning's replacement, told the Boston Globe's Christopher L. Gasper:
It seems like half the games since I've been here have been some kind of second-half comeback or fourth-quarter drive or something, so you kind of get that feeling that Andrew Luck never lost a game. Time only ran out. You have faith in that guy and that offense.
The San Diego Chargers' victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday robbed us of a Manning showdown against Luck, but maybe only for one week. The Denver Broncos will now play the Chargers instead of the Colts, who will travel to New England to face the Patriots.
So, we won't get Luck vs. Manning, but we do get to see what Luck can pull off against someone by the name of Tom Brady.
The Luck Legend Grows
Luck's Colts stayed alive only with a miraculous 28-point rally that stands as the second-largest comeback victory in NFL playoff history. He has won quickly and impressively, while Manning's rise in Indy was famously more gradual...and painful.
Remember, Jim Mora's famed "Playoffs?!" tirade was near the beginning of the Manning era. Mora's mantra became legend, even as he ripped a young Manning—without naming him by name—for his error-prone ways.
Adam Vinatieri knows about how a quick-rising quarterback phenomenon can take over. Vinatieri was a part of the Brady legacy with the Patriots. Vinatieri is now a bridge to the Luck legacy as a Colts teammate.
Vinatieri told the Globe's Gasper:
[Luck] is a special guy. He's the type of guy that doesn't come around very often. There are a lot of great quarterbacks in the league that can do all the throws and can manage a game, but he has got that competitive edge.
It's just fun to watch him work because you know that when he has got the ball, and we've got some time, amazing things are going to happen. He's got that 'it' factor. It's hard to put your finger on it, but he's got it, for sure.
Luck's offensive fumble recovery for a touchdown Saturday night is likely to go down as a signature play that will illustrate his career. Vinatieri marveled to the Globe's Gasper:
I just told [Luck], I said, 'All your touchdown passes and all that great stuff [Saturday]. That was one of the best plays I've ever seen in my life. That was so awesome. ... It was pretty special.
No. 1 Seed More Curse Than Blessing
Regardless of Manning dodging that potential lose-lose situation against Luck, his Broncos cannot feel too comfortable against the Chargers next Sunday.
Hope for teams playing this weekend: Six of past 8 Super Bowl champions have played in Wild-Card round, including in the past three years.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 4, 2014
We spend most of the regular-season playoff race debating and analyzing how teams can clinch the coveted home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but it hasn't been much help this past decade, especially in the AFC. No AFC No. 1 seed has won the Super Bowl since the New England Patriots in 2003.
"Since the NFL adopted the 12-team playoff format in 1990, only 21 of the 46 (45.7 percent) No. 1 seeds have advanced to the Super Bowl, with nine No. 1 seeds being crowned champions (19.6 percent)," according to the NFL media notes.
|YEAR||AFC NO. 1||RESULT||NFC NO. 1||RESULT|
|1990||Buffalo||Lost Super Bowl XXV||San Francisco||Lost NFC Championship|
|1991||Buffalo||Lost Super Bowl XXVI||Washington||Won Super Bowl XXVI|
|1992||Pittsburgh||Lost Divisional||San Francisco||Lost NFC Championship|
|1993||Buffalo||Lost Super Bowl XXVIII||Dallas||Won Super Bowl XXVIII|
|1994||Pittsburgh||Lost AFC Championship||San Francisco||Won Super Bowl XXIX|
|1995||Kansas City||Lost Divisional||Dallas||Won Super Bowl XXX|
|1996||Denver||Lost Divisional||Green Bay||Won Super Bowl XXXI|
|1997||Kansas City||Lost Divisional||San Francisco||Lost NFC Championship|
|1998||Denver||Won Super Bowl XXXIII||Minnesota||Lost NFC Championship|
|1999||Jacksonville||Lost AFC Championship||St. Louis||Won Super Bowl XXXIV|
|2000||Tennessee||Lost Divisional||New York Giants||Lost Super Bowl XXXV|
|2001||Pittsburgh||Lost AFC Championship||St. Louis||Lost Super Bowl XXXVI|
|2002||Oakland||Lost Super Bowl XXXVII||Philadelphia||Lost NFC Championship|
|2003||New England||Won Super Bowl XXXVIII||Philadelphia||Lost NFC Championship|
|2004||Pittsburgh||Lost AFC Championship||Philadelphia||Lost Super Bowl XXXIX|
|2005||Indianapolis||Lost Divisional||Seattle||Lost Super Bowl XL|
|2006||San Diego||Lost Divisional||Chicago||Lost Super Bowl XLI|
|2007||New England||Lost Super Bowl XLII||Dallas||Lost Divisional|
|2008||Tennessee||Lost Divisional||New York Giants||Lost Divisional|
|2009||Indianapolis||Lost Super Bowl XLIV||New Orleans||Won Super Bowl XLIV|
|2010||New England||Lost Divisional||Atlanta||Lost Divisional|
|2011||New England||Lost Super Bowl XLVI||Green Bay||Lost Divisional|
|2012||Denver||Lost Divisional||Atlanta||Lost NFC Championship|
Only two AFC No. 1 seeds in the modern era have gone on to win the Super Bowl, the 1998 Broncos and 2003 Patriots. Only two No. 1 seeds in either conference have won the Super Bowl this century.
That bye week might be needed to heal up from the rigors of the 17-week NFL season, but it sure has meant more to rust than rest.
Chargers Have Hope
You can be sure Chargers fans are taking the above historical results to heart. It gives them hope of beating Manning in Denver in the divisional round. Heck, all three of the AFC's other remaining teams have a victory over the AFC's No. 1 seed, as NFL insider Adam Schefter points out in a tweet:
Denver's three losses this season - to San Diego, New England and Indianapolis - were to the three other teams left in AFC playoff field.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 6, 2014
The losses to the Patriots and Colts came on the road. The Chargers have already stolen one in Denver, on a Thursday night of Week 15 (Dec. 12). The two teams play a month later for the right to face Luck or Brady in the AFC Championship.
Since 2005, No. 6 seeds are 6-2 against No. 1 seeds in the divisional playoffs. H/T to Schefter again for that pearl of wisdom:
Good news for the two No. 6 seeds, New Orleans and San Diego: Since 2005, No. 6 seeds are 6-2 against No. 1 seeds, per @jasonvida.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 5, 2014
You can bet Manning knows this all too well, though. The Pittsburgh Steelers' January 2006 upset of Manning's Colts started that run. That year, the NFC's top-seeded Seattle Seahawks beat the sixth-seeded Washington Redskins only to succumb to those Steelers in the Super Bowl, by the way.
The only other No. 1 seed to beat a No. 6 since 2005? Manning's Colts eliminating the Baltimore Ravens in 2009.
Another No. 1 vs. No. 6 Rematch
The NFC's No. 6 seed, the New Orleans Saints, has also already played its divisional playoff opponent this season The Saints lost at the Seattle Seahawks resoundingly 34-7 on Dec. 2.
The Saints and Chargers are the only playoff teams assured to have to play on the road in the Conference Championship week. Even the 49ers and Colts can host a Conference Championship Game if the cards fall in their favor.
Which NFC title game do you want to see most?
Remaining NFC Scenarios
- No. 1 Seattle Seahawks: Play host to either Carolina or San Francisco
- No. 2 Carolina Panthers: Travel to Seattle or play host to New Orleans
- No. 5 San Francisco 49ers: Travel to Seattle or play host to New Orleans
- No. 6 New Orleans Saints: Travel to Carolina or San Francisco
Remaining AFC Scenarios
- No. 1 Denver Broncos: Play host to either New England or Indianapolis
- No. 2 New England Patriots: Travel to Denver or play host to San Diego
- No. 4 Indianapolis Colts: Travel to Denver or play host to San Diego
- No. 6 San Diego Chargers: Travel to Indianapolis or New England
Speaking of Quarterbacks Winning Early...
The Seahawks' Russell Wilson has won 24 games in his first two seasons, the most by a quarterback in the Super Bowl era, according to NFLmedia.com. Luck is tied for second with Ben Roethlisberger with 22 victories.
Beyond Wilson and Luck, only seven other quarterbacks in NFL history have started playoff games in each of their first two seasons.
|Dan Marino||1983-84||Miami Dolphins|
|Bernie Kosar||1985-86||Cleveland Browns|
|Shaun King||1999-2000||Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
|Ben Roethlisberger||2004-05||Pittsburgh Steelers|
|Joe Flacco||2008-09||Baltimore Ravens|
|Mark Sanchez||2009-10||New York Jets|
|Andy Dalton||2011-12||Cincinnati Bengals|
|Andrew Luck||2012-13||Indianapolis Colts|
|Russell Wilson*||2012-13||Seattle Seahawks|
San Francisco's Super Encore?
The defending champion Baltimore Ravens missed the playoffs this year, leaving just the San Francisco 49ers alive to return to the Super Bowl. The 49ers then survived the Green Bay Packers, Aaron Rodgers and the famed "frozen tundra" Sunday.
San Francisco is the 14th Super Bowl runner-up to make the postseason since 1990. None of them won the Super Bowl. In fact, no team has even returned to the Super Bowl after losing it since the Buffalo Bills of the early 1990s.
Until last January, no Super Bowl runner-up had even made it to the Conference Championship the following season. The New England Patriots did that last year, only to fall to the Ravens.
Here are the results of the Super Bowl runners-up in the postseason since 1990:
|1991||Buffalo||13-3||Won division; Advanced to Super Bowl XXVI|
|1992||Buffalo||11-5||Wild Card; Advanced to Super Bowl XXVII|
|1993||Buffalo||12-4||Won division; Advanced to Super Bowl XXVIII|
|1995||San Diego||9-7||Wild Card; Advanced to Wild Card|
|1996||Pittsburgh||10-6||Won division; Advanced to Divisional|
|1997||New England||10-6||Won division; Advanced to Divisional|
|1998||Green Bay||11-5||Wild Card; Advanced to Wild Card|
|2000||Tennessee||13-3||Won division; Advanced to Divisional|
|2006||Seattle||9-7||Won division; Advanced to Divisional|
|2009||Arizona||10-6||Won division; Advanced to Divisional|
|2010||Indianapolis||10-6||Won division; Advanced to Wild Card|
|2011||Pittsburgh||12-4||Wild Card; Advanced to Wild Card|
|2012||New England||12-4||Won division; Advanced to AFC Championship|
|2013||San Francisco||12-4||Wild Card; TBD|
No matter whatever happens in the divisional round, the stage should be set for an unforgettable Conference Championship Week.