1. NFL's view of Brady vs. Manning
This is not going to be yet another column ranting about who is better: Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.
Oh, wait, hold on. It sorta is.
We'll compare in a much different way, at least. I asked a group of eight people—all NFL personnel men, including scouts and one general manager—whom they preferred: Brady or Manning. They were guaranteed anonymity so as not to anger Brady or Manning.
The sample size is small, no question. Yet it is also instructive. My guess is these results would extrapolate across football.
The question was simple: Who do you think is a better quarterback, Manning or Brady? I emphasized that I was asking not who will be better in the future, but who is better now. Right now.
The answer was 7-1 Brady.
Then I asked the personnel men to step into their TARDIS, go back a year, and answer the same question. That is, it's the 2012-13 season. Who would you pick? The result was 6-2 Brady.
Then, they were asked to go back five years. The vote was 4-4.
Overall, there was a central theme among the voters: While Manning is a more physically gifted thrower, Brady is the better overall quarterback because he has done more with less.
This is the reason Manning gains more support as we go back in time. Brady has continued to win with less around him (mostly), a trend that has been consistent for much of his career (mostly). Manning has won less with more. He's more physically gifted than Brady and has also consistently had better players around him.
The voters also pointed to how, when Brady and Manning went head-to-head, with Manning usually possessing the superior team, Brady still won. Brady has beaten Manning 10 of the 14 times they've met.
Brady has been to eight AFC title games, including three straight. Last week's playoff win over Indianapolis was Brady's 18th, putting him two ahead of Joe Montana for the most in NFL history.
Please, do not read this as Manning bashing. It is not. In talking to an admittedly small pool of NFL team executives, there is awe at what Manning has done. It's just that there is more awe at Brady's accomplishments.
It's your classic Wilt Chamberlain versus Bill Russell argument: One gets more impressive statistical numbers, but the other wins more. Who would you take?
"When you think about Peyton Manning, you think about numbers," former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said recently on ESPN. "When you think about Tom Brady, you think about championships."
It's a fun argument, but one that's also totally unsolvable. The only way to answer the question is generate an alternate reality, have them switch teams, and then see what happens. But alas, we don't have that technology. Yet.
2. Have teams decoded Wilson?
That's the talk within the sport. Russell Wilson hasn't looked like himself for a solid month. There are two main theories. First, he's secretly injured. Second, extensive film study has revealed weaknesses in his game that can be seriously exploited. I don't buy the first, but I'm starting to believe the second.
Since the Dec. 2 game against New Orleans in which he had over 300 yards passing and three touchdowns, Wilson has thrown for over 200 yards just once in five games. He had 108 yards passing against Arizona on Dec. 22 and 103 yards passing against the Saints in the playoff win. Something is clearly wrong.
It gets worse. In Seattle's first 12 games of the year (the team went 11-1), Wilson had a completion percentage of 65.8 percent. Wilson had a solid 22 touchdowns and only six picks.
The past five games have seen a different Wilson. His completion percentage has dropped to 56 percent. There have been no multiple-touchdown games since that December game against New Orleans.
The speculation is that teams are simply throwing all kinds of exotic blitzes and matchups at Wilson and he's rushing his throws. Wilson also hasn't had good-enough play from his receivers to make defenses pay consistently.
What the Seahawks are emphasizing in practice this week is freeing Wilson. They had better. If not, the 49ers will make Seattle pay in ways the Saints couldn't.
3. Percy Harvin a long shot to play?
Seattle players tell me privately they are worried about the long-term health of wide receiver Percy Harvin. One player said the team may need to protect Harvin from himself.
"He's one of the toughest players I've ever encountered," one player told me. "He would go out there with a broken leg, no arm, or a bunch of concussions. He wants to help. He's a competitor but the team has to be careful because Percy will forgo his own good health to play."
Harvin was twice injured in the playoff game against the Saints. He didn't return after the second injury due to what the team announced was a concussion.
4. Patriots the underdogs
The Patriots are playing up the underdog role, and it's hilarious. Really, really hilarious. One of the most powerful organizations in all of sports saying they're the little guy. Hilarious. Tom Brady, one of the greatest ever, if not the greatest ever, is saying no one is going to pick them to win, when many will. Hilarious. And he knows it.
"I can't really speak for everyone, but I personally love the underdog story," fullback James Develin said. "You know, it just kind of keeps a little bit of the pressure off you, and I just like to prove the doubters wrong."
The doubters. Hilarious.
"Like I said, playing with that chip on our shoulders," receiver Danny Amendola said. "That’s how we are."
This is typical Patriots mentality. It's smart, really. Take any sign of disrespect, real or perceived, and turn it into "us against the world." The Patriots, however, aren't true underdogs. Not even close. They have Brady, who beat Manning once already this season and, again, has beaten Manning 10 of 14 times.
The Patriots can easily win this game. They're not underdogs. They're not the Cleveland Browns. They're the damn Patriots.
5. Bill Belichick's greatness
Lost in the Brady-Manning chatter is a Belichick achievement that is, well, pretty remarkable.
In beating Indianapolis, he tied Don Shula for second place in NFL history with 19 playoff wins. To me, Shula is the best coach in history. The fact that Belichick tied him says a great deal—all positive—about Belichick's legacy.
Belichick is now just one playoff win from tying the all-time leader, Tom Landry.
I know people despise Belichick, and the response to this note will be one word: Spygate. Still, what Belichick has done is mind-boggling. There's no other way to say it. Sure, he has Brady, but Walsh had Montana. Landry had Staubach.
Belichick will likely end up being the greatest coach of all time by almost any measure. Go ahead. Rip me. Mock me. But I'll still be right.
6. Most-injured teams
Really interesting story from The Dallas Morning News' Rick Gosselin about injuries. The list below is the top 10 teams that had starters miss games due to injury. Players missed a record 1,600 games this season. Remarkable.
The top teams:
|Most games lost by starters|
|1. New York Giants||91|
|2. Indianapolis Colts||83|
|3. New England Patriots||74|
|4. Atlanta Falcons||72|
|5t. Tampa Bay Bucs||70|
|5t. Green Bay Packers||70|
|7. Arizona Cardinals||67|
|8. Dallas Cowboys||62|
|9. New Orleans Saints||61|
|10t. Minnesota Vikings||57|
|10t. Carolina Panthers||57|
|12. Green Bay Packers||53|
|Dallas Morning News|
Notice that two playoff teams, Indy and New England, are in the top three. That says a great deal about Andrew Luck and Brady. Their play saved their franchises' asses.
Guys like Matt Ryan and Eli Manning did not.
7. NFC West now spectacular after stinking
It's easy to forget that just three years ago the NFC West was awful. Remember those days? Seattle won the division with a 7-9 record. It was the first time in a non-strike season a team won its division with a losing record.
Now, the division is the best in football. What happened? Two pretty obvious things: good coaching and great quarterback play. Jim Harbaugh might be the best coach in football not named Belichick. Harbaugh is the first head coach in NFL history to reach the title game in his first three years as head coach. Pete Carroll transformed the Seahawks into winners using charm, guile and an emphasis on defense. Both coaches have pushed physical play, which is contrary to how many think you can win in football. The sport has become so pass-obsessed that running and defense were seen as old school.
The quarterbacks also changed everything. Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson brought both sound play and physical explosiveness.
This division reminds me of the early days of the NFC East, in the 1980s with Joe Gibbs and Bill Parcells. Yes, the West is getting that good.
This will sound strange, but it's true. The hiring of two black retread coaches in one month—Jim Caldwell and Lovie Smith—represents significant progress regarding the issue of the lack of black head coaches. One of the biggest complaints black coaches have told me is that when black coaches get fired, they're done. There are no second chances. This is different from their white counterparts.
If we have truly reached a point where black coaches are part of the retread circulatory system, this represents the biggest leap we've had in decades.
9. Philip Rivers is a jerk...
…On the field.
Off the field, outstanding human being. Good father. Great person.
No other quarterback could get away with the faces, the taunting and the showing-up of teammates, but somehow Rivers does.
Kaepernick gets ripped for his tattoos or for wearing his hat backward. I can't imagine what it would be like if he behaved as unprofessionally as Rivers often does.
Great dude off the field.
Crybaby on it.
10. Johnny Manziel No. 1 overall?
The chatter just keeps getting louder that this could happen. The latest comes from scouting guru Gil Brandt, who has Manziel going first in his mock draft.
We're a loooooong way from the draft, but Manziel being the overall top pick is no longer fantasy. It's possible.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.