From the Bleachers: A Changing of the Guard in the NFL?
I woke up confidently the morning of Saturday, Jan. 4, ready for a full slate of NFL playoff action. The last time a team that played on Wild Card weekend made the Super Bowl was in 2012, but I was sure this was the year that not one, but two, of those teams would break through. So I took to Twitter to announce my bold proclamation: I was predicting a battle between the New Orleans Saints and the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
So of course, the Tennessee Titans, arguably the league’s most boring team during the last few decades, decided to storm into Foxborough and become the first team to defeat the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in the playoffs since 2012. I reluctantly revised my prediction to Ravens versus Saints. Then Kirk Cousins, who entered the game 0-347 against playoff teams, took his Minnesota Vikings to New Orleans and somehow pulled out an overtime victory. I reluctantly surrendered and accepted defeat.
Now, I am not new to having all-time bad takes. After all, I did proclaim Dan Orlovsky to be the savior of the Indianapolis Colts franchise back in 2011, which rightfully caught the attention of the popular social media account “Freezing Cold Takes.” But this misfire absolutely shocked me. As I watched the New England Patriots dominate the first seven weeks of the season, I saw what I thought was a reincarnation of their early 2000s squads that claimed three Super Bowls in four years thanks to a superb defense. I thought they had the perfect championship formula, with great defense and a turnover-free offense that magically relearns how to run the ball every January. But Mike Vrabel had other ideas.
While I was stunned to see the Patriots bow out so early, what really hit me was the Saints finding another ridiculous way to lose a playoff game against an inferior opponent. The Saints might have been the NFC’s most talented team in each of the last three seasons, yet somehow they only made one NFC Championship and zero Super Bowls during that span. They would have had a great chance against an overrated Green Bay team and would have given Seattle or San Francisco a hard time in the NFC Championship. Instead, they played conservatively and lost to Kirk Cousins. No, Kirk, I don’t like that.
In retrospect, Wild Card weekend marked two key events. First, it marked a major hit to my Twitter credibility. But maybe even more importantly, it indicated a major changing of the guard in the NFL. Tom Brady and Drew Brees are not going to be around much longer, and both, along with Philip Rivers, could be donning different colors next season.
I grew up watching Brady and Peyton Manning duel for supremacy in the AFC, while Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco got in the mix every now and then. Watching Manning retire in the 2016 offseason was surreal, but the amount of change that we will see this offseason will be unprecedented.
Brady could be wearing a Los Angeles Chargers baby blue uniform when Week 1 of next season rolls around. Brees might not be retained by the Saints and could take his talents somewhere else. Rivers might be brought on to fill the shoes of another fallen superstar, Andrew Luck, up north in Indianapolis.
It seems likely that these three future Hall of Famers will remain in the league for at least one more season, but it will soon be out with the old and in with the new. Even without some of the league’s biggest names taking center stage, the NFL has held up just fine. As we look ahead to conference championship weekend, the new talent that has made this league so fun to watch this season will be on full display.
Despite a scary knee injury in Week 7, Patrick Mahomes is the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player and now sits one win away from playing in his first Super Bowl. And the tables have certainly turned for Brady’s former backup Jimmy Garoppolo, who finds himself in charge of a San Francisco 49ers squad that resembles his old team with top-tier coaching, solid defense and a great short passing game. Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers are still in the mix, but even they needed a new head coach and some fresh blood at running back to make it back to the final four.
And who could forget about the big names that are soon to enter the league? Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa will soon find themselves tasked with the challenge of turning around struggling NFL franchises, and Trevor Lawrence, aka fast Peyton Manning, will have the same opportunity in 2021. I have my doubts about this year’s quarterback crop, but it is hard not to see at least one of those three names emerging as an elite quarterback for years to come.
While it was certainly strange to watch a Divisional Round weekend that featured Ryan Tannehill but not Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, I strongly believe that this NFL season has been one of the most exciting that I have ever experienced. I had a sour taste in my mouth after watching the horrendous slugfest that was Super Bowl LIII, but the new stars of the NFL’s 100th season have completely washed that taste away.
I cannot help but get excited for not only the final three games of the season, but for the onslaught of news that we are going to get as free agency begins. The last big names of the NFL that five-year-old me fell in love with are about to move on to their next chapter. But the emerging superstars are creating a league that 19-year-old me will thoroughly enjoy for as long as football is deemed safe enough to play.