Here are some quick-hitting facts and observations about the 2012 NFL playoffs:
1) Peyton Manning had a great comeback season in 2012, leading Denver to a 13-3 record and the top seed in the AFC playoffs, but his Broncos went 0-1 in the playoffs one year after Tim Tebow's Broncos went 1-1 in the playoffs; both squads lost in the Divisional Round. Manning has won just nine of his 20 playoff starts and his teams have lost their first postseason game a record eight times. Manning's teams have earned the number one seed three times; in 2009, his Indianapolis Colts lost in the Super Bowl but in both 2005 and 2012 Manning's teams failed to win a playoff game. In 1999, 2005, 2007, 2010 and 2012 Manning's teams lost their first playoff game despite owning home field advantage. Is Manning so great that he enables his teams to win more games than they should win in the regular season only to be defeated by superior teams in the playoffs or does Manning choke in the postseason? Ironically, John Elway--who dumped Tebow and signed Manning--faced a very similar question for most of his career until he led the Broncos to back to back Super Bowl titles. My take about Manning is that he is indisputably a great player but that he consistently performs below par in the playoffs and that it is reasonable to say that based on the quality of his supporting casts throughout his career his teams should have enjoyed more postseason success.
2) Tom Brady won his first 10 playoff starts--including three Super Bowl appearances--but he has a Peyton
Manning-like 7-7 record in his last 14 playoff starts, including two
Super Bowl losses as a favorite and Sunday's AFC Championship Game loss
to Baltimore as a home favorite. Would Brady be viewed differently if he had started out his playoff career 7-7 only to then reel off 10 straight victories? It seems like Brady's tremendous early run has made him somewhat immune to criticism because not much is made of how inconsistently he has performed in the postseason since the New England Patriots won their last Super Bowl title; Brady has posted a passer rating of at least 100 in five playoff games since 2004 and the Patriots won all five of those games--but he followed up each of those games with a game in which he posted a passer rating no higher than 74 and the Patriots went just 3-2 in those contests. Baltimore has been a particularly tough playoff opponent for Brady, defeating his Patriots two out of three times while holding Brady to passer ratings of 49.1, 57.5 and 62.3. Brady had 14 touchdowns and just three interceptions in his first 10 playoff games but in his last 14 playoff games he has accumulated 28 touchdowns and 19 interceptions--and if you take his six touchdown, one interception game versus Denver last season out of that mix then he barely has more touchdowns than interceptions in his other 13 playoff games since 2004. Brady's three Super Bowl wins and the overall level of excellence that he has demonstrated in both the regular season and the playoffs have established him as one of the greatest quarterbacks ever but Brady's extended run of playoff mediocrity since 2004 will keep him a notch below Otto Graham (seven championships and 10 championship game appearances in 10 seasons) and Joe Montana (four Super Bowl wins without a Super Bowl loss) unless Brady closes his career with quite a flourish.
3) In the past year we have lived through "Linsanity" and "Tebowmania" but Colin Kaepernick is one win away from crafting a story that would top both of those phenomenons combined--at least in substance, if not in hype. Kaepernick, a second year midseason replacement for an efficient veteran quarterback (Alex Smith) who led San Francisco to the 2011 NFC Championship Game, began his playoff career by setting an all-time record for single game rushing yards by a quarterback (181) as the 49ers defeated the Green Bay Packers and then he authored an efficient passing performance (16-21, 233 yards, one touchdown, zero interceptions) as the 49ers beat the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. Brady's Super Bowl run began when he replaced an injured Drew Bledsoe, just like Kaepernick stepped in after Smith suffered a concussion; might Kaepernick turn out to be not just a brief phenomenon but rather a truly great player?
4) The 49ers went 6-10 during the 2010 season. In January 2011, they promoted Trent Baalke from Director of Player Personnel to General Manager. Days later, Baalke hired Jim Harbaugh as the team's head coach. Harbaugh brought out the best in Alex Smith and led San Francisco to a 13-3 record. This season, Harbaugh helped develop Kaepernick into an extremely effective starter as the 49ers marched to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1994 season. San Francisco's quick rise is yet another validation of Bill Walsh's dictum that it only takes three years to turn around an NFL team if the owner selects the right general manager and if that general manager then finds the right coach and the right quarterback. The Cleveland Browns' general managers and coaches since 1999 should wear ski masks when they cash their checks because they are stealing money; there is no excuse for a team to be horrible for more than a decade when the ownership has consistently been willing to spend money; the Browns' problem is that this money has been spent freely and extravagantly but not wisely.
5) No matter what anyone says or writes in the next two weeks, Ray Lewis' legacy is defined by the fact that at the very least he obstructed justice in a still-unsolved double murder--and he may, in fact, have actually participated in that double murder. Keep that in mind as various media members enthusiastically participate in the transformation of Lewis from great football player into some kind of secular saint/prophet. Of all the Biblical quotes that Lewis could choose to repeat, it is odd--considering his role in the aforementioned double murder case--that he keeps saying that no weapon formed against him or his team shall prosper. Did he utter those words on that fateful night in 2000 as two young men were brutally stabbed to death? If the Baltimore Ravens win the Super Bowl and dedicate that victory to Lewis and to the memory of Art Modell that will be a truly sad moment not just in NFL history but in American history. I hope that Lewis is sincere about dedicating his life now to being a good person but he has still yet to fully explain his role in the double murder--let alone atone for that role--and Modell broke the hearts of a Cleveland fan base that loyally supported him and his team for three decades.