<
>

Could Russell vs. Cam be the new Brady vs. Manning?

play
Will MVP season spell trouble for SuperCam, Panthers? (2:00)

Michael Smith and Jemele Hill explain how Panthers QB Cam Newton has harnessed his superpowers this season, but an MVP season doesn't typically translate to a Super Bowl victory. (2:00)

Over the years, football has spawned a number of quarterback rivalries for the ages.

Bradshaw and Staubach in the '70s, Marino and Kelly in the '80s, Aikman and Young in the '90s, and of course, the best of them all, Brady and Manning in this whole century.

But now, although few fans have yet realized it, we may already be watching the NFL's next great quarterback rivalry.

Cam Newton vs. Russell Wilson has the makings of the next Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady rivalry.

Newton is the former No. 1 overall pick, like Manning once was, while Wilson went overlooked in the draft, like Brady once was.

Newton lost his first four matchups to Wilson, not unlike how Manning lost his first six games against Brady.

Newton and Wilson already met once in the postseason and will now square off again Sunday for a second straight year.

Newton is signed through 2020 to a team that looks to be an NFC force for years to come, just as Wilson is signed through 2019 to a team that looks to be an NFC force for years to come. It has set them up to be battling for a spot in this year's NFC Championship game, and to be battling for similar positioning for years to come.

And with the Panthers and Seahawks scheduled to play again in the 2016 regular season, in a matchup that has prime-time written all over it, Newton and Wilson get another chance to meet up next season. The rivalry continues.

Few have talked about Newton and Wilson in the same breath as Brady and Manning. But Newton is expected to win this season's MVP and Wilson was this season's second-half MVP. They are the NFL's new leading men, at the top of their games just as Brady and Manning are getting closer to relinquishing their throne.

Quarterback matchups intriguing in divisional round

As if we didn't already know this is a quarterback-driven league, this weekend's divisional round provides the ultimate proof.

Each of this weekend's four divisional round playoff games -- Kansas City at New England, Green Bay at Arizona, Seattle at Carolina, Pittsburgh at Denver -- features a quarterback who was drafted with the No. 1 overall pick.

Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith was a No. 1 overall pick, as was Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. There has never before been a round in NFL postseason history that featured four quarterbacks in four separate games who were drafted with the first overall pick, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

As if that weren't impressive enough, there's this: The quarterbacks that the four former No. 1 overall picks will be squaring off against are even more accomplished in their own right, even if they didn't go first in their draft class.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is a two-time NFL MVP and a three-time Super Bowl MVP.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is a two-time NFL MVP and a one-time Super Bowl MVP.

Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is a three-time Pro-Bowl selection and a one-time Super Bowl champion.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a four-time Pro Bowl selection and a two-time Super Bowl champion.

This weekend is the big-boy playoffs, more advanced than last weekend's wild-card round, when the four starting home quarterbacks had combined to make zero playoff starts.

But in addition to having experience and credentials, this weekend's starting quarterbacks also affirm the truth that every front office, coaching staff and fan base knows all too well: If a team doesn't have an established quarterback, it has no chance.

Reported concussions were up in 2015

Earlier this season, when Pittsburgh played in Seattle, Ben Roethlisberger self-reported a concussion, which was considered something of a watershed moment in how players handle head injuries.

But it may be happening even more than fans realized.

The NFL recently wrapped up a regular season in which players missed the most games due to concussions since 2011, and the number of concussions was up almost 57 percent over last season, according to ESPN's Stats & Information.

In 2015, NFL players missed 204 games due to concussions, according to ESPN Stats & Info, which is considerably higher than the 130 games that players missed due to concussions during 2014, the 132 games in 2013, and the 177 games missed in 2012. Players missed more games due to concussion this season than in any season since they missed 214 games in 2011, before the NFL launched its concerted effort to raise the players' and public's awareness of the severity of this issue.

There has to be a reason for this increase in concussions, aside from the the fact that players keep getting bigger and faster. And maybe that reason is that players are more better informed about and more cautious of head injuries, as they should be.

Wideouts from 2010 class take center stage

Certain drafts are associated with certain positions -- Quarterbacks hailed from the class of 1983, pass-rushers from the class of 2011, wide receivers from the class of 2014. But wide receivers from the class of 2010 have become some of the key players for Sunday's AFC divisional matchup between Pittsburgh and Denver.

The Broncos' Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders and the Steelers' Antonio Brown were all part of the wide receiver draft class from 2010. Thomas went 22nd overall to Denver, Sanders 82nd overall to Pittsburgh, and Brown 195th overall to Pittsburgh.

Thomas was an easy pick, the first wide receiver drafted in 2010, two slots ahead of where the Dallas Cowboys selected Dez Bryant.

What's intriguing are the wide receivers who were selected between Thomas and Sanders, and then between Sanders and Brown.

Five wide receivers were drafted between when Denver drafted Thomas and when Pittsburgh picked Sanders: Dexter McCluster at 36 to the Chiefs, Arrelious Benn at 39 to the Buccaneers, Golden Tate at 60 to the Seahawks, Damien Williams at 77 to the Titans, Brandon LaFell at 78 to the Panthers.

The list of wide receivers picked after Sanders but before the Steelers selected Brown is also amazing: Jordan Shipley, Eric Decker, Andre Roberts, Armanti Edwards, Taylor Price, Mardy Gilyard, Mike Williams, Marcus Easley, Jacoby Ford, David Reed, Riley Cooper, Kerry Meier, Carlton Mitchell and Dezmon Briscoe. Only after all those players were gone did Pittsburgh pick Brown, who turned out to be the most productive wide receiver of that class.

Picking wide receivers has become a specialty of the Steelers, no matter the year. They drafted Sanders and Brown in the same year that they traded Santonio Holmes to the Jets for a fifth-round pick. In 2013, they let Mike Wallace leave in free agency and drafted Markus Wheaton in the third round. And then in 2014, when Sanders left for Denver through free agency, Pittsburgh used a fourth-round pick on Martavis Bryant.

No team has been better at uncovering wide receivers than Pittsburgh. No draft has produced more wide receiving talent for Sunday than the Class of 2010.

Turning point for Chiefs, Lions

Few realized it at the time, but an International Series game in London on Nov. 1 turned out to be instrumental in setting two teams on their respective paths to where they stand today.

In that game, the Chiefs beat the Lions 45-10 to improve Kansas City's record to 3-5 and drop Detroit's record to 1-7.

When the Lions returned home, they promptly fired their president, Tom Lewand, and their general manager, Martin Mayhew.

The Chiefs never wavered, not that anyone expected they would.

Before the Chiefs and Lions played, Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt met with reporters and assured them that, no matter how the rest of the season played out, he expected head coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey to return.

"Any decisions on the coaching staff are coach Reid's decisions, not mine, and I have full confidence in Andy and John Dorsey," Hunt said at the time. "I think they're the right people to lead our football team. They're as disappointed as I am, but I think they're the right guys to lead us, not only this year, but going forward."

A reporter then asked if Hunt would stay with Reid and Dorsey even if the Chiefs ended up with a top-five draft pick.

"I would, I would," Hunt answered. "They're both extremely talented, they do a great job, they have very good staffs, they do a very good job of leading their staffs, so they're the right guys for the Kansas City Chiefs."

And so they were and are. Since Hunt insisted his men were safe, and since the Lions changed the course of their organization, Kansas City has not lost a game. It heads into New England for Saturday's game as the hottest team in the league, having won 11 straight games, not having lost since week 6 at Minnesota. Hunt's assurances in a time of upheaval held his franchise and team's season together.

Winston, Mariota face change in Year 2

Drafting a quarterback with a high pick used to buy a coaching staff at least some time to develop him. Not so much anymore.

In a season in which the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Jameis Winston with the No. 1 overall pick and the Tennessee Titans followed it up by drafting Marcus Mariota with the No. 2 overall pick, each opted to fire its head coach.

Yet two teams involved in Sunday's NFC divisional round, Seattle and Carolina, have provided models for the merits of stability.

Seattle's Russell Wilson has played four seasons for the same head coach, Pete Carroll, and offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell.

Carolina's Cam Newton has played five seasons for the same head coach, Ron Rivera, and offensive coordinator, Mike Shula.

Letting quarterbacks play for the same head coach and offensive coordinator who drafted and developed them has paid off.

Now Winston and Mariota are about to experience the perils of impatience and lack of consistency. Each is good enough to overcome it, but their job is about to get more complicated and challenging.