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The divisional round brings a trio of quarterbacks who have performed at a high level for a long time. Among them, they have won eight Super Bowls and, as the weekend’s games arrive, you have to wonder how much longer we’re going to see Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger playing at this level.
Brady, of course, is the old man of the bunch and has famously said he intends to play until he is 100, or thereabouts, but the issue this year is how he and the Patriots go forward after an ESPN story revealed a rift with Coach Bill Belichick over the presence of his personal trainer. Not that Brady is talking about any of that.
“In the end, it comes down to this is a production business, so it doesn’t matter whether you’re 22, 32, 42,” Belichick, who signed Vinny Testaverde as the team’s No. 3 QB in 2006 when Testaverde was 43, said last month. “If you’re not productive, you’re probably not long for the league. If you’re productive, there’s a place.”
For Brees, Sunday’s divisional game falls on the eve of his 39th birthday. As he showed last week, he still can be Drew Brees (passing for 376 yards and two touchdowns), but the Saints also have a strong running game that takes the pressure off him.
“It sure is nice,” Brees said when he asked last week how it feels to be called upon to pass for “only” 4,334 yards rather than the 5,208 of last year. Five times, he has thrown for over 5,000 yards.
“Does it change the way I prepare? No. Does it change my mind-set going into the game? No,” Brees said. “It’s just when you add up the number of throws — I don’t know what it was, but it was probably my fewest attempts in a long time, right? So if you’re taking away five, seven, 10 attempts a game, and those are going to the run game, well that means you’re doing something right in the run game. And it probably means that you’re playing good defense because you’re not in a position where you have to throw the ball to get big chunks.
“Still, my mind-set doesn’t change in regards to preparation or the efficiency that I want to play at. I still think ‘positive plays.’ I still think ‘taking care of the football’ and all those things. But I think at the end of the day, what has it done for me? Well, it doesn’t force me to have to take as many chances.”
The Steelers’ Roethlisberger is the baby of the bunch, awaiting his 36th birthday in March. For him, though, how much longer he will play depends less on his body and more on his mind. He has spoken often of his growing awareness of the link between playing football and degenerative nerve disease, and he mulled retirement during the offseason. After a five-interception game in October, he even wondered if “maybe I don’t have it anymore.”
He does and here he is again. Still, he knows his time is finite.
“You have to treat every game like it could be your last because you never know when it is,” Roethlisberger told reporters last week. “We saw an example of that obviously earlier in the season with Ryan [Shazier, the Steelers linebacker who suffered a spinal cord injury during a game in early December]. You just never know when it could be your last. I’m hoping it’s not his last. But you have to go out and play every play and enjoy every play and every game like it could be your last.”
Top story lines
Falcons at Eagles (4:35 p.m. EST, NBC): The Falcons spent a good part of the season in a funk, a consequence of their 28-3 Super Bowl LI el foldo and the departure of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan for the 49ers. But they’ve caught on of late and the Eagles, well, they’re a lesser team with Nick Foles and not Carson Wentz at quarterback.
As a result, the Eagles are the first team to play their first playoff game at home as an underdog since the NFL started awarding playoff games to teams based on record in 1975.
For the Falcons, keep an eye on Julio Jones and Ryan (duh). Against the Rams, Ryan hit 9-of-10 attempts to Jones and in seven postseason games, they have connected on 80 percent of their passes.
— ProFootballReference (@pfref) January 9, 2018
But forget all that. Which team has the better hype video?
Or the Eagles?
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) January 11, 2018
Titans at Patriots (8:15 p.m. EST, CBS): Fourteen years ago, the Patriots beat the Titans in a divisional playoff game in Foxborough and the Patriots’ quarterback, Tom Brady, and coach, Bill Belichick, remain the same. The Pats have won seven playoff games in a row; the Titans are riding high after an upset of the Chiefs in Kansas City. Marcus Mariota is making his second career playoff start and, well, since 2001, quarterbacks making their first or second playoff start against New England are 0-7. The Titans’ defense has allowed 10 touchdowns in 28 trips to the red zone over the last eight games and, in last week’s victory over the Chiefs, K.C. was 3 for 3.
Of course, the Patriots are dealing with fresh controversy and locker room intrigue thanks to an ESPN report about difficulties between Brady, Belichick (coaching in a record 37th playoff game) and owner Robert Kraft. If anyone can use the headlines to their advantage, though, it’s those guys. (See: Deflategate.)
Jaguars at Steelers (1:05 p.m. EST Sunday, CBS): The Jaguars made quite a statement when they played the Steelers, intercepting Ben Roethlisberger five times and sacking him twice and going on to win 30-9 in Week 5. Since then, the Jaguars are 8-4 and the Steelers are 10-1. For the Steelers, the big question is whether Antonio Brown will be healthy again to challenge the Jaguars secondary after suffering a calf injury. For the Jags, it’s a question of whether Blake Bortles and the offense can score enough to support the defense.
Saints at Vikings (4:40 p.m. EST Sunday, Fox): Sam Bradford was the quarterback when these teams played in the Monday night season opener and he long ago was supplanted by Case Keenum and Adrian Peterson was on the Saints’ bench. Much has changed since the Vikings 29-19 victory and both team have improved dramatically. The Saints have a three-pronged offense with Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. The Vikings have a smothering defense and, with Keenum playing well, have managed to avoid being hurt by the loss of Dalvin Cook.
Nothing to see here: Tom Brady makes a curious attempt to shoot down reports of friction with Bill Belichick and the Pats. (Read more.)
Trivial pursuit: Brady is 40 years, 163 days old; Mariota is 24 years and 75 days old. That age difference will mark the first time in NFL history that starting quarterbacks have been more than 16 years apart. Because you want to know, the largest previous gap was 15 years, 166 days — when the Chiefs’ Steve DeBerg, at 37, beat the Raiders’ 22-year-old Todd Marinovich in 1991.
Diggs was big in high school, too: Before he found success with the Vikings, Stefon Diggs was impossible to stop in high school. (Read more.)
Who will play in London: Three NFL playoff teams will play in London this fall, but a new survey shows Brits are still bored by the American football. (Read more.)
Trump blowback: Athletes of Haitian descent took issue with the president’s vulgar comment about immigration. (Read more.)
Pats down: Two Patriots running backs, Rex Burkhead (knee) and Mike Gillislee (knee), are listed as questionable and are not expected to play, ESPN reports. Another RB, James White, is expected to play after missing the last two games with an ankle injury. Expect him to be very active. Wide receiver Chris Hogan has been cleared to play
What can Brown do for the Steelers? Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, who has been sidelined since suffering a calf injury Dec. 17 in the Steelers’ loss to the Patriots, returned to practice Wednesday but was sent home from practice Friday with an illness. Although he’s likely to be a game-time decision, Coach Mike Tomlin had a one-word answer for whether he is likely to play: ““Yes.”
Shazier mending: Ryan Shazier, the Steelers linebacker who suffered a spinal injury in the Dec. 5 game against the Bengals, visited the team during practice Wednesday. Although he has feeling in his legs, he still is using a wheelchair.
“I want to thank the Lord for the first downs that he has been allowing me to achieve. The touchdown is going to come in his timing, but today was a first down. I was finally able to make it to practice with my teammates,” he wrote on Instagram. “It’s great to be back for practices and meetings. Just to be able to feel a part of it means the world. So I’m working harder than I ever have to get back. I’ve been making strides over the past month and continue to make progress. Taking it day-by-day, but I’m far from done. The Lord has not finished his work yet. I want to say thank you to the fans and Steelers Nation for the prayers. If it wasn’t for my family, friends and your prayers I wouldn’t be were I am now. They have lifted me and my family through this journey and I ask for you to continue praying for me, as I continue to work daily on improving my health.”
Divisional-playoff picks and Super Bowl odds: The Eagles and Jaguars will upset the Falcons and Steelers. (Read more.)