It’s a classic sports version of the “Would You Rather” game.
When it comes to the NFL post-season, is it preferable to have a ferocious defence stacked with All-Pros, a very good time-share at running back and a couple of the league’s best game-breaking receivers… even if it means your quarterback situation must vacillate between a all-but-washed-up former great and a clearly-not-ready-for-Prime-Time youngster?
Or is it better to have a Super Bowl-calibre roster that’s been totally decimated by injuries, with gaping holes at running back and receiver, a defence that’s missing key players and a general sense of blood spattered all across your depth chart… but your quarterback is one of the greatest in NFL history, and is still playing at a top-three level late into his career?
The next two weeks will tell us, as first the New England Patriots and then the Denver Broncos—the clear top-two in the AFC in the pre-season who each endured a season that challenged fundamental parts of their plans—attempt to make good on Super Bowl dreams while overcoming diametrically opposed challenges.
The NFL, as you've no doubt heard about six million times while watching one of the lesser pivots stink up a stadium, is a quarterback's league. A team without a quarterback is like a racehorse with only three legs, critically hobbled in the most fundamental aspect of the sport.
The Broncos entered the 2015 season perhaps slightly concerned about Peyton Manning's ugly finish to 2014, a collapse that contained several quite un-Peyton-like throws and served notice that the legend's uncanny football brain might not always be enough to compensate for rapidly dwindling athleticism. But even the most fretful in the Denver offices would not have predicted that, by the time Manning finally hit the bench, battered and bruised and in need of seven games to recover from plantar fasciitis, he'd be, statistically, the very worst starting quarterback in the NFL.
Imagine, in the course of one off-season, taking one of a team's fundamental strengths—a strength that was so far above the average as to set all-time records less than two years ago—and turning it into the absolute weakest of weaknesses. How does any team recover from a blow like that and push on to, somehow, someway secure the top seed in the conference?
With depth. With the best defence in football by almost any measure. With a new coach who took the job planning to focus more on the run, anyway. With quality starters at almost every position. And now, with a rested Manning performing at least adequately in brief work securing the division in Week 17, Denver will get a chance to host any AFC Super Bowl hopeful, and the legend just might get one more shot at his longtime nemesis.
But that storybook scenario assumes that Tom Brady can, by virtue of being Tom Terrific and the Greatest Of All Time and The Man With The Perfect Life and Hair and Right Arm, drag his New England Patriots to an AFC showdown in Denver with basically nothing but that perfect right arm.
The Patriots, right now, are basically Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Chandler Jones and Bill Belichick. And that's all. The other 50 players and all the assistant coaches just went on IR while I was typing this.
It may only feel like everyone wearing a Pats uniform is wounded, but the reality isn't that far off. During this season, the Patriots lost their starting left tackle, their best running back, their top receiver, their league-best tight end, their elite defensive end, their standout middle linebacker, their next starting running back, their next top receiver, their other really good linebacker and another offensive tackle to injuries that lasted multiple weeks—and in several cases, have put those players on Injured Reserve.
And through it all has been Brady, trying his damnedest, taking bumps and bruises himself, throwing to people like Keshawn Martin and Scott Chandler and Matthew Slater—dragging this team to a division championship and very nearly (if not for a critically shorthanded loss to the Dolphins Sunday) to the AFC's top seed. At a glance, it's just Brady doing more with less, but Brady's numbers have faltered as his teammates have fallen. If the Patriots are to have a real run at a Super Bowl repeat, reinforcements will have to arrive.
And it seems that they might. That No. 1 receiver, Julian Edelman, appears ready to return from his foot injury. Gronkowski appears fully healed, as do linebackers Donta Hightower and Jamie Collins, and receiver Danny Amendola. There's still no left tackle and the running backs are a stitched-together unit of has-beens and never-wases, but there's finally a glimmer of health surrounding the defending champs.
So the Broncos kind of have a quarterback again. And the Patriots kind of have a supporting cast. But you wouldn't feel confident betting on either to return, just when needed most, and suddenly be 100 percent. And so the next few weeks will perhaps give us a chance to see this oft-asked question answered on the league's biggest stage: Is the NFL truly just a quarterback's league, or is even the greatest quarterback nothing without a supporting cast? And also, can we please have one last Brady-Manning AFC Championship game? Just for old time's sake?