In the early days of our new millennium, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning provided the NFL with a rivalry so significant and susceptible to hype that perhaps nothing in league history has been as beneficial to the bottom line. Between Super Bowls, MVPs, passing records and endorsements, the idea of “Brady vs. Manning” has been so engrossing that as both men approach 40, you can’t help but wonder if we’ll ever find their successors.
Well, you may have one horrible field goal miss to thank for what comes next. On Sunday, the rivalry that may carry the NFL well into the 21st century will grab the attention of millions of football fans and might never release its grip.
Who’s ready for the era of Cam Newton vs. Russell Wilson?
When the Seattle Seahawks travel to Carolina to face the Panthers next Sunday in the divisional playoffs, it will be the sixth meeting between these two quarterbacks since 2012, as well as a rematch of the divisional round game between them last year that the Seahawks won 31-17. However, a lot has changed since then, with the Panthers improving from 7-8-1 last season to 15-1 this year, including a 27-23 win over Seattle in Week 6. Now Wilson will get his opportunity to seek revenge for that loss, while a win for Newton would solidify his status as the most valuable player in football.
And to think, we have Blair Walsh to thank for setting them up.
The Minnesota Vikings kicker found himself trending for all the wrong reasons after his unexpected 27-yard miss in the wild-card round that would’ve kept Wilson from his fourth divisional playoff game in four years. Kickers were 189-of-191 from that distance or shorter this season, a solid 99 percent success rate, but Walsh simply shanked it and foot-delivered Wilson his seventh career playoff victory.
“I have no idea what happened,” Walsh said afterward. “But I can tell you this, it is my fault. I know [holder] Jeff [Locke] did his job and [long snapper] Kevin McDermott did his job and I am definitely the only one who didn’t do my job. So that is on me.”
The Seahawks won the game 10-9, escaping subzero temperatures to advance to the rematch everyone outside of Minnesota wanted to see: A face-off between the league’s two hottest quarterbacks.
Over the last seven games of the season, Wilson threw 24 touchdowns against only one interception, rushed for a score and posted a league-best passer rating of 132.8 as Seattle went 6-1. (Plenty of credit goes to receiver Doug Baldwin for making plays like the one he “Odell’d” on Sunday) Not to be outdone, over that same period of time Newton threw 20 touchdowns, one interception and rushed for four touchdowns as the Panthers also went 6-1.
The pair took center stage over the second half of the season, but in a wrinkle that added the kind of intrigue Brady vs. Manning often lacked, both were bolstered by the best defenses in the NFL. Carolina finished sixth in scoring defense and total defense, first in interceptions, first in turnovers and fourth in rushing defense. Seattle was first in scoring defense, second in total defense, first against the run, second against the pass and allowed the fewest touchdown passes.
However, one of the 14 touchdown throws they did allow was to Newton in Week 6, capping another fourth quarter collapse by the Seahawks that surely they haven’t forgotten, nor has Newton. After throwing two interceptions early leading to a 23-14 fourth quarter lead for Seattle, Newton threw the game-winner to Greg Olsen with 32 seconds left, giving the Panthers their first win over the Seahawks since 2007. To see another finish as exciting as that one on Sunday would surprise absolutely no one.
Of course, in order to replace Brady vs. Manning, that rivalry actually has to end. The Broncos and Patriots are the top two seeds in the AFC right now, and if they win next week, they’ll duke it out for perhaps the final time in the AFC championship game.
But a week sooner, and over a decade younger, the next generation of the NFL’s best rivalry is just getting started. It’s Cam vs. Russ. Cat vs. Bird. Dab vs. Divinity. Who you got? Everyone will be choosing a side by Sunday.