NFL Playoffs Preview: Old guard battles young guns for Super Bowl supremacy
They say that age is the enemy of any athlete but, if that maxim is true, it hasn't yet figured out a way to slow Tom Brady down. The New England Patriot, arguably the best quarterback in NFL history, turns 42 on his next birthday but as of yet there is no indication as to when he will decide to call time on his record-breaking career.
This season - his 19th as a professional - sees Brady chase what would be his sixth Super Bowl, an achievement which would stand him alone as the most successful player in history. Brady connected on 29 touchdown passes during the 2018 season, a figure which would look good on the record of the majority of the QBs in the league but pales in comparison to his 2007 tally of 50.
Opposite Brady's Patriots on Sunday will stand another of the game's elder statesmen, Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers. The sure-handed quarterback, 37, threw 32 touchdowns throughout the regular season, a statistic good to tie his second-best ever season.
And then there is Drew Brees. The New Orleans Saint has enjoyed another impressive season under center at the Superdome in Louisiana, connecting on 32 touchdown passes through 15 games to crown his side as the favorites to clinch the Vince Lombardi Trophy in the eyes of the oddsmakers.
Brees has been a revelation in New Orleans since they picked him up in 2006 from the Chargers (Philip Rivers was his understudy in San Diego, incidentally) but with the Texan due to celebrate his 40th birthday in a few days' time, Saints fans must grapple with the fact his time as the key man in Sean Payton's offence is chugging along to an end.
Speculation persists, in fact, that if the Saints prove the bookies right and win the Super Bowl on February 3 he will see that as the ideal stage in which to bow out from the game, in what would be a sweet & sour reality for New Orleans fans.
But with some of the game's most revered quarterbacks soon to make way, a new generation lies in wait among this year's playoff contenders - particularly in a fascinating clash between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Indianapolis Colts.
Patrick Mahomes, the focal point of Andy Reid's offence in Kansas City, has been nothing short of revelatory this season. The 23-year-old featured in just one game last year, his rookie season, before taking the full-time quarterback job this season and, under his guidance, the Chiefs have cultivated the most potent offence in the NFL.
Mahomes' 50 touchdowns in his first full season is, quite frankly, ridiculous. It ties Tom Brady's best-ever season (2007) and was just five short of Peyton Manning's all-time record set in 2013. Not bad for a quarterback that most NFL fans hadn't even heard of this time last year.
To advance in the playoffs, though, Mahomes and the Chiefs will have to bypass the challenge of Andrew Luck of the Colts. At 29, he is several years Mahomes' senior but compared to the accepted top QBs in the league he remains a relative newcomer.
Luck was considered to be a 'generational talent' when he emerged in advance 2012 NFL draft, so much so that many an NFL fan thinks that Indianapolis deliberately tanked their results so as to rise up the draft board to secure his services in a campaign which became dubbed 'Suck For Luck'.
It was worth it. Luck was good for 39 touchdowns in the 2018 season as the Colts stormed into the playoffs, backed by an impressive offensive line and a miserly defense. Whether they can hold off the free-scoring Chiefs will be determined on Saturday but, if they are to advance, Andrew Luck will be the man who unlocks the door.
And then there is Jared Goff. The LA Ram started this season in incredible form, though his hot-streak appears to have stalled somewhat as the season enters its denouement, as opposition defensive coordinators realized that the 24-year-old is prone to picking the wrong option in blitz situations.
However, when it comes to pure arm talent Jared Goff is up there with the best of them. His Rams side are loaded with talented receivers (though Cooper Kupp's injury is a significant loss), which saw him register 32 touchdowns in the regular season and, if his team are to get past Dak Prescott (another young QB at 25) and the Dallas Cowboys, Goff's performance will likely be a key determining factor.
In addition to the above names, an assembly line of new quarterback talent has recently debuted in the NFL. Baker Mayfield (23) of the Cleveland Browns looks like a bona fide superstar. Josh Allen (22) of the Buffalo Bills has a cannon for an arm coupled with a surprisingly efficient rushing game, while Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson are all worth keeping an eye on.
But if the Patriots, Saints or Chargers are to clinch the Super Bowl this season it will likely come down to a match-up where one of the game's veterans directly faces off with one of the pretenders to his throne. Is there life in those old arms yet, or are we about to witness the changing of the guard? All will be revealed in the next three weeks.
NFL Playoffs - Divisional Round
Indianapolis Colts @ Kansas City Chiefs
Dallas Cowboys @ LA Rams
San Diego Chargers @ New England Patriots
Philadelphia Eagles @ New Orleans Saints