Stretching the Field: The stars will align in NFL playoffs

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Future Hall of Famers? Check. Young and rising stars? Check. Aaron Rodgers and high-powered offenses? Discount double check.

That's a glimpse of what will unfold when the NFL playoffs commence this weekend.

With a postseason field loaded with talent ranging from all ages, the NFL couldn't ask for a better scope of players when the league opens its doors to the Super Bowl on Saturday. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Rodgers will have their bust one day in Canton, Ohio; some believe spaces have already been set aside for the trio. All three finished in the top 10 in passing yards and touchdown passes, and combined for 36 victories in the regular season.

Brady and Manning earned the right to have the weekend off; Manning led the Denver Broncos to the top seed in the AFC and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs and Brady helped the New England Patriots to the second seed. A handful of neck procedures and a one-year layoff from football resurrected Manning's reputation as arguably the best QB in the game. The durable Manning, who has played in all 16 games in 14 seasons played, enjoyed his sixth straight 4,000-yard passing season and finished with 37 touchdown passes -- the second-highest total in his career -- and 11 straight wins.

Manning's 11 interceptions were the least since he had nine in 2006 and grasped the Broncos' playbook immediately. He has brought a new attitude to the organization and made coach John Fox look like a genius.

"As I have mentioned many times, what he has done, to be coming off that kind of rehab, that type of injury at his position in a new city with a new team is unprecedented," Fox said. "Historical would be the word I would use."

A darn good defense also aided Manning's rise from the ashes and gave the Broncos a short field to work with on numerous occasions. Denver was second in the league in total yards allowed, third in rushing yards allowed and surrendered an average of 18.1 ppg (fourth in the NFL). But back to Manning. His offense was second in points scored, fourth in total yards and fifth in passing. He had a pair of 1,000-yard receivers; Demaryius Thomas ended with 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns and Eric Decker racked up 1,064 yards with a team-high 13 TD receptions.

Manning should win Comeback Player of the Year or MVP, if not both. And it's so good to have him back in the playoffs, too. A third trip to the Super Bowl could be in the cards for one of the game's best and most loyal.

Brady has been a mainstay in the "second season" throughout his career and is one of the most consistent signal callers ever. The playboy QB threw for 4,827 yards with 34 touchdown passes and eight INTs in 2012. Brady, though, never played with a full deck all season and New England's entire team needs this off week to rest and relax for the next round. Brady aided the Patriots' offense, which was first in both points per game and yards per game. The Pats were fourth in passing yards and seventh in rushing.

Not primarily known as a grinder on the turf, New England rode the legs of running back Stevan Ridley, who had the best year of his short career with 1,263 yards and 12 scores on 290 carries, a far cry from his 87 totes a year earlier. Like the Broncos, the Patriots are Super Bowl contenders because of their quarterback. Green Bay agrees with those principles, but was beaten out by Atlanta and San Francisco for the top seeds in the NFC. Rodgers and the Packers lost to the Minnesota Vikings in what seemed like a street fight Sunday, and the two NFC North rivals meet again Saturday night.

Rodgers had his second straight 4,000-yard passing season and fourth of his career, finishing second with 39 touchdown passes, fifth with a 108.0 rating and eighth in total yards passing. Rodgers' TD total was the second-highest mark of his career after 45 touchdown strikes last season. The fiery Rodgers set the tone for what the Vikings can expect this week with 365 yards, four touchdowns and a 131.8 passer rating Sunday.

But Green Bay could probably guess what the Vikings will shove down its throat in a few days. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson fell nine yards shy of breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record (2,105 in 1984) and was more concerned in getting the Vikes to the postseason than individual achievements.

Peterson and Manning are the top candidates for MVP, and the former just posted his seventh 150-yard rushing game of the season, an amazing feat for an even more amazing person and player. Peterson was an inspiration for any athlete who sustained a devastating injury and has doubts on returning.

"He's incredible. I told him after the game that he's the best," Rodgers said of Peterson.

The Falcons have a deadly combination of receivers and quarterback Matt Ryan. Roddy White and Julio Jones are perhaps the best receiving corps in the league and tight end Tony Gonzalez is a first ballot Hall of Famer. Michael Turner may not have ran the football as well as he would have liked, and is still an important piece of the Falcons' offense.

San Francisco is known for its defense and stud linebackers, and the quarterback switch from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick left many wondering what 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was thinking. Turns out Harbaugh knew what he was doing and San Francisco never wavered after the plug was pulled on Smith.

Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Texans get the party started Saturday afternoon, while the Packers and Vikings are in the primetime slot. The Bengals' young duo of quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green don't match up well against defensive stalwart J.J. Watt and a stingy Texans defense. Don't forget about Houston's offensive trio of QB Matt Schaub, wideout Andre Johnson and running back Arian Foster. Of the top seven rushing leaders in the NFL, five are in the playoffs (Peterson, Alfred Morris, Marshawn Lynch, Foster and Ridley).

For Sunday's playoff matchups, the Indianapolis Colts visit the Baltimore Ravens and the Seattle Seahawks head to the nation's capital amid the "fiscal cliff" to challenge the Washington Redskins, winners of seven straight. The Colts are riding a wave of emotion surrounding coach Chuck Pagano and his battle with leukemia, and look to keep the rally going. Top draft Andrew Luck led the Colts to 11 wins, just one season after a dreadful 2-14 finish. Luck, one of three rookie QBs to lead his team to the postseason, and the Colts will struggle against the Ravens, especially if future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis returns from a triceps injury.

Can you imagine the atmosphere in Baltimore if Lewis suits up Sunday?

"This team's getting healthy and we're going to hit our stride going forward in the playoffs," Ravens running back Ray Rice said with confidence.

Seattle rookie quarterback Russell Wilson and Redskins first-year signal caller Robert Griffin III will lift the excitement level just before supper time Sunday. It's not too often you see a pair of rookie QBs go at it in the playoffs and this matchup will not fall short of excitement. Yes, Wilson and RG3 bring their own style of play, but the respective running backs deserve just as much attention. Morris is Washington's exceptional rookie running back and he was second in the NFL behind Peterson with 1,613 yards on 335 carries. Lynch was right behind Morris at third with 1,590 yards.

Morris was modest Sunday night after helping the 'Skins capture their first NFC East title since 1999 with a season-best 200 yards on a season-high 33 carries and three touchdowns in a 28-18 win over the Dallas Cowboys.

"I'm never a star, I'll never be a star," Morris said. "Other people might think I am a star, but I'm just Alfred. I've been the same since way back when, and I'm not going to change."

Redskins coach Mike Shanahan hopes Morris' work ethic doesn't change either.

Football fans will be in for a treat this postseason with record-breaking offenses, stout defenses, veterans, rookies and inspirational storylines. In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, there will be plenty to be grateful for when the dust has settled and a champion has been crowned.

Will it be a rookie QB hoisting the coveted Vince Lombardi trophy in February? Or will it be a running back? Don't count out the ones who have been there before either. Those questions and many others will be answered in the weeks ahead, so sit back and enjoy the show.


Texans stifle Bengals; Packers in a close one with Vikings; Ravens put lid on Colts' magical run; RG3 leads Redskins past Seahawks.