Now it's easy to see why reporters, teams and helicopters all chased free-agent quarterback Peyton Manning last offseason. Landing Manning last March was the difference between playing or being unemployed this weekend.
Check out the teams that tried and failed and where they are today.
The Arizona Cardinals, who hosted a visit with Manning but could not sign him, fired head coach Ken Whisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves.
The Philadelphia Eagles, who could not get so much as a visit with Manning despite their efforts, fired head coach Andy Reid.
The New York Jets, who also could not get so much as a visit with Manning despite their calls, fired general manager Mike Tannenbaum.
The Kansas City Chiefs, who tried but failed to get an audience with Manning, fired head coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli.
The Tennessee Titans, finalists for Manning before losing out on his services, fired chief operating officer and head of football operations Mike Reinfeldt.
Had any one of those teams been the NFL Powerball winner of Manning's services, it would not be hard to imagine it playing this weekend rather than consulting with search firms or conducting job interviews. Any of these teams with Manning would have been transformed overnight, not unlike the Broncos.
Some teams could court Manning, fail to get him, and still advance, most notably San Francisco and Seattle. The 49ers sure seemed to be serious about landing Manning, even though head coach Jim Harbaugh insisted this could not be. Whatever the truth, San Francisco's defense and running game were so strong that the 49ers could withstand the loss of Manning, go away from Alex Smith and to Colin Kaepernick and still land the NFC's No. 2 seed.
Seattle actually sent its private plane to Denver unannounced to pick up Manning, though he refused to speak to the Seahawks, and they were turned away. That prompted Seattle to use a third-round pick on Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson.
So San Francisco had a superior supporting cast, Seattle landed Wilson, and those teams arrive in this weekend's Elite Eight along with Manning. But the suitors that tried and failed to land Manning struck out in March and then again all season. Their failure to land him will haunt them until they find another strong quarterback.
Sometimes the breathless coverage of a free agent can be as much of a waste as Washington's splurge on Albert Haynesworth. But other times, it is not. The pursuit of Manning turned out to be a big deal.
Just look at the results. Some of those who failed to land Manning are unemployed. The team that landed him is lined up to beat Baltimore and advance to the AFC Championship Game.
On to this week's 10 Spot:
1. Brady-Manning watch: Looming over this entire weekend is the possibility that football could get Tom Brady versus Manning one more time in the AFC Championship Game. But before then, each quarterback is on the verge of making more history this weekend. A Patriots win Sunday would be the 17th of Brady's postseason career, breaking the tie he's in with his boyhood idol, Joe Montana, for most by a starting quarterback in NFL history. And on Saturday, Manning will join Brett Favre as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to start in 12 different postseasons, a fact the Elias Sports Bureau confirmed.
Keep in mind there are some teams that just struggle against certain quarterbacks. Baltimore understands this as well as anyone. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has won 10 straight against the Cleveland Browns. But on the flip side, the Ravens have lost nine straight against Manning, including the playoffs. Manning has beaten Baltimore almost every which way. But Manning has done that to many teams, especially this season at home, where he has gone 7-1 -- losing only to Houston -- while throwing 22 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
Manning hasn't just helped Denver beat opponents at home. It has obliterated them. In Denver this season, the Broncos' margin of victory has been 19.3 points per win. Baltimore has to overcome a lot Saturday -- otherwise it will be the end of the NFL career of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and maybe that of safety Ed Reed. These AFC games with their standout quarterbacks set up as an appetizer for what could be the main course next Sunday.
2. Mighty have fallen: And then there's this: As the No. 1 seeds with matching 13-3 records, the Broncos and Atlanta Falcons have the home-field advantage. But they also face an unwelcome history that suggests it will be difficult for either team to win a playoff game, let alone the Super Bowl. The team with the best record in the NFL hasn't won the Super Bowl in each of the past eight seasons. Beyond that, in five of the past seven seasons, the team with the best record hasn't even won a playoff game.
So there is a reason to believe for Denver's opponent, Baltimore, and Atlanta's opponent, Seattle. From the 2005 to '11 postseasons, No. 1 seeds are just 6-8 in the divisional round, a far cry from the type of success that the top-seeded home teams used to have routinely in this round. From 1990 through 2004, No. 1 seeds were 25-5 in the divisional round. That home-field advantage has disappeared recently.
3. Kicking themselves: If Saturday night's Packers-49ers game is as close as many expect, Green Bay could be at a disadvantage. The Packers were 1-3 in games decided by three or fewer points this season and, even more troubling, are an NFL-worst 6-15 in such games since 2006.
Close games usually are decided by kickers. And for as good as Green Bay and San Francisco have been, their kickers have been off. Packers kicker Mason Crosby missed 12 field goals this season and made many attempts look like adventures. Niners kicker David Akers, coming off hernia surgery, was even worse. Akers missed an NFL-high 13 field goals this season, leading San Francisco to sign Billy Cundiff, the only kicker in the NFL to make a lower percentage of his kicks this season than Akers and Crosby.
Green Bay has struggled in close games, these kickers have struggled in close games, and one more mistake or missed kick could end the season of either team.
4. Green Bay's executive tree: It's clear that Packers general manager Ted Thompson has built an impressive roster and an equally impressive executive tree. The men who have worked under Thompson in Green Bay are sprinkled across the league. Seahawks general manager John Schneider, the man responsible for drafting Wilson and assembling Seattle's roster, worked under Thompson. Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie spent years working with Thompson before leaving to help turn over Oakland's roster last year. And this offseason, Thompson is expected to lose his director of football operations, John Dorsey, a candidate to become the general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs. In what is another sign of a successful organization, Green Bay keeps losing front-office executives and winning games.
5. Two playoff teams, one architect: One man in this year's playoffs, Scot McCloughan, has had a major role in helping build the rosters of the Seahawks and 49ers. McCloughan was the 49ers' vice president of football operations from 2005 to 2007 and their GM from 2008 through 2010 before being dismissed. He surfaced in Seattle as the Seahawks' senior personnel executive.
While in San Francisco, McCloughan helped direct a 2007 draft that netted standout starters such as linebacker Patrick Willis, left tackle Joe Staley, defensive tackle Ray McDonald, safety Dashon Goldson and cornerback Tarell Brown. In Seattle, GM Schneider is said to value the voice of McCloughan, who has helped build a sturdy Pacific Northwest version of the roster he once helped assemble in San Francisco.
What McCloughan has done in two cities, on two elite eight teams, should have been enough to warrant at least one interview for a general manager's job. But those high-priced search firms never came up with the name of a man whose fingerprints are all over this weekend's games.
6. Perspective on Ryan: See if this sounds familiar, and see if you can guess which quarterback is being described. Quarterback arrives at a franchise in the gutter, bringing hope. Quarterback shines in regular season but struggles in postseason. Quarterback loses each of his first three playoff games, despite playing with one of the game's top wide receiver tandems. Quarterback faces questions entering his fifth season about whether he will win games that matter.
Anyone say Matt Ryan? Good guess, but the correct answer is Peyton Manning, who arrived in Indianapolis when the franchise was struggling, performed well in the regular season, lost his first three postseason games, then faced questions about whether he could win a big game. Ryan's career has resembled Manning's more than most realize. Ryan certainly will have to accomplish plenty to achieve the milestones Manning has. But at this point, his career is precisely where Manning's was at a similar time. If anything, Ryan has been more impressive.
After five seasons, Ryan has completed 62.7 percent of his passes for 18,957 yards, with a 127-60 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio and a won-loss record of 56-22. Through five seasons, Manning had completed 62 percent of his passes for 20,618 yards, with a 138-100 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio and a 42-38 record.
When Manning was at that stage of his career, then-Colts coach Tony Dungy pulled aside his quarterback and told him how the public once said Michael Jordan couldn't win the big game. A short time later, during the 2003 season, Manning's Colts beat the Broncos 41-10 in a wild-card game. Once Manning had one postseason win, he strung together many, including a victory over the Bears in Super Bowl XLI. His standing was solidified.
Now Ryan is out to silence the skeptics and critics the way Manning once did. He knows the game and appreciates its history the way Manning does. Entering Sunday's divisional playoff showdown versus the Seahawks, Ryan is looking to break through the way Jordan once did, the way Manning once did. If he does, it will help his and his team's confidence. If he doesn't, he will join Y.A. Tittle as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to lose their first four postseason starts, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
7. Seattle's bonus baby: Playoffs are incentive enough, but Seahawks safety Earl Thomas already has cashed in. Thomas had a $200,000 Pro Bowl incentive bonus that he earned and another $275,000 incentive bonus that could be earned only with a Pro Bowl berth and a playoff win. So when Seattle beat Washington last Sunday, it meant not only that the Seahawks would advance to Sunday's divisional playoff versus the Falcons, but that Thomas was $275,000 richer.
8. Texans' blueprint: Houston's best hope for Sunday's divisional playoff against the Patriots might just be the New York Jets. Back in the 2010 season, the Jets went into New England on Monday night, Dec. 6, and got blown out against the Patriots 45-3. Then, on Sunday, Jan. 16, in a divisional playoff return to New England, the Jets turned the tables and turned back the Patriots 28-21. Now the Texans are hoping to accomplish the same.
Earlier this season, on Monday night, Dec. 10, the Texans went into New England and got blown out 42-14. Now, on Sunday, Jan. 13, in a divisional playoff return to New England, the Texans are going to hope to accomplish what the Jets did two years ago. If they do, the football world will link the Texans and Jets. The Texans will use that night as added motivation. And it's worth remembering: Each of the Patriots' six postseason losses under Bill Belichick have come in a rematch against a team they played earlier in the season.
9. High praise for Watt: Throughout his coaching career, Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has coached some of the greatest defensive players in NFL history. He coached Elvin Bethea with the Houston Oilers, Reggie White in Philadelphia and Bruce Smith in Buffalo. Phillips believes Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is in the same conversation.
"He is," Phillips said recently. "Obviously, in my opinion, he is. And again, I've had Reggie White and Bruce Smith, two of the all-time Hall of Fame players, along with Elvin Bethea and some other guys I've had, they're in the Hall of Fame. But he's playing at that level. And even more so than those guys, he's knocked down more passes, he had more tackles for loss in the running game. Both of those guys were tremendous players and this guy is playing at that level."
Watt needs to be at, and even above, that level for the Texans to be able to upset the Patriots.
10. Updating their résumés: Assistants in the playoffs can make their cases for head coaching jobs without even interviewing. Teams already have interviewed or contacted Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements, Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and Texans offensive coordinator Rick Dennison.
There aren't enough head coach openings for all of the candidates, yet some will distinguish themselves this weekend with their body of work. Problem is, winning coordinators sometimes lose out because teams have to wait longer to get them. Losing coordinators are free to be interviewed and hired right away. So for some coordinators this weekend, losing could be winning and winning could be losing.
The Schef's specialties
• Game of the week: Green Bay at San Francisco -- Good enough to be the NFC Championship Game.
• Player of the week: Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez -- It would be fair and fitting if he won his first NFL playoff game, something he has gone 16 seasons, 253 regular-season games and five postseason games without doing.
• Upset of the week: Houston over New England -- For the first 12 weeks of this season, Houston was the best team in the league. If it can recapture that form, watch out.