Record-setting players and record-setting teams. A bevy of young quarterbacks, including unbeaten rookie Ben Roethlisberger. Some negatives, too: two .500 teams that in most years wouldn't have made the postseason, plus Randy Moss and Eric Barton, fined for misbehaving last weekend.
There are many angles to the Super Bowl quarterfinals, including a forgotten man: Daunte Culpepper, the Vikings quarterback who in another year might have been the MVP.
Instead, he toils in the shadow of Indianapolis' Peyton Manning, voted MVP after throwing a record 49 touchdown passes. And in the shadow of his own teammate, Moss, who was fined $10,000 by the NFL for pretending to moon Green Bay fans.
And, of course, the shadows of Roethlisberger and Tom Brady, the MVP in two of the last three Super Bowls for New England.
"With the year Peyton Manning had, Daunte's year gets lost, but . . . it's not lost on any of us," Vikings center Matt Birk says about Culpepper, who threw for more than 4,700 yards and an NFC-high 39 TDs in the regular season.
Maybe it's that Minnesota, like St. Louis, barely made it into the playoffs. Both went 8-8, then became the first .500 squads to win postseason games.
The Rams are at Atlanta (11-5) tonight, and the Vikings play at Philadelphia (13-3) on Sunday in the NFC's two second-round games.
In the AFC, the New York Jets are at Pittsburgh (15-1) today, while Manning and the Colts (13-4) are at New England (14-2) on Sunday. The Patriots have won five straight games against Indianapolis.
There are some sideshows in these matchups.
In New England, it's Manning, who threw four interceptions in the AFC title game there and has never had great success against the Patriots. His receivers might have to deal with a wet or frosty field — the Patriots left it uncovered during a storm this week.
In Philadelphia, it's Moss. It probably would be a bigger sideshow if Terrell Owens, the Eagles' flamboyant receiver, was healthy, but he's out with a leg injury and Donovan McNabb, the team's healthy star, is markedly low-key.
In Pittsburgh, it's Roethlisberger, who took over in the second game of the season and went unbeaten as the Steelers cruised to the NFL's best record. His 13 straight wins were seven more than any rookie quarterback ever.
He goes against the Jets, who had to win in overtime in San Diego because of Barton, who whacked Drew Brees' helmet with his elbow on a fourth-down incompletion that would have given New York the game. With another chance, the Chargers scored and the Jets won 20-17. Barton was fined $7,500 by the league but it could have been worse — had New York lost, he might have been asked not to bother to get on the plane home. -->
In Atlanta, it's a matchup of two other twentysomething QBs: Michael Vick of the Falcons and Marc Bulger of the Rams, who led a late drive to beat Seattle.
Vick missed most of last season with a broken leg, and the Falcons finished 5-11. Back on the field, he carried Atlanta to an 11-5 record, the NFC South title and a first-round bye.
SCHOTTENHEIMER GETS EXTENSION: San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer agreed Friday to a two-year contract extension with the Chargers that runs through the 2007 season. Schottenheimer has one year remaining on his original four-year deal, which he signed in January 2002 and paid him $2.5 million a season. Terms of the extension weren't immediately available. Schottenheimer helped turn the Chargers from the NFL's worst team at 4-12 to the AFC West champions at 12-4 and won AP coach of the year honors.
PACKERS NAME NEW GM: Ted Thompson was hired Friday to take over coach Mike Sherman's general manager duties with the Green Bay Packers. Thompson leaves his job as Seattle's vice president of football operations on the same day that Bob Whitsitt was fired by the Seahawks as president of football operations.
Thompson was given full authority over football operations, including the power to hire and fire the coach. Whitsitt served as the Seahawks' president for eight years and helped negotiate the purchase and development of Qwest Field and the hiring of Mike Holmgren as head coach.