For one thing, this is the first time the NFL has ever simultaneously had four passers as talented as Tom Brady of New England, Ben Roethlisberger of Pittsburgh, Carson Palmer of Cincinnati and Peyton Manning of Indianapolis.
Palmer Tops as a Longball Passer
IT'S LIKE THIS in a league in which change seems to be the only constant:
- The Patriots are going for their fourth Super Bowl of the new century with the NFL's most polished quarterback, Brady, and most resourceful coach, Bill Belichick.
- The Bengals can counter with Palmer, the most accurate long passer the NFL has known in at least a half century.
- The Steelers will be defending the league championship with Roethlisberger, the strangest good quarterback in the history of pro football. A giant of a man who is listed at 6-foot-5, though he's obviously larger, Big Ben towers over teammates and opponents alike while powering the ball with rare accuracy at all distances. Still, largely inexperienced, Roethlisberger never played quarterback until he was a college senior.
Patriots Best If Palmer Isn't Himself
BRADY, PALMER AND ROETHLISBERGER are the principals as another dawn breaks over the NFL, in which New England is possibly No. 1 this year, though only because there's some uncertainty at Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
The problem in Cincinnati is whether Palmer, who played spectacularly in his return to football this summer, has sufficiently recovered from a desperate wound. His knee was wrecked eight months ago during an attack by a Pittsburgh defensive lineman, Kimo von Oelhoffen.
The problem for the Steelers is whether Roethlisberger can continue to bail out an obtuse coach, Bill Cowher, a run-and-defend old-timer who, in last winter's Super Bowl, let the Steelers pass just often enough to take out Seattle, 21-10.
Meanwhile, in the other conference, which is perceived to be somewhat inferior to the AFC, Detroit, 5-11 last year, might have improved enough as a passing team -- under new offensive coordinator Mike Martz -- to challenge the Philadelphia Eagles as the NFC's Super Bowl representative this winter against New England.
The Eagles, though, building on years of success as a pass-first team, figure to have no trouble with the Carolina Panthers as long as Carolina's coach, John Fox, sticks to his outmoded run-and-defend style.
The fact is that in 13 of the 14 most recent Super Bowl games, passing offenses have been decisive.
In other words, for at least 14 years, the NFL's best teams have known that passing wins. The difference this year is that the majority is finally catching up, leaving Fox very much in the minority. Run-and-defend teams can still win a division these days, or, with injury luck, possibly even the NFC, but never the NFL.