With Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson headed to the NFL's conference title games, this is the first time in 21 years — and only second time ever — that three of the final four teams are quarterbacked by a Super Bowl champion.
Yes, when it comes to the QBs who'll be involved in Colts-Patriots in the AFC and Packers-Seahawks in the NFC next Sunday, one of these is not like the others: Indianapolis' Andrew Luck is the lone member of the quartet in search of his first ring.
New England's Brady won the 2002, 2004 and 2005 Super Bowls, while Green Bay's Rodgers (2011) and Seattle's Wilson (last year) have won one trophy apiece.
According to STATS, the only other such trio still standing at this stage came at the end of the 1983-84 season, when the Raiders' Jim Plunkett, Redskins' Joe Theismann and 49ers' Joe Montana did it. (The fourth team was the Seahawks; Dave Krieg and Jim Zorn combined for five interceptions in a conference title game loss.)
The 25-year-old Luck led the Colts to this year's AFC finale by throwing for 265 yards and two touchdowns in a changing-of-the-guard 24-13 victory over 38-year-old Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos on Sunday night.
"We're not satisfied," Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano said. "This is a great, great victory, but we've got an ultimate goal that we're chasing."
A day earlier, Brady threw for three TDs and ran for another as top-seeded New England edged Baltimore 35-31, becoming the first team in NFL history to win a postseason game after twice falling behind by 14 points.
In the NFC, Green Bay eliminated Dallas 26-21 Sunday in a game that will be remembered for a key officiating decision: What appeared to be a "How did he do that?" leaping catch by Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant on fourth down late in the fourth quarter was erased after a replay review.
Top-seeded Seattle advanced Saturday with a 31-17 win over Carolina. Safety Kam Chancellor stole the show with a 90-yard interception return for a touchdown and a pair of vaults over the offensive line on field-goal attempts by the Panthers.
While there will be plenty of time to ponder whether Manning's poor performance and advanced age will lead him to retire, or whether the NFL will ever figure out a way to get everyone to agree on what constitutes a catch, here are some top topics looking ahead to the AFC and NFC championship games:
YOU AGAIN?: Seattle and New England each opened as a touchdown favorite, perhaps because these will be rematches of lopsided regular-season games. The Seahawks beat the Packers 36-16 in the NFL opener; Seattle accumulated more than 200 yards on the ground, including Marshawn Lynch's 110 yards and two scores, while Rodgers avoided throwing in the direction of cornerback Richard Sherman. The Patriots defeated the Colts 42-20 in Week 11; running back Jonas Gray accounted for 201 yards and four TDs, but he's been pretty much invisible since and was inactive against the Ravens.
RODGERS' CALF: No muscle will be as heavily scrutinized over the next week as the 2011 NFL MVP's left calf. Despite that leg injury, Rodgers managed to pass for 316 yards and three TDs against Dallas, closing with 10 consecutive completions. "I think," Rodgers said, "I got 120 minutes left in me" — a reference to wanting to win two more games this season.
TRYING TO REPEAT: Wilson's Seahawks are attempting to put an end to the longest drought without a repeat champion in nearly 50 years of Super Bowls. Brady's Patriots of a decade ago were the last team to go back-to-back.
TRICKERATION: What will Patriots coach Bill Belichick devise as an encore? New England fooled Baltimore by using four offensive linemen during one scoring drive — "The league will look at that type of thing, and I'm sure that they'll make some adjustments," Ravens coach John Harbaugh huffed — and by having receiver Julian Edelman (a quarterback in college) complete a 51-yard TD toss on a double-pass play.
TROUBLE AGAINST THE BEST: The Colts went 0-4 during the regular season against division champions, 11-1 against everyone else. That might not appear to bode well for facing the AFC East-winning Patriots. Then again, Indianapolis lost to the Broncos, too, when it mattered less than now.
Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and AP NFL Twitter feed: http://twitter.com/AP_NFL