The NFC and AFC championship games are this Sunday; here’s the schedule and overall picture.
Conference Championships: Sunday, Jan. 19:
AFC: New England Patriots vs the Broncos in Denver, 3 p.m. (CBS).
NFC: Seattle Seahawks playing at home vs the 49ers, 6:30 p.m. (FOX).
Pro Bowl: Saturday, Jan. 26, in Honolulu
Super Bowl: Sunday, Feb. 2, at East Rutherford, N.J.
TBD, 7:30 p.m. (NBC)
AFC champion vs. NFC champion, 6:30 p.m. (FOX)
Scores from last week-
Divisional Playoffs: Saturday, Jan.11:
Seattle won 25 – 18: New Orleans (12-6) at Seattle (14-3), 4:35 p.m. ET (FOX)
New England won 43-22 – Indianapolis (12-6) at New England (13-4), 8:15 p.m. ET (CBS)
Sunday, Jan. 12:
Broncos won 24-17; they’ll play the Patriots in Denver next Sunday – San Diego (10-8) at Denver (14-3), 4:40 p.m. ET (CBS)
San Francisco won 23-10; San Francisco plays the Seahawks in Seattle at home – San Francisco (14-4) at Carolina (12-5), 1:05 p.m. ET (FOX)
John Fox’s biggest decision was a life-saver
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — Of all the decisions coach John Fox made that kept the Denver Broncos rolling through a drama-filled season, one was an absolute life-saver.
Instead of going out on his fishing boat for some solitude during his team’s bye week, Fox decided to play 18 holes with some buddies some 200 yards from his offseason home in Charlotte, N.C.
“I’d have been 60 miles out in the woods,” Fox said. “They might never have found me.”
Fox had just seen his cardiologist in Raleigh, who told him he’d still be able to delay his heart operation until after the Super Bowl so long as he didn’t feel faint or short of breath in the meantime.
Fox was born with a genetic defect in his aortic valve, which regulates blood flow from the heart into the aorta, the major blood vessel that brings blood into the body. He said it was discovered in 1997 when a murmur showed up in a physical while he was the Giants defensive coordinator.
Feeling dizzy, he chipped within 2 feet for par, then lay down on the 14th green and, hardly able to breathe, said a short prayer: “God you get me out of this and I’ll get it fixed now.”
Less than 48 hours later, on Nov. 4, he underwent open-heart surgery.
Four days after that, he was released from the hospital and his wife helped him set up a command center at his home in Charlotte to keep tabs on his team back in Denver.
Not only was he in daily contact with defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, who guided the Broncos to three wins in four games during in his absence, but Fox was also in constant communication with his captains, including quarterback Peyton Manning.
Fox watched cut-ups of practices on his iPad playbook to help formulate game plans and he watched games on his big-screen TV.
The lone loss during his hiatus was a 34-31 overtime heartbreaker at New England on Nov. 24 when the Broncos blew a 24-0 halftime lead after cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie separated a shoulder trying to pick off Tom Brady’s desperation pass that died in the wind at the end of the first half.
Brady took advantage of D.R.C.’s absence to stage the biggest comeback of his career, just as he’s going to try to capitalize on the loss of cornerback Chris Harris Jr. (knee) when the Patriots (13-4) visit the Broncos (14-3) on Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
“Probably the hardest thing for the team was that we didn’t know when Foxie was going to be back,” Broncos executive vice president John Elway said. “And in Foxie’s mind, he would have been back three days after the surgery.”
Fox and his wife, Robin, flew home on team owner Pat Bowlen’s jet in late November and at Del Rio’s suggestion he visited with the team on Thanksgiving morning, then watched from his home in Denver as the Broncos beat the Chiefs 35-28 in Kansas City that weekend to take charge of the AFC West.
He returned to work the following day, his newfound energy matching his renewed enthusiasm, saying his surgeon told him the aortic valve was now the size of a 50-cent piece instead of a pinhead.
What a difference.
He exuded vitality while capturing his third division title in his three seasons since replacing Josh McDaniels in Denver, then dispatched the demons of last year’s playoff loss with an exhaling win over San Diego last weekend.
“He’s got more energy than anybody I’ve ever seen,” Elway said. “That, to me, is the definition of John Fox: the energy level that he brings. He brings it to the practice field, and it’s contagious. I think that’s why he was a perfect fit for us after what happened with Josh. That positive attitude that he brings turned the culture around because of the type of guy that he is.
“We missed his energy.”
Since his return on Dec. 2, Fox has more pep in his step, more boom in his voice — and even more gumption in his calls.
Like sending in Matt Prater for a 64-yard field goal attempt on an icy afternoon in Denver or ordering his high-powered offense not to milk the clock with a big lead at Houston, where Manning broke Brady’s single-season touchdown record with a late score.
Could this be the same man who had Manning take a knee with three timeouts and 31 seconds remaining in regulation in the playoff game last year after Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones’ 70-yard game-tying TD catch?
Has Fox turned in his conservative credentials?
While Fox said his health scare did cause him to re-evaluate some things, he insists it didn’t have a profound effect on his approach to the job.
“It’s like an injury to a player,” Fox said. “When you come back, you hope you’re the same player again.”
McDaniels tries to stick another dagger in Denver
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — For a brief time, Josh McDaniels was a celebrity in Denver and he played the part with gusto — running to the corner of the stadium after his first signature win and pumping his fists at the crowd to celebrate.
“This doesn’t mean a whole lot unless you can share it with somebody,” McDaniels said that day. “Sometimes, you’re allowed to have fun.”
The fun ended almost as quickly as it began.
And less than five years after that big win over New England vaulted the Broncos to an unexpected 5-0 record, the name “Josh McDaniels” stirs up far more angst and anger in Denver than those of the men he beat that day, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
“I ain’t got nothing to say about him,” says Broncos defensive lineman Robert Ayers, a first-round draft pick during the two-year McDaniels era that Broncos fans would love to forget.
The man who gave the Broncos a videotaping scandal and a league-worst defense, who alienated fans and left the franchise holding the bag on the Tim Tebow experiment, returns Sunday to try to deliver another dagger to Denver.
He’s now working as New England’s offensive coordinator and will try to devise the game plan to send the Patriots to the Super Bowl and keep his old team, the Broncos, out of it.
A 33-year-old coach with a thin resume and a lot to prove, McDaniels got another victory after the New England win in 2009 to extend his tenure-opening winning streak to six games. He followed that with 17 losses over the next 22 games and got fired with four weeks left in the 2010 season.
“Obviously, his time here was a little shorter than he probably hoped or expected, but that’s in the past,” said Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker, a third-round pick in McDaniels’ second draft in Denver.
The presence of Decker, Ayers, Demaryius Thomas, Knowshon Moreno and left guard Zane Beadles — all key cogs in the Broncos’ current success — adds a layer of complexity to the discussion about what, exactly, McDaniels left behind in Denver. Sure, he turned out to be a callow leader, not near ready to guide an NFL franchise. But he didn’t completely whiff on every choice.
“He’s been vilified, but he’s a bright, young coach and you see what he’s done in going back to New England and being their offensive coordinator,” said John Elway, who was brought back to the Broncos to clean up the McDaniels mess. “I don’t know why it didn’t work out, other than the fact he didn’t win enough games.”
But it was more than that.
It was the cheating — the Broncos got caught in an embarrassing videotaping scandal that transpired while they were practicing to play the 49ers in London.
It was the secrecy — he created an environment of mistrust, not only with the media, but with fans, who never felt they were getting the full story. Shortly after firing him, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen sent an apology to ticketholders: “You deserve more from this franchise than what we saw in 2010, and you have my word that I will restore the culture of winning, trust and integrity within the Broncos,” he wrote.
And it was the roster — successes aside, there were also a number of mistakes: The botched handling of Jay Cutler’s ouster. (Not that all Broncos fans disagreed with the move itself.) The out-of-nowhere trade of the popular and effective Peyton Hillis. And, the move that symbolized it all — McDaniels’ decision to run counter to the opinion of every other NFL front office and use a first-round pick on Tebow, and then, just as inexplicably, to leave him wallowing on the bench.
Elway hired John Fox in part because Fox had a sunshiny disposition the franchise sorely needed after 22 months of being beaten down by the man they called “McHoodie.” Fox made things work with Tebow for a year and actually coaxed the Broncos to a playoff victory. Then, they went to New England and lost 45-10 in the 2011 divisional playoffs.
“It was a pretty good indicator of how far we had to get moving,” Fox said, speaking of the roster he inherited.
Elway’s decision to jettison Tebow in favor of Peyton Manning made things right very quickly in Denver.
Now, the story comes full circle.
It will be Manning trying to decipher the Belichick defense, while McDaniels calls a Patriots offense that has shined this season, even after replacing key playmakers Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski with a far-less-accomplished group including Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and LeGarrette Blount.
McDaniels was not asked about his time in Denver during an interview with Patriots beat writers earlier this week, though he has never offered much when asked about it previously.
Brady, who finds himself a win shy of his sixth Super Bowl in part because his offensive coordinator has done a masterful job getting more out of less this season, said if McDaniels is extra motivated to beat Denver, he hasn’t let on.
“He’s always focused like he is every week,” Brady said. “He’s one of the best coaches that I’ve ever been around and why I love being coached by him because he brings it every day.”