The divisional playoff games this past weekend provided everything possible, from overtime in Denver where Manning's comeback season ended with familiar playoff nausea, to Colin Kaepernick's coming-out party to Atlanta surviving Hurricane Wilson to another Belichick/Brady production.
I felt bad for Manning. Not so much for Seattle coach Pete Carroll, who iced Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant and gave him a free practice kick (he missed) before Bryant nailed the game-winner.
Here's an exhausted look back at the weekend's winners and losers:
* Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan.
He's been stuck with the type of rap that has plagued Manning throughout his career. He's considered a regular-season stat machine who can't win in the playoffs. But after Russell Wilson brought the Seattle Seahawks back from a 20-0 halftime deficit to a 28-27 lead with half a minute left, Ryan came through.
He coolly completed big passes to get the ball in field goal range. Although Smith oddly called timeout with 13 seconds left rather than guarantee Bryant's field goal would be the last play, Bryant delivered the win with a 49-yard field goal.
* Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson.
Surely he won the Rookie of the Year award with his second-half performance in bringing the Seahawks back. He's mobile, always looking downfield, always sensing where pressure is, and great with his arm and his legs. I can't wait for the years ahead as we watch the next generation of quarterback stars in Wilson, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and…
* 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
From now on, anything 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh says about quarterbacks I'm considering to be the Gospel of Jim. He went against conventional wisdom and ditched an effective quarterback Alex Smith at mid-season to insert Kaepernick. Kaepernick's performance in the 49ers' win over Green Bay was sublime.
This is the statistical line of the new breed of quarterback: 17 of 31 passes for 263 yards and two touchdowns, plus 16 carries for 181 yards and two scores. Incredible doesn't seem to be a strong enough word to describe Kaepernick, but it's true.
* Harbaugh brothers.
We might end up with a family affair Super Bowl. John Harbaugh and the Baltimore Ravens seem like one of those teams of destiny, what with Ray Lewis having that exclusive deal with God and the dancing ghost of Michael Jackson to become a beloved figure in his final season. Lewis beloved? Yeah, it's that kind of weird season.
Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers have looked like the best team in football about five different times this season before having a dud game. Maybe there are no more duds.
Both Harbaughs whine to the refs too often for my taste, but they win. Winning's what it's about.
* Baltimore offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell.
He had a bad year with the Colts last year and got fired. Now he's found a way to call the right plays to beat the Colts and Manning in consecutive games. He likes Joe Flacco and Flacco likes to go deep with a vengeance.
* New England coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
It's been awhile since they've won it all. Only a fool would count them out.
* Denver coach John Fox.
John Elway should have fired Fox immediately after he ordered Manning to take a knee and go to overtime with 31 seconds left. I'm still incredulous. The Broncos needed a field goal – a field goal! – and they had the ball at their 20 with two timeouts left. That is what Manning does. Maybe not as well in the playoffs (see below), but that's what he does. That's why Elway and the Broncos took a chance on Manning's neck – to put them in that position. And they took a knee.
Fox turned ultra-conservative in the end with a chance to seal the game, running instead of throwing. He did what way too many coaches do. He played not to lose. And then he lost. Lesson here anyone?
Man, I hate put him on the losers' list. His comeback from a year away, four neck surgeries and with an entirely new team has been a storybook tale. But it ended the same old way it ended too many times for Manning with the Indianapolis Colts.
His team lost at home, as a heavy favorite, in its first game of the playoffs. Manning isn't solely to blame. The line forms behind Fox and the Denver secondary. But Manning set up the game-losing drive with a running-right, throw-back-across-his-body interception that he simply cannot take a chance at throwing. He's 9-11 in the postseason. The truth hurts.
He's not a complete loser because he was smart enough to make Wilson his starting quarterback over the overpaid free agent Matt Flynn. But sometimes (when you're behind 20-0 and you need points) you need to kick a field goal.
Carroll's biggest mistake Sunday was the old icing-the-kicker call. Bryant's boot during Carroll's time out went wide right. The one afterward was dead center. Will they never learn?
* Twitter haters.
The stream of comments on Twitter bashing Manning after the Broncos lost ranged from sympathy (not too many) to mocking his playoff record (most) to the absurd ("Tebow 1, Manning 0: Denver playoff wins").
Twitter is a great place to see people commenting on sports in real time, but I'm not a fan of all the piling on.
Thanks should be directed to the Ravens' public relations staff for tweeting a photo of Manning congratulating Lewis in an empty locker room 90 minutes after the game. Classy moment. That made up, almost, for the haters.
It's on to the AFC and NFC championship games now, Ravens vs. Patriots and 49ers vs. Falcons. NFL fans can only hope to be as satisfied and exhausted after next weekend.