With trumpets and arresting fourth-quarter thunder, the NFL determined its final four teams this weekend.
But first, a necessary regional aside:
Owner Jerry Jones can’t keep his aging quarterback on the field, and Tony Romo’s twice-broken clavicle sent the Dallas Cowboys’ season into a 4-12 death spin.
And yet, there was quarterback Peyton Manning, 39 years young, who was alleged to be done after undergoing neck surgery, instead leading the Denver Broncos on Sunday into another AFC title game.
Owner Jones also has struggled futilely to restore the genie to the bottle since Jimmy Johnson left. The Cowboys haven’t been to a conference championship game in 20 years. Only two NFC teams, Washington and Detroit, have longer title-game droughts.
And yet, while the Cowboys struggle to remain relevant, here are the New England Patriots, defying the law of averages and NFL parity, headed to their 10th AFC championship game of the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era.
The Cowboys’ renowned think tank doesn’t seem to believe it can find a franchise quarterback in the first round of the NFL Draft. And yet, there are next week’s NFC title game hosts, Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers.
Too negative? How can anyone who follows the Cowboys not be, after watching this NFL season’s four best teams claim their rightful places in the conference championship games?
The Panthers, Cardinals, Patriots and Broncos were that good. Just look at the streaking teams — and the quarterbacks — that they beat over the weekend.
Manning and Brady will be opposing quarterbacks for the 17th and presumably final time. Manning, slowed by injuries, missed six games during the regular season. The feeling is that this will be his final NFL season.
His replacement during the regular season, Brock Osweiler, a second-round draft pick from Arizona State in 2012, won five of the seven games in which he started.
The Broncos had adequate quarterbacking insurance. Owner Jones, on the other hand, tried to fill the backup position on the cheap.
He is not the old Manning, clearly. His passes lack their once-regal zip. He doesn’t stand quite as tall in the pocket. “Omaha” seems a lot farther away.
But nothing has dimmed of Manning’s football savvy. His fourth-quarter play Sunday to dodge a sack, slip to the ground and then rise and find Emmanuel Sanders for a 34-yard gain was a jaw-dropping classic.
The Patriots, it is worth noting, have to travel to Denver for the title game.
Carolina, 15-1 during the regular season, also will have the home field advantage Sunday. The Panthers have been anointed a three-point favorite over the Cardinals.
Newton had a magical season, throwing for 35 touchdowns, as the Panthers led the NFL in scoring.
His counterpart, Carson Palmer, lacks a comparable cachet, but he, too, threw for 35 touchdowns, while the Cardinals finished No. 2 in scoring.
In yardage allowed on defense, Arizona finished fifth in the league; Carolina was No. 6.
The lessons, therefore, are easy ones, if Owner Jones has been paying attention.
To get to the NFL’s final four, a team had better have a defense. And it doesn’t matter if its quarterback’s name is Carson Palmer.
The best teams have a way of rising to the top.
Gil LeBreton: 817-390-7697, glebreton