The NFL’s next great quarterback rivalry

Divisional Round - Seattle Seahawks v Carolina Panthers
CHARLOTTE, NC – JANUARY 17: Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers shakes hands with Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks after the NFC Divisional Playoff Game at Bank of America Stadium on January 17, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Carolina Panthers defeated the Seattle Seahawks 31-24. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are meeting up for what feels like the one-millionth time in the American Football Conference championship game Sunday afternoon. This could be the final installment of the greatest quarterback rivalry in NFL history.

As the saying goes, when one door closes, another opens, and the playoffs might have given birth to the next great quarterback rivalry when the Carolina Panthers ambushed the Seattle Seahawks 31-0 at half time and coasted to the 31-24 victory last Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

Cam Newton (just finished his fifth year in the league) of the Panthers and Russell Wilson (just finished his fourth year) of the Seahawks entered the NFL at a similar time, they are similar players and their careers appear to be on the same trajectory — skyrocketing.

They are the next two great young quarterbacks that will battle for NFC supremacy for years to come (sorry Colin Kaepernick, you had your chance. Maybe Chip Kelly can bring you back into this conversation a year or two from now).

The Manning-Brady rivalry was great because of the frequency of their battles in the playoffs, how memorable their games were and they are two of the five greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

No other QB rivalry during their time was more polarizing.

There was so much potential with Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco, but they went on Super Bowl runs at separate times like ships passing at night. It’s a rivalry because they play twice a year, but it feels like more of a team rivalry rather than two quarterbacks slugging it out for a shot at the Super Bowl.

Aaron Rodgers vs. Drew Brees never had a chance because they never hooked up in the playoffs and play in separate divisions. Bountygate might have withheld our only chance at a Packers and Saints playoff game. Rivalry doesn’t count.

There was Jim Kelly vs. Troy Aikman and Terry Bradshaw vs. Roger Staubach. Both sets of rivals met twice each in the Super Bowl, but Bradshaw ruled the late 70s and Aikman downed the Bills twice in the early 90s.

So let’s break down this Newton-Wilson rivalry to it’s core and see who comes out on top.

Last year — my favourite sports columnist — Bill Simmons wrote his annual NBA Trade Value column and broke down the Steph Curry/James Harden/Russell Westbrook comparison with his old Dr. Jack Breakdown gimmick. Allow me to pay homage to my favourite writer by borrowing the same format to figure out which quarterback to side with in this new rivalry.

Contract situation:

In a world where players get hurt and their contracts disappear into thin air like JaMarcus Russell’s career, let’s assume both guys remain healthy and play out the remainder of their deals.

Newton signed a five-year, $103 million contract with the Panthers before this season, with $60 million guaranteed and an average cap hit of $20.7 million.

Newton inked his deal before Wilson. The deal was expected to raise the market value for QBs such as Wilson and Andrew Luck.

After leading his Seahawks to two straight Super Bowl appearances under his rookie contract, Wilson overdue for a major payday. He re-upped with the Hawks for four years, $87.6 million with $60 million guaranteed and an average cap hit of $21.9 million.

Wilson took somewhat of a team-friendly contract, only taking up 12.04 per cent of the Seahawks cap, where Newton’s deal occupies 12.66 per cent.

The Seahawks sit $30 million under the cap, the 11th best situation in the league. The Panthers have a manageable cap with $20 million in space.

Both teams will need that space to lock up key players on both sides of the ball this summer.

The Panthers’ two top corners, Charles Tillman and Josh Norman, are free agents along with their bowling ball fullback Michael Tolbert.

The Seahawks have 17 unrestricted free agents this summer and will have plenty of cap room to retool this championship caliber squad.

If you go shopping for a truck and you find the same truck at two different dealerships, both with the same mileage but priced differently, you buy with the cheaper truck so you can afford to buy sweet new parts like subwoofers. ADVANTAGE: WILSON.

Career body of work:

Wilson entered the league as a third round pick and won the job from the greatest impulse purchase in NFL history, Matt Flynn.

Wilson won the NFC West in 2013 and 2014, and captured a wildcard birth in 2012 and 2015. He owns a 46-18 (0.750 winning percentage) record in the regular season.

The Seahawks went 11-5, reaching the playoffs his first year at the helm. For an encore, he demolished the Denver Broncos 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII. He defended his National Football Conference title the next year before losing to the New England Patriots 28-24 in the Super Bowl.

He is 7-3 in the playoffs and was named to the Pro Bowl in 2012 and 2013. He has four fourth quarter comebacks in the postseason, twice as many as any other quarterback since 2012. He also has the most fourth quarter comebacks (13) and 18 game winning drives in the regular season since he entered the league.

Not bad for the sixth quarterback taken behind franchise pillars like Brock Osweiler, Brandon Weeden and Ryan Tannehill.

Newton was a completely different case file. Everyone saw the Heisman Trophy winner coming when the Panthers selected him first overall in 2011. He was named offensive rookie of the year after lighting the rookie record book on fire.

He became the first rookie to pass for more than 4,000 yards (4,051). Luck later broke that record the following year with 4,374 yards. Newton’s completions and passing touchdowns (21) were the third most in NFL history and his total touchdowns (35) were the most ever, while rushing for 706 yards. And he was the first rookie to throw and run for 10 touchdowns in a season.

The Panthers have won the past three NFC South divisions — they won in 2014 despite going 7-8-1 — and have gone 47-32-1 (0.581) with Newton.

In Newton’s first trip to the postseason in 2013, he downed the Arizona Cardinals and backup quarterback Ryan Lindley 27-16 when he threw for two touchdowns and 198 yards.

The win over the Seahawks last weekend pushes his record to 500 and he could be working on a Super Bowl run of his own, but, at the moment, he sits 2-2 with six touchdowns to five interceptions in four playoff games.

This one is a layup. Two Super Bowl appearances, one ring and a better winning percentage in a tougher division; ADVANTAGE: WILSON.

2015 Body of work:

This year, Newton went from a being a good quarterback to great.

He led his Panthers to a 15-1 record and probably should have finished undefeated if it wasn’t for one of the greatest trap games of all time; losing on the road to an angry Atlanta Falcons in their Super Bowl in week 16, two weeks after blasting them 38-0.

After starting 2-4, Wilson took over, evolving into the pocket passer the skeptics didn’t know he was capable of and finished 10-6.

Stats:

Newton

35 TD, 10 INT, 3,837 passing yards, 59.7 completion percentage, 636 rushing yards and 10 rushing TDs.

Wilson

34 TD, 8 INT, 4,024 passing yards, 68.1 completion percentage, 553 rushing yards and 1 rushing TD.

Wilson was the first QB to throw for 4,000, at least 30 TDs and 500 rushing yards, and recorded a five-game stretch of near perfection; minimum 3 TD, Total Quarterback Rating +120, completion percentage of +70 and more than 245 yards. All that said, Newton is the quarterback on the best team and was rightly named MVP.

ADVANTAGE: NEWTON.           

Best gimmick:

Newton won the hearts of football watching girlfriends and wives by giving his touchdown balls to little kids during home games. He also has snuck a few TD balls into the stands on the road, a ballsy task when you’re in a hostile environment and you’re up 17.

If Newton really wants to turn heads, he should storm the field after a Luke Kuechly pick-six and steal the sentimental ball and hand to a fan in a Newton jersey.

His dances moves are great, he got the entire NFL to catch onto his dabbin’ performance and FOX loves showing him dance during their pregame. So let’s congratulate Newton on winning the 2027 edition of Dancing with the Stars.

Wilson is very Spurs-y in the way he celebrates — he doesn’t. He shakes teammates hands and runs back to his sideline. No dancing or souvenir giveaways.

Wilson ends every interview with “Go Hawks,” which makes the Pacific Northwest feel warm and snuggly with their quarterback even after going 0-2 against the artist formerly known as the St. Louis Rams this season.

ADVANTAGE: NEWTON.

Greatest weakness:

While on their 15-1 run, the Panthers starting feelin’ themselves a little too much and nearly blew three double-digit leads in the second half to the Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints and New York Giants. You have to put away teams when the opportunity presents itself.

“We have to find a way to complete a full game of football,” Newton said. “We have been known to take our foot off the throttle and we have to find that killer instinct.”

Newton can’t take all the blame for three blown leads, but he is the captain of the team and held accountable for moments such as this.

It’s hard to find a weakness in Wilson’s game. He doesn’t turn the ball over; he manages the clock well and stays healthy.

But there have been reports of the Seahawks’ locker room being divided following the Percy Harvin trade. Some players felt that Wilson is too close to the front office and not close enough with guys on the field. Some teammates even criticized him for not being black enough, which doesn’t even remotely make sense.

 

Teams can learn how to finish games. Super Bowl teams know how to step on their opponent’s throat when they have the chance. I’m not sure how true the rumors are about Wilson in the locker room, but losing the locker room can be more detrimental than blowing a 17-point lead at home in week 8. DISADVANTAGE: WILSON.

Best nickname:

This one seems pretty easy. Both pivots broke the only nickname rule by giving themselves nicknames. I don’t blame them; I have broken the rule dozens of times.

Newton dubbed himself Ace Boogie after being drafted first overall and Wilson’s Twitter handle is @DangeRussWilson.

Word play is one of the few keys to my heart. ADVANTAGE: WILSON.

Surrounding cast:

Somehow Wilson transformed Doug Baldwin into the second coming of Steve Largent over night.

Baldwin averaged four TDs his first four seasons with the Hawks. He was one of the top-five “pull a touchdown out of my ass one week and get iced out of the offence the next week” guys available on the waiver wire.

Fantasy owners went bald from the frustration of adding him and getting nothing, then dropping him the next week only for Baldwin to go “off” for one TD and 68 yards.

Then, in week 12 he torched the Pittsburgh Steelers’ stale secondary for three TDs and 145 yards, and hasn’t stopped since. Including this insane one-handed catch on third down in -35 degrees Celsius weather that still doesn’t make sense.

I still need more than a six-game hot streak before I consider Baldwin an elite receiver.

Seahawks’ secondary receiver Jermaine Kearse only shows up in the playoffs and tight end Jimmy Graham wasn’t nearly as lethal his first year in Seattle compared to his first five years in New Orleans.

Marshawn Lynch is under contract for two more years, but the Seahawks might start thinking about his replacement as the wear and tear of the running back position begins to take its toll. Now rumours are surfacing that Beast Mode might retire this offseason.

Oh, and there was that mess nobody cared about when he was cleared to play prior to the playoffs and didn’t join his team on the flight to Minnesota for the wildcard game with the Vikings. Sounds like he really cares about teammates. If Blair Walsh would have nailed that game winning kick and dethroned the two-time defending NFC champs with Lynch chilling at his house in Seattle, that would have been one of the biggest F-U moments in NFL history.

On defence, the once historic Legion of Boom fell from having the leagues best defence according to DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), to the third best. LOB is still intimidating for opposing offensive coordinators.

When the Panthers’ wide receiver savoir Kelvin Benjamin blew out his left ACL during a practice in August, no one would have predicted 35 TDs from Newton.

The Panthers drafted the 6-foot-5 Benjamin in the first round of the 2014 draft because Newton was overthrowing his receivers. Benjamin racked up 1,008 yards and nine TDs, both Panthers rookie records. Newton finally had a bonafide and reliable pass catcher to be paired with for the next 10 years.

Without Benjamin the Panthers receiving core drops off quickly. Ted Ginn led Panthers’ receivers in targets (44) for 739 yards and 10 TDs, but doesn’t have the approval of one Hall of Famer.

Deion Sanders was talking about Ginn prior to the playoff game with the Seahawks and had this reassuring quote, “Ted Ginn has really matured. I wouldn’t drop my baby out of a burning building to him, but I really do like him.”

The injury to Benjamin opened the door for tight end and 7th Floor Crew member, Greg Olsen. He chalked up 1,104 yards on 77 receptions and seven TDs and could fill in for the Pro Bowl, if anyone still watches.

While the Panthers defence wasn’t rated as high as the Seahawks, they still jumped from 15th in DOVA last year to the fifth spot this season.

Tight ends are becoming increasingly more effective and the return of Benjamin should elevate the Panthers’ offence next season. ADVANTAGE: NEWTON.

Who would you rather have around in 10 years?

It’s impossible not to love these quarterbacks. I tried, I couldn’t.

This is why this quarterback rivalry is going to be an NFL Film one day. Both of these guys are extremely productive and on a Hall of Fame crash course for the next decade.

Neither QB has suffered major injuries and both can run like spooked deer away from pressure.

Part of me feels bad for giving the edge to Newton. Wilson appears to be more cerebral, but it’s not his fault he didn’t win the genetic lottery.

Newton is a Mack truck on the legs of an elusive bison. His neck is as thick as Hulk Hogan’s and he is sculpted like a Michelangelo statue. He looks like the experimental prototype model of the indestructible quarterback.

If these two lined up for the Oklahoma drill, Newton would cream Wilson.

Despite the NFL Play 60 kid coming for Newton’s job in eight years, I’m going with the guy that towers over linebackers. ADVANTAGE: NEWTON.

Highlight reel potential:

Wilson was the Golden State Warriors before the new Golden State Warriors became a thing.

The Warriors are the only team in the NBA that thrives on chaos.

Harrison Barnes might get his shot blocked, sending an outlet the other way only to have Andre Iguodala steal the ball back. Iguodala finds Curry in the corner on a bounce pass; the defence scrambles to find their check as Curry launches a three while getting fouled into the player’s bench. No call, the ball rims out, Draymond Green muscles away two defenders and tips it to a wide-open Klay Thompson for the swish.

When the chaos ensues, such as a terrible snap, Wilson has the innate ability to make positive plays.

Down 9-0 with 13 minutes remaining in the fourth at midfield, the center snapped the ball to Wilson in the shotgun while he was scanning the secondary. Wilson ran back and slid over top the ball. 99 per cent of quarterbacks lie on the ground, absorb the sack and loss of eight yards.

With five unblocked Vikings’ linemen barreling down on Wilson, he gets up, runs right, throws on the run 25 yards downfield to a wide open Tyler Lockett for a 45-yard gain to the Minnesota 5 yard line.

Newton might be just as fast as Wilson, but he isn’t as nimble and wouldn’t have been able to pull that off. Wilson is the only quarterback in the world with the presence of mind and creativity to extend broken plays into gains.

But really, what gets a team more jacked up than when your quarterback truck sticks a linebacker before flipping over a safety into the end zone and lands on his feet?

ADVANTAGE: NEWTON.

 Head to head:

In the end, the head to head competition is the measuring stick that judges all rivalries.

The two teams have faced off once in each of the past four years, with Wilson edging Newton 3-1.

In those four games — three of which have been played in Carolina — Wilson has four TDs, three INT, with 981 passing yards and 107 rushing yards. Newton has thrown for two TDs, three INT, with 706 passing yards and 134 rushing yards.

The two quarterbacks have been pinned against each other in back-to-back years now in the playoffs and split the meetings 1-1. In those two meetings, Wilson has thrown six touchdowns, two picks, 634 passing yards and ran for 54. Newton has three TDs, two picks, 407 pass yards and 40 yards the hard way.

Recency bias has the Panthers and Newton coming out on top. The Seahawks held a commanding 20-7 lead 8:49 in the third quarter, week 6 at home, when Newton handed the ball off to Jonathan Stewart for two rushing TDs, eventually taking the lead on 26-yard touchdown pass to Olsen with less than 30 seconds left on the clock.

Fresh in everyone’s mind is the stomping it looked like that Panthers were going to lay on the Seahawks in the divisional game when they were up 31-0. The near-immortal Wilson led a massive attempt at a second half charge that came up short while the Panthers solely focused on killing the clock and staying healthy.

Newton definitely stole the momentum temporary from Wilson heading into next season, but he has to return serve a few more times before tipping the needle the other way.

ADVANTAGE: WILSON.

If you’re keeping track at home, Newton is up 5-4 in these flawless categories, but that’s not who I’m hitching my wagon to with in this rivalry.

It’s hard to win games in the NFL, just ask Matt Leinart, Christian Ponder or Brady Quinn.

Ahmad Rashad (NBA broadcaster) stated during the Reggie Miller Winning Time 30 for 30 documentary, “There is a time to play and a time to win. What you do in winning time differentiates you between a regular player and a superstar.”

What Wilson does in winning time separates him from Newton.

The Seahawks trailed 19-7 to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC divisional round last year. Wilson orchestrated two touchdown drives in 44 seconds (including another remarkable broken play that led a converted two-point attempt to Luke Wilson) to send the Seahawks into overtime where they won 28-22.

Last weekend, up 31-0 at half, the Panthers clearly didn’t play with the same intensity or call the types of plays they normally would in a 10-point game, so Wilson’s failed comeback wasn’t as dramatic as the final score makes it out to be. But the fact that after throwing two picks and looking lost in the first half and came within one touchdown on the road was fairly impressive.

Maybe Newton is the closest thing to an iceberg in the NFL; we have only seen 30 per cent of what he can do. All Wilson has done since he has entered the league is win. History tells us that it’s hard to sustain success, but Wilson provides the confidence, steadiness and determination that will bring the Seahawks into the Super Bowl conversation year after year.

ADVANTAGE: WILSON.

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