Opinion: Intriguing as Brady-Rodgers matchup is, it’s Mahomes who has all eyes on him

As intriguing as that matchup of aging future Hall of Famers in the NFC championship is, it’s the status of the young future Hall of Famer in the AFC title game that has everyone’s attention.

Patrick Mahomes will have to be cleared by an independent neurologist this week in order to play against the Buffalo Bills next Sunday night. Mahomes left the Kansas City Chiefs’ divisional-round win over the Cleveland Browns in the third quarter with what appeared to be a concussion, but his fiancee Tweeted that he was "fine” and coach Andy Reid sounded optimistic about his return next weekend.

“I just talked to him. He’s doing good,” Reid said after the Chiefs’ 22-17 win. “We’ll see how he is tomorrow but, right now, he’s feeling good.”

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It’s actually a sign of progress in the NFL’s treatment of head trauma that there’s even a question about Mahomes’ status against the Buffalo Bills. Not too long ago, so long as he could remember his name and make a reasonable show of being OK, he’d have been allowed to finish out the game against Cleveland.

Now there is a five-step process Mahomes has to complete, and his return is solely dependent on how he responds. If he remains symptom-free, he can keep moving through the phases – limited activity, aerobic exercise, weight training, non-contact drills, clearance by an independent neurologist. If he doesn’t, he can’t.

There is no bargaining, no wheedling, no “But it’s AFC championship!”

Which is the way it should be. For all players, but especially Mahomes, the game’s most exciting player and the guy the NFL is counting on to carry the league long after Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are parked on their couches.

In just his third full season as a starter, Mahomes is already an NFL MVP, Super Bowl champion and the league’s highest-paid player. He has the Chiefs in the AFC title game for a third consecutive year. Whether it’s Mahomes himself, the Chiefs or the NFL, there is no upside to taking chances with his health.

Besides, given the development this year of young guns like the Bills’ Josh Allen and the Browns’ Baker Mayfield, along with the resurgence of Lamar Jackson, there will be plenty more of these matchups in the future.  

The same cannot be said for Rodgers vs. Brady, aka the NFC championship, Brought to You by AARP.

Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady, left, shakes hands with Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers after the Bucs defeated the Packers earlier this season. The two will meet again in the NFC championship game. (Photo: Mark LoMoglio, AP)

While much will be made of their combined ages — Rodgers turned 37 last month and Brady is 43 – it is the rarity of their matchup that makes this game between the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers unique.

Because Brady spent the first 20 years of his career in New England, he and Rodgers have played each other just three times, with one of those games coming earlier this season. Brady has won two of the matchups.

The one loss? The only other time Brady and Rodgers have faced off at Lambeau Field, in 2014.

“I know. I know,” Brady said with a grimace when he was asked Sunday night about playing in cold weather again now that he’s adapted to the warmth of Florida.

The early forecast for Sunday afternoon calls for a high in the low 20s, with snow showers.

“Hopefully it’s a little colder than it was tonight,” Rodgers said after Saturday’s game, when the temperature was in the low- to mid-30s. “It will be nice to watch the game tomorrow and know whoever wins is coming to our place.”

While this is Rodgers’ fifth NFC title game, it’s the first time he’s played one at Lambeau. He’s long wanted to play one at home, because of both the unwelcoming elements and the boost the Packers get from their crowd.

The Packers had a crowd of almost 8,500 on Saturday night, the first time fans have been at Lambeau this season, and the team said Sunday a similar number would be allowed for the NFC title game.  

“Talk about pure joy running out of that tunnel,” Rodgers said. “It felt like 50,000 when we ran out of that tunnel, it really did. You forget how much you truly miss having a crowd here. … It’s so palpable. You feel the energy in the stadium. It’s just different. It’s just a little more special.”

Brady is not a stranger to hostile environments. Of his 13 other appearances in the conference championship, six were on the road. He won half of them, the only losses coming to Peyton Manning in Indianapolis and Denver.

Two years ago, he edged Mahomes and the Chiefs in overtime at Arrowhead Stadium.

“We worked hard to get to this point,” Brady said after beating Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. “Two road playoff wins is pretty sweet. We’ve got to go beat a great football team. Aaron’s playing incredible, and we’re going to have to play great to beat them.”

The injured and the aging. Those are the stories for the conference championships. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

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