By Mark Schiff
Over the course of his 17-year NFL career with the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons, Tony Gonzalez set virtually every significant mark for tight ends, including catches (1,325), receiving yards (15,125) and touchdown receptions (111). After retiring following the 2013 season, Gonzalez joined THE NFL TODAY on CBS, where he works as an analyst. Gonzalez was kind enough to take some time to discuss the upcoming AFC and NFC Championship games, including what could be the final meeting between Hall of Fame quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, the keys to New England’s offense and why the Panthers have the upper-hand over the Cardinals in the NFC Championship.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Do you think this is the last ever Brady vs. Manning match-up?
Tony Gonzalez: “Yes, I really believe that in my heart. Because I don’t think Peyton is going to come back to play after this season. This is our last chance to see greatness, one of the best players of all-time to take the field. And I couldn’t think of a better way [for Manning’s career to end] — if they end up not winning — [than] going against Tom Brady. Whether it’s this week or in the Super Bowl, I don’t think Peyton will be playing anymore. I can’t imagine that he would go somewhere and be a backup, limp through another season, or, if he did want to go to a team where he could start, I don’t think he’d want to be a part of a rebuilding team.
So this is it and this is what it’s all about. Two of the best quarterbacks ever to play going against each other for the Super Bowl. This is huge. This is like, Frank Sinatra’s final concert or something. It should be fun for everyone.”
Other than Tom Brady, who is the other key player for New England in this game?
TG: “Well, I think it’s two players and they complement each other like ketchup and mustard. (Former Pittsburgh Steelers coach) Bill Cowher wouldn’t like those two mixing. Let’s call them peanut butter and jelly. I’m talking about tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Julian Edelman. Gronkowski presents such a mismatch for the defenses, he’s nearly impossible to cover with his size.
And Edelman, there’s no one better in the NFL at getting open on those little five-, six-yard routes. Brady really missed him in the team’s first meeting against the Broncos and he’ll provide Brady with a safety valve on third down. So, along with Brady, I think it’s those two weapons on offense that should have the biggest impact on the game.”
What do Von Miller and the Broncos defense have to do to slow down the Pats’ offense?
TG: “They have to get after Brady, which is something they struggled with in their last game against the Steelers. Brady is so good at diagnosing defenses and getting the ball off quickly that if you can’t pressure him, he’ll just pick you apart. So I think the key for Denver will be getting to the quarterback and letting their excellent pass rush disrupt things in the backfield, which will help out the secondary.”
With lingering injuries along the defensive line, will the Pats constantly rush Manning or is it better to sit back in coverage?
TG: “I think the key will be to mix things up. The Patriots are excellent at disguising their coverages and coming at the quarterback from a variety of angles and they’ll need to do that to win. But in addition to blitzing, New England will need to drop into coverage and mix it up, putting pressure on Peyton to throw the ball into tight coverage. Manning is one of the best ever at looking at defenses at the line of scrimmage and figuring out what they’re trying to do, so the key for New England will be to mix up the coverage to keep him off balance.”
Which Heisman-winning quarterback has the upper-hand this weekend in the NFC Championship: Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers or Carson Palmer of the Arizona Cardinals?
TG: “I’d say Cam. Look, they’ve both had great seasons but Cam is the [presumptive] MVP for a reason. The thing about him is that he’s gotten so much better at throwing those intermediate routes. I went against him in the early part of his career when I was with Atlanta and that’s something he’s really improved on this season, getting those intermediate throws. And if the pass isn’t there, he can just use his legs and that big 6’5”, 250lb frame to pick up five yards. So although Carson Palmer has had a great year in Arizona, I think Newton definitely has the upper-hand in this matchup.”
Which defense do you think holds the advantage?
TG: “Again, I would have to go with Carolina. Their linebackers, Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, they’re just so athletic. I went against Davis a lot when I was in Atlanta and he’s one of the best linebackers in the game. And Kuechly is just so impressive with his all-around play. The Cardinals not having injured free safety Tyrann Mathieu is huge; he was like the Troy Polamalu of that defense. So even though the Cardinals have Patrick Peterson, the Panthers have Josh Norman. I just like the Panthers a little bit more.”
The NFL on CBS’ coverage with host James Brown, Boomer Esiason, Bill Cowher, Tony Gonzalez and Bart Scott, along with NFL Insider Jason La Canfora, begins with THE NFL TODAY at 2 p.m. ET, live from Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver, Colo.
Mark Schiff is a freelance writer and music journalist for AXS.com. In 2013, his coverage of the Seattle Seahawks ended in heartbreak when they defeated the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Now covering his beloved hometown team, his knowledge and passion for pro football has resulted in multiple fantasy football championships. Find him on Twitter at @mihilites.