Since the day the great coach George "Papa Bear" Halas begged Sid Luckman to leave behind a job in sales and join the Chicago Bears, the NFL has been a game that has revolved around the quarterback. As the NFL playoffs get set to start, this season is no different, particularly as the league enjoys one of the greatest eras in passer performance.
This year's playoff field features four quarterbacks who have combined to win seven of the past nine Super Bowl titles. Of the 12 passers, eight are former first-round picks, including two who were taken No. 1 overall. Then again, the guy ranked No. 1 is a former sixth-round pick and his former backup, an undrafted guy, is also behind center for a playoff team.
From No. 1-12, here are the quarterbacks in the playoffs.
1. Tom Brady(notes), New England Patriots – He is the lord of the rings in this group with three. If not for a miracle catch against the New York Giants, he'd likely have a fourth … and a perfect season. Brady is an amazing combination of toughness (no one hangs in the pocket against a tough rush better than him right now) and accuracy. While he didn't come close to matching the record 50 touchdown passes he threw in the 2007 season, this might have been his best season when you consider all the changes around him, from the two tight ends to cutting Randy Moss(notes) (and replacing him with Deion Branch(notes)) to dealing with the loss of RB Kevin Faulk(notes).
[Photos: New England's Tom Brady]
2. Ben Roethlisberger(notes), Pittsburgh Steelers – OK, before all you Peyton Manning(notes) fans get seriously angry and start sending vile messages – oh yeah, you Colts fans, you're way too polite to do that. That's why I love you guys. Anyway, if this is based purely on the postseason, Roethlisberger and Manning are basically carbon copies in terms of stats. Roethlisberger has an 87.2 rating in the playoffs. Manning is at 87.6. Roethlisberger has thrown 12 TD passes and seven interceptions in his past eight postseason games while Manning is 12-6 during his past seven. One big difference: there's that matter of one title more for Roethlisberger. Additionally, Roethlisberger can take a hit, extend plays with his combination of toughness and mobility and get the ball down field. He's also a better player in the elements. When the weather is bad and the wind starts howling, Roethlisberger is pretty much the same guy. Manning is not. That said, I'm splitting a pretty fine hair in this situation.
[Photos: Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger]
3. Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts – Lots of New York fans this week have been debating whether it's better for the Jets to face a healthy Chiefs team or a beat-up Indianapolis. The Chiefs are a nice team and present their fair share of problems, particularly with running back Jamaal Charles(notes). But seriously, can you really say you'd rather face Manning? Maybe some people could convince themselves of that, but I'm not one of them. Manning is too good to want to mess with, even under the most favorable conditions. Sure, some people have said Manning is a choker in the postseason. Most of those people also think 18K gold is unacceptable.
[Photos: Indianapolis' Peyton Manning]
4. Drew Brees(notes), New Orleans Saints – The reigning champion played one of the most brilliant games in Super Bowl history last season when he outdueled Manning for the title in Miami. Brees completed 32 of 39 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns. It was part of a postseason in which Brees posted a three-game rating of 117.0, threw eight touchdowns and had zero interceptions. Stunning stuff. He also has a career playoff rating of more than 100 in six games. That said, Brees is coming off a questionable season where he had a career-high 22 interceptions. That included one ugly one on a forced play at Atlanta in the second-to-last game. Brees is still one of the best out there, so this is a bit of nit-picking. But when rating guys of this caliber, one must pick nits.
[Photos: New Orleans' Drew Brees]
5. Michael Vick(notes), Philadelphia Eagles – Vick is the most talked about, compelling player of the NFL from both a performance standpoint and a social perspective. When he plays, it is impossible to take your eyes off of him. While that was true earlier in his career, there is an important difference. Back then, Vick was alternating between spectacular and spectacularly awful depending on the moment. From 2001-07, Vick's quarterback rating never topped the pedestrian 81.6, yet he made the Pro Bowl three times based on his highlight-reel talent. Now, Vick is coming off a season when he posted a 100.2 rating and was a legit MVP candidate after harnessing all of his talents. Combined with DeSean Jackson(notes), Jeremy Maclin(notes) and LeSean McCoy(notes), Vick and the Eagles have the most explosive offense in the playoffs. Beyond football, Vick is a focal point of all sorts of discussions ranging from redemption for convicted felons to race to what is fair punishment for a crime.
[Photos: Philadelphia's Michael Vick]
6. Matt Ryan(notes), Atlanta Falcons – Right behind Vick is the man who replaced him in Atlanta. In his third season, Ryan has established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the league at end-game decisions and performance. He is one of the key reasons that the Falcons are 14-6 in games decided by less than a touchdown over the past three years, including 6-2 this season. Ryan is a classic pocket passer with great accuracy. More than that, he's a great decision-maker, as evidenced by his 28-9 TD-interception margin this season. If there is a problem with his game, it's his over-reliance on the dink-and-dunk passing game. He averaged a career-low 6.5 yards per attempt this season. Some of that is the lack of a great No. 2 wide receiver. Some if it is the lack of Ryan taking more shots downfield. Either way, it's dangerously short of effective for playoff success.
[Photos: Atlanta's Matt Ryan]
7. Aaron Rodgers(notes), Green Bay Packers – Rodgers posted his second straight season with a rating of better than 100 as he continues to make people forget about Brett Favre(notes). In fact, Rodgers has better ratings than Favre ever did with the Packers. That said, Rodgers better deliver in the postseason. He has a great chance in the playoff opener at Philadelphia. Then again, the Packers need to do a better job of protection, specifically by getting him a better running game. That's not going to happen right now, but it better be high on the offseason priority list. Otherwise, those two concussions Rodgers suffered this season are going to multiply in a hurry.
[Photos: Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers]
8. Jay Cutler(notes), Chicago Bears – Going into the season finale, Cutler had posted the best rating of his career, but then threw a couple of interceptions. He still played very well this season as he meshed well with brilliant offensive coordinator Mike Martz. In fact, his ratio included a 16-5 TD-INT margin during Chicago's seven wins following the bye week. Hopefully these are signs of Cutler maturing into the quarterback everyone expected him to be coming out of Vanderbilt in 2006. That said, Cutler is still an enigma, a guy who plays with little outward joy for the game (his almost perpetual scowl is really odd), isn't much of a leader and seems just as likely to throw a terrible interception as a big touchdown pass. In short, Cutler is the kind of quarterback who might make a couple of big throws, but not exactly the kind of player who can put a team on his back for any length of time.
[Photos: Chicago's Jay Cutler]
9. Joe Flacco(notes), Baltimore Ravens – Like Ryan and Cutler, Flacco is an ascending player. He and Ryan's numbers are practically carbon copies, including career bests in rating (93.6) and ratio (25-10). The key difference is that the Ravens are 10-12 in Flacco's career in games decided by less than a touchdown, including 5-4 this season.
Flacco is a big reason why they haven't done very well. For instance, in three of the losses this season, Flacco had some critical turnovers (or multiple turnovers), including a fumble against Pittsburgh and an interception against Atlanta.
[Photos: Baltimore's Joe Flacco]
10. Matt Cassel(notes), Kansas City Chiefs – In many respects, Cassel has had a fantastic season, starting with his phenomenal 27-7 TD-interception margin. Cassel's ratio was 22-2 over a 10-game stretch after going 4-3 in the first four games of the season. However, before we get too enamored with the numbers, remember that Kansas City hasn't had the toughest schedule and Cassel clearly benefitted. He had a 20-0 ratio in eight games against the following seven teams: Denver (twice), Seattle, Arizona, Houston, Buffalo, Tennessee and Jacksonville. Those teams are awful, even if Seattle and Jacksonville had chances to go to the playoffs going into the final week of the season. We'll see how Cassel fairs in games against tougher competition, particularly given that he hasn't played in a playoff game.
[Photos: Kansas City's Matt Cassel]
11. Mark Sanchez(notes), New York Jets – Sanchez made nice strides in his second year as the Jets' starting quarterback and still has plenty of promise. But he also has a lot in common with his fellow New York quarterback, Eli Manning(notes), in that both of them are prone to frequent interceptions.
Worse, Sanchez still has a tendency to go into protracted funks that last not just for a few series, but often for a few games. If he hits a good stretch, the Jets have a chance to do some damage in the playoffs. If not, they have the serious look of a one-and-done team.
[Photos: New York's Mark Sanchez]
12. Charlie Whitehurst(notes)/Matt Hasselbeck, Seattle Seahawks – Give Whitehurst some credit for getting Seattle through the season finale against St. Louis. He wasn't great, but he didn't have to be because the Rams couldn't get into the end zone. Whitehurst hasn't been what the Seahawks had hoped when they traded for him in the offseason, but he came through when they needed him.
The big question this week as Seattle prepares to play a very active New Orleans defense is whether Hasselbeck can play. If so, Seattle will have his great experience. Unfortunately, at 35, they won't have much of Hasselbeck's health.
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- Peyton Manning