Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger orchestrate philosophically opposing styles of offenses, with Rodgers running a precision passing game complemented by a stretch-zone run game, and Roethlisberger executing a big-play, vertical-strike offense featuring a power running game. However, they were the best young, ascending quarterbacks of their respective styles last season and carried their teams to the Super Bowl.
It was a duel between Peyton Manning and Drew Brees in '10; Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner in '09; and Eli Manning and Tom Brady in '08. Not since the Bears faced Indianapolis five years ago — when Peyton beat turnover-machine, injury-recovered Rex Grossman — has a non-elite quarterback played in the Super Bowl. For the Bears to get that far, they needed near-dominant play on defense and special teams, which they received with the help of Devin Hester and a talented defense in its prime under the direction of Ron Rivera.
At a time in league history when QB play has never been more important, following is a breakdown of how playoff quarterbacks stack up in each conference in terms of the critical decision making and clutch accuracy that can carry teams into February.
If playoff teams are judged by their quarterbacks, this year's Super Bowl will pit Rodgers vs. Brady. However, both teams feature very suspect defenses that have worn down late in the season and allowed opponents to light up the scoreboard. For the Packers and Patriots to advance, it likely will take a string of five-TD efforts. Both offenses averaged more than 34 points the last eight games and are loaded with offensive ammunition. However, the Patriots will not be able to fall behind so fast so early the way they have against three non-playoff teams (Redskins, Dolphins and Bills) in December and still recover.
The two No. 2 seeds, Baltimore and San Francisco, both feature quarterbacks not regarded as being in the "elite class." Yet, while they might not "wow" with their passing statistics, Joe Flacco and Alex Smith both have made strides in the area of decision making and have the type of ground games and dominant defenses to go the distance.
Only two of the 12 playoff teams entered the season with a different starting quarterback — Denver and Houston — and despite solid defenses, Tim Tebow and T.J. Yates lack the experience to factor in the playoffs. As rusty as Jake Delhomme appeared in relief for Yates, the Texans stand the best chance next week with Delhomme in the lineup.
With RB Rashard Mendenhall out with a knee injury and Roethlisberger's mobility greatly hindered, the Steelers' offense will be sorely challenged to survive. Relying on the run game with Charlie Batch in the lineup in Week 16, they drummed St. Louis to the tune of 27-0. In outings where a hobbled Roethlisberger started in three of the past four weeks, the Steelers were forced to spread the field and operate out of the gun and only averaged 10 points, not enough production for a beaten-up Dick LeBeau defense to overcome in the playoffs.
In the NFC, injuries can take an even greater toll, and the extra week of rest given to San Francisco and Green Bay — who rested many starters against Detroit — could become a significant advantage, as could playing outdoors in the cold against the Saints, Falcons or Lions. Only the wounded Giants, who hobbled through the second half of the season, are a cold-weather team, although injuries might have cost them a few games this season.
The Niners feature the deepest offensive line in football but might not have enough weapons on offense if they cannot get healthy fast, with their two most explosive receivers — Ted Ginn and Kyle Williams — out against St. Louis, not to mention No. 2 TE Delanie Walker. Even more important is how much gas RB Frank Gore has left in the tank and whether he can muscle through the playoffs intact, having barely struggled to survive a 16-game season and never having had to deal with the playoffs during his seven-year career.
The Packers are loaded with weapons — Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley and James Jones — to overcome the absence of their most explosive deep threat, Greg Jennings. Where they remain most vulnerable is on the offensive line. However, as Mike McCarthy showed in Week 17 with a backup quarterback at the helm, not even protection issues can slow his offensive juggernaut of an offense, the most smoothly run operation in the NFL.
• With quarterback development at a premium and Jay Gruden showing in Cincinnati how well he can develop a rookie QB, the demand for Jon Gruden around the league has intensified in recent weeks. NFL brass have privately discussed coaching candidates, young and old, who are capable of maximizing QB play. The word around the league, however, is that for Gruden to have received a strong commitment from ESPN, the network wanted it in return, and Gruden is firmly committed to the comfortable confines of the Monday-night broadcast booth in the short term.
• What is easy to overlook is the fact that behind every great coach often resides a superb personnel man. Would Mike McCarthy's offense have as many interchangeable parts if it were not for GM Ted Thompson stacking the bottom of the roster? Would Bill Belichick be able to find as many savvy street vets with exceptional traits (Andre Carter, Brian Waters, Shaun Ellis) if it were not for Floyd Reese and Nick Caserio? Would John Harbaugh have enough offensive firepower if it were not for the early-season acquisitions of Lee Evans and Bryant McKinnie by Ozzie Newsome? Would Jim Harbaugh have been able to enter the NFL and earn a No. 2 seed as a first-time NFL head coach were it not for two exceptional drafts of GM Trent Baalke? As good as the coaching has been at all four of the NFL's top seeds, those clubs' front-office decisions have been just as good. Baalke is the newest to the club and might be the least familiar name in this year's heavyweight club, but league evaluators have heaped the most praise on his first year in office.
"For the money he spent and the production he got, I'd probably have to say he did the best job in the NFL," one veteran pro scout admitted. "(C Jonathan) Goodwin has been a solid blocker. (S Donte) Whitner was a steal. (PK David) Akers has been clutch. (Carlos) Rogers had a terrible game vs. Pittsburgh, but he has played at a high level all year. Madieu (Williams) covered them the first two weeks. (Braylon) Edwards was average, but they signed him for a million (dollars), not three, and knew when to move on. They did a great job re-signing their own. Ray McDonald is very underrated. (Alex) Smith has been solid. (Dashon) Gholston has been OK."
• When WR Steve Smith left the Giants, they could not have expected Victor Cruz would have developed as quickly as he has, but the second-year pro has emerged as one of the top receivers in the game and the most trusted target of Eli Manning. Cruz really came through in the clutch in the fourth quarter for the Giants, as they beat the Cowboys for the second time in four weeks to clinch the NFC East Division, a testament to Tom Coughlin.
• Matt Flynn already was due to earn starter's money this coming offseason as one of the most coveted free-agent quarterbacking prospects, but after giving him one last start and allowing him to throw for 480 yards and six TDs in what the Packers likely knew would be his last outing with the squad, his price tag likely climbed into the $10 million per year quadrant. Previous deals for Kevin Kolb, Matt Cassel and Matt Schaub — all of whom had relatively little experience when they were anointed starters by other teams — likely will set the floor for Flynn. Mike Shanahan, take notice.
• The records continued to pile up Sunday, with Saints RB Darren Sproles quietly becoming the NFL's all-time record holder for single-season all-purpose yardage and Jimmy Graham setting a short-lived record for most receiving yardage by a tight end in a single season, which Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots quickly passed. Tom Brady also joined Drew Brees in the 5,000-yard passing club, as did Matthew Stafford following a 520-yard effort in a loss to the Packers. Combined, Brandon Pettigrew (777 yards) and Tony Scheffler (347) accounted for 1,154 receiving yards from the TE position for the Lions. The emergence of the tight end position as a mismatch weapon has really opened up offenses.
• As good as Aaron Rodgers has been this season, he finally began to look human the past few weeks. Meanwhile, Drew Brees and Tom Brady led their offenses to eight consecutive wins.