No position is made into a scapegoat as often as the quarterback.
Every player on this list is a first-round draft pick. Each QB came into the league with sky-high expectations. How they perform in the playoffs this season will go a long way in either establishing themselves as the face of their franchise or the opposite, triggering critics to question their ability to lead their teams to a Super Bowl.
Here are the quarterbacks with the most to prove in the 2012 NFL playoffs.
4. Alex Smith
Smith has been an excellent game-manager all season long. Frank Gore and the San Francisco 49ers defense is what’s driving Jim Harbaugh’s winning machine, though. If Smith single-handedly causes a San Francisco collapse, it will be his last game in a 49ers uniform.
3. Matt Ryan
Ryan is labeled by his teammates as "Matty Ice," but he’s never won a single playoff game. That reputation hangs in the balance as the Atlanta Falcons travel north to face off against the New York Giants. If the Falcons lose again, Ryan’s job isn’t in danger, but the meaning of his nickname may just change from "ice in his veins" to "freezing under pressure."
2. Tim Tebow
Tebow has without a doubt been the story of the 2011 NFL season. While he’s had plenty of highs, most recently the Denver Broncos signal-caller has had lows. If the magic runs dry and he looks like a fish out of water against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Denver will draft a quarterback this April.
1. Joe Flacco
If Flacco can’t get the Baltimore Ravens to the Super Bowl again this season, question marks will fly in his direction at a rapid pace. With that defense featuring Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata and an offense highlighting Ray Rice, there’s no reason Flacco shouldn’t be able to get the job done. The clock is ticking on Lewis and Reed’s careers; Flacco must take care of business.
David Daniels is a featured columnist at Bleacher Report and a syndicated writer.