Pick a quarterback. You really can't go wrong. Each one has a storyline as intriguing as the next.
The 2011 NFL Playoffs has it all.
There's the rookie QB trying to keep the ship afloat. The emerging star looking for his second ring. The little QB trying to top big brother and the little QB that could.
There's the overrated and the underrated. The good, the bad, the ugly and the unexplainable.
So who would you put your money on in this weekend's divisional round?
We'll go with a standard confidence pool structure of ranking QBs one through eight for this weekend's games, starting with the QB I have the least amount of confidence in.
Disclaimer: This is not which team I expect to win each game, only those QBs in which I have the most confidence to lead their team to a divisional-round win over the slated opponent.
In name recognition, Yates is dead last. And while the Texans might be the most complete team left in the playoffs outside of San Francisco, dangling a rookie QB in front of a veteran Ravens defense could and likely will get ugly quick.
It will be difficult for Arian Foster to open things up for Yates via the running game against a Ravens' second-ranked run defense that held him to just 49 yards in Week 6, and that was with Matt Schaub as a threat under center.
Let's not beat around the bush. Yates can play game manager and protect the ball—or at least try—but he couldn't have drawn a worse matchup, on the road no less.
In what could be a low-scoring game due to the Ravens offense's inability to show up at times, don't expect Yates to flourish. If the Texans somehow pull off the upset, it won't be Yates' doing.
Confidence Points: 1, but you gotta feel for the rook.
There's a perceived weakness behind the 49ers' No. 2 seed this year, with potent offenses such as the New York Giants, Detroit Lions and the mighty New Orleans Saints seeded lower. And while the Niners' fourth-ranked defense is largely responsible for the lofty status, it's the running game that fuels the offensive engine.
Alex Smith isn't scaring anyone.
But for context, check Smith's 445 attempts—20th in the league—against Brady, Brees and Manning, each of whom ranked inside the top four, close to or exceeding 600 attempts.
Sure, Smith's interceptions-per-pass average is far and away better than the aforementioned three—tops in the league, in fact, at 1.1 percent—but in an offense that rarely asks him to throw the ball downfield, he averaged just 7.1 yards per attempt.
The Saints defense is ranked in the bottom-third of the league in total defense and near the bottom in pass defense, allowing nearly 260 yards per game through the air. For an opposing quarterback, it's an agreeable matchup. Smith's 196.5 yards per game would only be enough if he could get the ball in the end zone, something the Saints allowed 24 times in 2011 and something Smith accomplished 17 times.
But you can't take advantage of a bad pass defense without stretching the field, something Smith hasn't proven he can do in an otherwise banner year for the former No. 1 pick.
Confidence Points: 2, only because of T.J. Yates.
I can't quite figure out Joe Flacco. I'm not sure anybody can. All the talent in the world, but a model for inconsistency.
And the Ravens have taken on that same personality.
He's protected the ball well through the air this season, throwing multiple picks just twice, but he's fumbled 11 times and lost six. He has six multiple-touchdown games, but four games with none. He's undefeated against playoff teams in 2011 (he beat both the Texans and 49ers and the Steelers and Bengals twice each), but he lost to the Jaguars and Seahawks.
And now the Texans come to town with their third-ranked pass defense and their 44 sacks.
When Flacco's good, he's very good. Not elite, but very capable. But when he's bad, it can be unwatchable. But his sporadic success is largely tied to that of the running game.
In games in which Ray Rice has rushed for at least 100 yards, the Ravens are 6-0 and Flacco has an 8-to-3 TD-to-INT ratio, a full percentage point better than his season-long ratio.
But the Texans also boast the league's fourth-ranked run defense.
Flacco can take solace in the fact that the Texans will have trouble controlling the clock with rookie T.J. Yates under center and the Ravens' second-ranked run defense on the other side of the ball to slow down Arian Foster, but at the end of the day, putting too much confidence in such an inconsistent product is laughable, even at home.
Confidence Points: 3, cause Ray Rice and the defense means the Ravens won't really need him.
Drew Brees versus the NFL's fourth-ranked defense seems intriguing at first glance. But if you scratch the surface and sniff what's inside, the scale tips a bit toward the new single-season record holder for passing yards.
The Niners' top-ranked run defense is largely responsible for that No. 4 ranking. Their pass defense is a pedestrian 16th in the league, allowing over 230 yards per game and 20 TDs in 2011. And while the pass defense can create turnovers (their 23 picks were tied for second-best in the league), it's hard not to trust Brees and his arsenal, even on the road and on the other coast.
But the Saints laid an egg when traveling west in last year's playoffs against a Seahawks unit that not only had no business being in the playoffs at 7-9, but who's also drastically inferior to this year's Niners squad. Brees was not to blame for that loss, of course, as he threw for 404 yards with two TDs and no interceptions, but he has thrown multiple picks in 16 games over the last two season, tossing three or more interceptions on six occasions.
With the Niners' ability to force turnovers, Brees could be in for a rough day.
Candlestick hasn't hosted a playoff game in a decade. The atmosphere will be electric and the field conditions likely won't be ideal for a track meet, but he's still Drew Brees, and for that reason, the matchup against a top defense on the road is basically a wash in what may be one of the more entertaining games of the divisional round.
Confidence Points: 4, cause this could go either way.
Tim Tebow refuses to play the game on paper. He defies all logic and challenges conventional football wisdom. Experts can't figure him out.
But can Bill Belichick?
Tebow struggled through the air at times against the Patriots in Week 15 to the tune of 194 yards an no touchdowns on 50 percent passing; however, he did rush for 30 yards and a pair of scores.
Despite Denver's defensive prowess, Brady will get his points. He always does. It'll come down to Tebow throwing the football to keep up with Brady's aerial attack.
We all know the Pats are bad on defense, particularly in the secondary (second-to-last in the league in passing defense). The bend-but-don't-break moniker isn't quite deserved, as they've still allowed 26 touchdowns through the air, which is 22nd in the league.
But Tebow finds ways to win. Against the vaunted Steelers defense, he got it done. Against the stout Bears defense, he made it happen (thanks, Marion Barber, your WWJD thank you bracelet is in the mail).
So it is with confidence that I can say this: I don't know what Tebow will do on Saturday. What I do know is that I'm not buying the notion that Josh McDaniels somehow has some inside information on Tebow and the Broncos that Belichick didn't uncover in their 41-25 Week 15 win.
But you'd be naive if you didn't think Belichick hasn't tapped former Pats defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel—now of the Chiefs, who held Tebow to just 60 yards on 6-of-22 passing in Week 17—for a couple of tips.
We were all wrong on Tebow last week, and perhaps we'll be wrong this week. But I just can't be overly confident in Tebow when Tom Brady is on the other sideline.
Confidence Points: 5, cause I fear the wrath of Skip Bayless.
When Eli and the Giants lost to the Packers in Week 13 in the final seconds, they knew the road to the Super Bowl would run through Lambeau.
Manning was 23-of-40 in that game for 347 yards with three touchdowns and an interception.
And that's the stat that will determine Manning's fate Sunday: interceptions.
With all the attention being paid to the Patriots' putrid pass defense, the Packers somehow found a way to be worse—dead last in the NFL, allowing just under 300 yards through the air per game. But unlike the Pats, the Packers can do one thing exceptionally well on defense.
No team picked off more passes in 2011 than the Packers' 31. They also forced 19 fumbles, recovering seven. Their plus-24 turnover margin was second only to the 49ers.
But Eli is playing some of the best quarterback of his career right now. His 4,933 yards in 2011 were a career high. His 29 TDs were his second-most ever and his 8.4 yards per attempt were a career high.
And his suddenly deep, healthy receiving corps could give the Packers fits on Sunday if he continues to throw the ball down the field with such success.
In what is sure to be a shootout and one of he more exciting matchups of the playoffs, it's hard to be overconfident, but you definitely can't dog the potential for Eli to burn the Packers secondary.
Confidence Points: 6, cause who else can win at Lambeau?
It's been a while since we've seen Aaron Rodgers.
They Packers are coming off their well-deserved first-round bye. Rodgers sat in Week 17 so the world could spend the offseason on Matt Flynn's jock and some guy tried passing himself off as Rodgers in the Pack's Week 15 loss to the Chiefs.
But make no mistake, he's still the same old A-Rod.
Expect the Rodgers that had analysts and NFL legends gushing that he was having the greatest season of any quarterback in NFL history to be back on Sunday.
But this is the worst possible matchup for Rodgers and the Pack.
The Giants may be playing the best football of any team in the playoffs right now, and their defense is a large part of that. They held the high-flying Falcons scoreless in the Wild Card round (the Birds managed only a safety). They've won three consecutive must-win games and they're probably the only team left that could have a shred of confidence going into Lambeau.
In a 38-35 win in Week 13 that came down to the final seconds, Rodgers connected on 28-of-46 passes for 369 yards and four TDs. He did throw a pick, but he also orchestrated a five-play, 68-yard drive to set up Mason Crosby's game-winning boot as time expired, showing he can have success against this defense, especially in the clutch.
A healthy Giants defensive line with Osi Umenyiora added to Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Co. will certainly help, but will the secondary hold up?
The Giants ranked near the bottom of the league in pass defense and total defense. But this game won't be played on paper, and after last week's dominant performance, the Giants are confident they can take down the defending Super Bowl champs.
But expect Rodgers to have something to say about that.
Confidence Points: 7, cause they're the champs until someone knocks them off.
He's Tom Brady. Three-time Super Bowl champion. Two-time Super Bowl MVP. Smokin' hot wife.
But he hasn't won a playoff game since the 2008 AFC Championship Game.
Believe it or not, the Patriots got lucky in drawing the Broncos. Had the Fighting Tebows not shocked the world in the Wild Card round, the Patriots would have hosted one of the three teams that beat them during the regular season in the Steelers.
Denver's defense is solid, to say the very least. Its rankings of 20th in total defense and 15th against the pass don't do justice to a unit that didn't hit its stride until midseason. They held opponents to 13 points or less in five of their last eight regular season games before their 29-23 overtime win in the Wild Card round.
But Brady and Co. put up 41 on the Broncos in a Week 15 beatdown in which Brady connected on 23-of-34 passes for 320 yards and a pair of scores.
Not earth-shattering numbers for Brady, but wildly efficient, nonetheless.
In the AFC, Brady is far and away the best quarterback left. The Patriots could not have drawn an easier road to the Super Bowl. And while that doesn't mean they'll get there, my confidence in them notching their first playoff win since dropping Super Bowl XLII is sky-high.
It's not about Tebow running out of magic; it's about Brady being the best there is for the last decade and showing no signs of slowing.
And just like when the Pats went to Denver in Week 13, that's what it'll be about on Saturday.
Confidence Points: 8, cause another Super Bowl could cement Brady as the best ever.