Though Manning missed last season with complications from a neck injury, most would still agree these four names are the unquestioned elite among NFL quarterbacks. Decent arguments can be made for each of the four being the best passer in the league.
The top tier of quarterbacks in the NFL does not end with them, though.
Two members of what has turned out to be a great quarterback draft class (2004), Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, have both cemented their spots in that grouping, as each of them has now brought home two Super Bowl titles for their respective teams.
Leaving the six names above out of the discussion, here is a ranking of what I believe to be the next six best QBs—the second tier of quarterbacks—based mostly on the last few seasons of play.
The Houston Texans were an irrelevant member of the AFC ever since their inaugural season in 2002.
They were, that is, until Matt Schaub entered the picture in 2007.
Schaub became Houston's first real franchise quarterback in their short history after the failed tenure of the team's first ever overall pick David Carr.
Though Schaub has only been able to stay on the field for all 16 games twice in his five seasons in Houston, the difference is obvious when he is on the field. His rapport with two-time AP All-Pro wide receiver Andre Johnson has created one of the most dangerous pairings in the league, when they are both healthy.
Before a foot injury sidelined him for the season after playing just ten games last year, he had Houston looking at times like one the most dangerous teams in the AFC. The Texans still went on to win a playoff game with rookie quarterback T.J. Yates, but without Schaub, they had no real chance of capturing the Lamar Hunt Trophy and heading to the Super Bowl.
The biggest problem, as already mentioned, is his inability to stay on the field. If he had played in every game since coming to Houston, he may have ranked even higher on this list.
Similar to Matt Schaub in Houston, Matt Ryan entered the Atlanta Falcons organization at a time where they were in complete disarray.
Following the fallout from the Michael Vick situation, the team needed a new, steadying presence at quarterback. Luckily for them that player fell to them at the 3rd slot in the 2008 NFL Draft.
Matt Ryan instantly transformed the Falcons into a playoff contender and, in fact, clinched them a Wild Card berth in the 2008 playoffs, where they fell to the eventual NFC champion Arizona Cardinals.
"Matty Ice" enjoyed the best season of his short career in 2011, throwing for 29 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions while also topping the 4,000-yard mark. Unfortunately for Ryan, the season was capped by an embarrassing 24-2 loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants in the Wild Card round.
That has been a defining fault thus far in Ryan's career. He has been unable to get the Falcons over the hump in any of his three playoff appearances. Fortunately for Ryan, at 27, he should have many more shots at bringing a franchise-first Super Bowl title to Atlanta.
Perhaps the most controversial figure in the league, Michael Vick has had no shortage of adversity to overcome to once again be a franchise quarterback.
Following his much-publicized legal problems and his release from prison in 2009, he landed with the Philadelphia Eagles. He joined a depth chart that already included former Pro Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb and 2007 second-round pick Kevin Kolb.
Two trades and some unbelievable performances later, Michael Vick is now all alone as the unquestioned starting quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles.
He was used sparingly in different packages in his first season back in 2009, but his coming-out party was undoubtedly the 2010 season. In 2010 he totaled 21 touchdowns and 6 interceptions in just 12 starts.
The highlight of the season for Vick came on November 15th during a 59-28 victory over Donovan McNabb and the Washington Redskins.
On that night Vick put on one of the greatest one-man shows in league history. He tossed four touchdown passes, and showcased his other-worldly athleticism, rushing for 80 yards and two more touchdowns.
Had Tom Brady not enjoyed one of the greatest seasons in NFL history in 2010, Michael Vick almost certainly would have walked away as the league's Most Valuable Player that season.
In 2011, Vick's numbers came back down to earth a little bit, and he missed three games due to injury—a problem he often encounters due to his reckless playing style.
He may rank as the tenth-best quarterback in the league on this list, but he ranks No. 1 in most fun to watch.
Matthew Stafford is the one player placed on this list because of one season.
That being said, his 2011 season was so good, he deserves it.
Stafford blew out of the water everything he had done previously in his career by throwing for a staggering 41 touchdowns with only 16 interceptions and over 5,000 yards. While he did play with perhaps the most physically gifted receiver in the league in Calvin Johnson (who also enjoyed a remarkable season), Stafford's accomplishments cannot be discredited.
His first two seasons in the league were plagued with injuries and some flashes of quality play but nothing like he put on display last year.
The Lions now can head forward believing they will have one of the top passers in the league for years to come. Stafford has made people stop wondering if Detroit made the right call drafting him number one overall in 2009.
Instead, he makes them wonder how they can draft him in their fantasy leagues.
Despite he and his team having a bit of a down year in 2011, Philip Rivers has been one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL ever since replacing Drew Brees as San Diego's starting quarterback following the 2005 season.
His throwing style may not be conventional, but it gets results; Rivers has topped the 4,000-yard mark in each of the last four seasons.
His play is highlighted by his ability to hit on the deep ball, which is a large part of head coach Norv Turner's offense. He may have zero yards after two drives, but once he gets going, he grabs yardage in chunks.
The combination of Rivers and former All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates, along with former Chargers Vincent Jackson and Darren Sproles once made for a seemingly endless number of explosive plays.
Consistency is a problem at times with Rivers, but that seems to come with the often-downfield nature of Turner's passing game.
Rivers also needs to demand more out of his underachieving team. He has one AFC title-game appearance, thus far, but he has had teams talented enough to do more.
Tony Romo may be the most criticized player in the league right now—territory that comes with quarterbacking "America's Team."
You would think an undrafted player who has had to earn each and every thing he has ever done in the National Football League would get a little more respect and support from his own fans.
But for some reason he does not.
There is no other quarterback in the league that seems to get more praise or blame depending on his team's results from week to week. At times, he is talked about as an elite player, then after one loss, people think Dallas should look elsewhere at the position for the coming years.
People even criticize the things he does away from the football field—whom he dates, when he golfs...everything.
Who is another quarterback who is critiqued for everything including his fashion, whom he has dated over the years and various other things? Tom Brady. And it certainly appears that those things have not affected him on the way to three rings and two MVP awards.
Romo currently has 149 touchdowns to 72 picks for his career and had maybe his greatest season ever in 2011, despite the Cowboys finishing with just an 8-8 record.
Those numbers do not warrant the type of criticism he often receives.
Has he always come up big enough when Dallas has needed him to? Of course not. But he clearly is still among the top passers in the league, a fact people often brush aside.