Ranking the Reliability of Each NFL Quarterback Currently in the Playoff Hunt
After the Washington Redskins' 17-16 win over the New York Giants on Monday Night Football, there are a total of 17 teams—seven in the AFC, 10 in the NFC—that are either entrenched in a playoff spot or within a game of one.
With just four weeks remaining in the regular season, it’s time to rank the reliability of each of these teams' quarterbacks, broken down by conference.
I judge quarterbacks based on experience, past performance, my projections moving forward and their proclivity (or lack thereof) for late-game heroics.
So, which quarterback should you feel most confident about as they go down the stretch of a playoff race?
Let’s start with the AFC, and rank from least to most reliable.
AFC QB No. 7: Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger Andrew Luck fan than myself.
He’s had an exemplary rookie season. He’s on pace to break Cam Newton’s record for rookie passing yards, and more importantly, he has the Colts three games up on the AFC wild-card chase at 8-4 after finishing 2-14 just last season.
However, his lack of experience, along with the fact that the Colts ask him to do so much, resulting in him forcing the ball and throwing interceptions (16 this season), doesn’t allow me to rank him higher.
AFC QB No. 6: Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
On Halloween, off the heels of a three-game losing streak that seemed poised to submarine their season, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis issued a public challenge to his second-year quarterback, Andy Dalton, to step up his leadership.
Since then, the Bengals have won four out of five games to improve to 7-5, and Dalton deserves much of the credit.
Over the last five contests, Dalton has thrown 11 touchdowns against three interceptions, and he has scored another pair on the ground. He’s saving his best football for the stretch run.
I can’t rank him above any of the other quarterbacks on this list, but Dalton is heating up at the right time for Cincinnati. Unfortunately for Dalton, the Bengals are the only AFC team on this list who are on the outside of the tournament looking in, and will need to win at Pittsburgh in Week 16 if they want to qualify.
AFC QB No. 5: Matt Schaub, Houston Texans
Matt Schaub is having a terrific season for the 11-1 Houston Texans, having them two games clear for potential home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
He’s thrown 21 touchdowns against just nine interceptions, and is completing over 64 percent of his passes.
However, Schaub’s lack of postseason experience—he’s never started a playoff game—is holding him back from being higher on this list.
Because of that fact, I cannot rank Schaub above the remaining four AFC quarterbacks.
AFC QB No. 4: Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens
I recently wrote about my belief in the Ravens signal-caller, and it’s safe to say that I’ve been driving the Joe Flacco bandwagon (#WackoForFlacco, anyone?) since he outplayed Tom Brady in January’s AFC title game.
Well, I’m not off the wagon just yet, but my trigger finger is edging ever-so-slightly towards the eject button.
Flacco has been largely uninspiring this year, particularly in a pair of contests against Ben Roethlisberger-less Steelers teams.
Running back Ray Rice bailed him out of one of the most mind-boggling decisions in recent memory, a 4th-and-29 check-down pass late in an eventual win over the Chargers, as Rice miraculously managed to obtain the first down, saving Flacco from sure-fire derision.
Still, Flacco has managed to win five playoff games in his first four seasons. He should have started in Super Bowl XLVI.
Call me crazy, but I still believe in Joe Flacco. Just not more so than the remaining three AFC quarterbacks.
AFC QB No. 3: Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
B/R readers know how I feel about Ben Roethlisberger. The man will one day be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He’s already started in three Super Bowls, winning two. He’s supremely clutch and is as tough a quarterback as there is.
When he returns to the starting lineup from his rib injury, my confidence level will be in the same place it always is when Roethlisberger steps under center: sky high.
The only thing keeping him from the top spot are two other sure-fire Hall of Famers you might have heard of.
AFC QB No. 2: Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
I’ve run out of adjectives to describe Peyton Manning, who is, unbelievably, in the conversation for both MVP and Comeback Player of the Year.
He’s thrown 29 touchdowns against only nine interceptions, and his 9-3 Broncos are in the midst of a seven-game winning streak.
If the Broncos played any of the preceding teams on this list, you’d have to be more confident in Manning than their quarterback.
There’s only one signal-caller in the AFC who I feel more confident in than Manning.
AFC QB No. 1: Tom Brady, New England Patriots
Tom Brady is having another Tom Brady season.
He’s directing the No. 1 offense in the NFL, both in total yards (426.3) and points per game (a staggering 35.8).
Brady may not have won a Super Bowl in seven seasons, but there’s no quarterback in the AFC I have more confidence in.
I believe the 9-3 Patriots will defeat the 11-1 Texans on Monday Night Football next week, and they are the favorite to reach the Super Bowl in the AFC because of their Hall of Fame quarterback.
NFC QB No. 10: Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings
Since leading the Vikings to a surprising 5-2 start, Christian Ponder hasn’t played his best football and Minnesota has slipped to 6-6.
His play has been so suspect of late that on Monday the Minnesota media questioned Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier about the possibility of playing backup Joe Webb.
That automatically qualifies any quarterback for last on this confidence list.
NFC QB No. 9: Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Josh Freeman has had a very good season for the surprising Buccaneers, who have exceeded expectations thus far at 6-6.
Freeman has thrown 23 touchdowns against eight interceptions, and appears on the verge of regaining the “Fourth Quarter Free” nickname he earned in a sparkling 2010 campaign.
It’s his (and the Buccaneers') lack of success against the other quarterbacks on this list, in both conferences, that doesn’t allow me to rank him higher.
Freeman is 1-5 against those quarterbacks. Who’s the only one he’s beaten? The guy behind him on this list, Christian Ponder.
NFC QB No. 8: Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers
I’ll admit it: I’m torn on the 49ers' quarterback conundrum.
Is there any question that Colin Kaepernick has more upside than Alex Smith? I don’t believe so.
That being said, it’s important to remember that Smith had the 49ers a Kyle Williams fumble away from Super Bowl XLVI.
The win over the Saints was impressive, but it was aided by a pair of defensive scores. Sunday’s shock defeat in St. Louis did little to inspire confidence.
While the 49ers are a better team than some, if not all, of the remaining NFC teams on this list, I’d rather have any of the remaining quarterbacks starting for me over Kaepernick.
Kapernick might have more upside than Smith, but I trust Smith more.
NFC QB No. 7: Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys
Disclaimer: I’m a bigger Tony Romo fan than most. I’m on record as saying that, with the right team around him, Romo is capable of winning a Super Bowl.
However, the 2012 Cowboys, coached by an overmatched Jason Garrett, just aren’t that team.
Romo is completing 67 percent of his passes this season, but he still turns the ball over too much (15 interceptions).
Regardless of how well he might play over the first three quarters, there’s always the prevailing feeling that he’ll make a “classic Romo play” late, turning the ball over in hideous fashion.
That prevents Romo from ascending higher up this list.
NFC QB No. 6: Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
When Seahawks GM John Schneider joined the SiriusXM Blitz on the Monday after the NFL draft, he gushed over third-round pick Russell Wilson, saying he refused to leave the draft without him.
Wilson has been everything Schneider expected and more. He’s had an incredible neophyte campaign.
His Seahawks have defeated five of the quarterbacks on this list: Ponder, Romo, Rodgers, Brady and Cutler.
Wilson has the Seahawks in the driver’s seat for the sixth and final playoff spot in the NFC, thanks to his heroics late in Sunday’s impressive victory at Soldier Field over the favored Bears.
His lack of experience is the only thing holding Wilson back from being higher on this list.
NFC QB No. .5: Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins
What a scene it was in Washington, D.C., on Monday Night Football, as the Redskins beat the Giants, 17-16, to move within a game of first place in the NFC East.
RG3 has revitalized a previously downtrodden Redskins fanbase. He is arguably the most electric player in the league, and he hasn’t even completed a full season.
He’s thrown a league-low four interceptions among regular starting quarterbacks, which is perhaps the most incredible statistic in a season full of them for RG3.
I’m confident that RG3 will lead the Redskins to postseason glory in his time in our nation’s capital. But it won’t come this season.
NFC QB No. 4: Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears
While Sunday’s loss to the Seahawks could turn out to be the difference between an NFC North title and a road playoff game on wild-card weekend, I’m still very confident in Jay Cutler.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a tougher quarterback, with a stronger arm, than Cutler.
I don’t care about his “demeanor.” What I do care about is the cannon attached to his right shoulder and his desire to win football games.
Still, his penchant for throwing head-scratching interceptions, coupled with the Bears only having one legitimate target in the passing attack (Brandon Marshall), doesn’t allow me to be more confident in him.
NFC QB No. 3: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
I’m not taking anything away from the job Matt Ryan has done this season. He has the Falcons at 11-1. They've earned their title as NFC South champions, and they will likely end up with the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs.
I just don’t have the same level of confidence in Ryan that I do in the remaining two quarterbacks on the list.
After a torrid start to the season, Ryan has cooled. In his last five games, he’s thrown only five touchdowns against seven interceptions.
Then, there’s the giant elephant in the room: his 0-3 playoff record.
Ryan has been a terrific fourth-quarter quarterback over the course of his career, with 22 game-winning drives to his credit. I do have a high level of confidence in him.
But, until Ryan can get it done in January, he can’t crack the top two.
NFC QB No. 2: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
On Twitter, I call Aaron Rodgers “#TheMaestro.”
He is arguably the finest signal-caller in the NFL and is the reigning MVP.
What he’s done this season (over 3,000 yards thus far, with 29 touchdowns against only eight interceptions) is even more special because of the team’s injuries and inconsistent offensive line play.
On any given day, Rodgers is capable of playing as well as anyone in the history of the league.
The only reason he’s not ranked No. 1 is because of the success of the remaining man on this list.
NFC QB No. 1: Eli Manning, New York Giants
When it comes down to confidence, no one inspires more in clutch situations than Eli Manning.
In the fourth quarter of a close game, would you bet against Manning? I sure as hell wouldn’t.
At this point in his career, it’s happened too many times for Manning not to be No. 1 on this list. Two Super Bowl MVP awards and a host of road playoff victories against higher seeds prove it.
I know Manning hasn’t played his best football over the past month. That doesn’t concern me, because Manning has weathered poor stretches in the past, only to end the season by raising the Lombardi Trophy.
Does this mean that the Giants, who currently sit at first place in the NFC East at 7-5, a game ahead of Washington and Dallas, are the NFC’s best team? No, it does not. It also doesn't mean that Manning will win a third Super Bowl this February,
But, simply put, when the chips are down and when it matters most, there’s no quarterback in the league I trust more than Eli Manning.
Nick Kostos is the executive producer of the "SiriusXM Blitz", hosted by Rich Gannon and Adam Schein, on SiriusXM NFL Radio. You can follow Nick on Twitter.