How Much Do We Trust Each QB to Handle Business on Wild-Card Weekend?
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While solid quarterback play is certainly critical during the regular season, its importance becomes amplified exponentially once the tournament begins.
Can a quarterback win on the road in a hostile environment? Has the quarterback played in the postseason before and had success? Is the quarterback supremely clutch, capable of leading a team from behind in the fourth quarter?
These are all factors to consider when determining the trust level in the eight quarterbacks on wild-card weekend.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year in the NFL. We’re on the precipice of the postseason. It’s time for quarterbacks to step up to the plate and define their legacies.
With that in mind, here is my trust level for the eight quarterbacks this weekend:
8. Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings
Hey, at least he married Samantha Steele.
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While Ponder played much better in the final quarter of the regular season, winning all four starts and throwing four touchdown passes against one interception, I don’t feel great about his chances to beat the Packers on Saturday night.
When it comes down to it, Ponder isn’t as good when the Vikings play outdoors, as they went 0-4 this season when not in the friendly confines of a dome.
He has played poorly at Lambeau Field in his two starts there, losing both games and failing to throw a touchdown pass, while throwing three interceptions. You can make the argument that the Vikings should have won at Green Bay this year, but Ponder was horrific in that contest, completing less than 50 percent of his passes for only 119 yards.
Outside of my pick for league MVP, the amazing Adrian Peterson, his weapons are limited. With Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers surely ready to sell out to stop Peterson, it’ll be up to Ponder to match Aaron Rodgers on the scoreboard.
I don’t trust that will happen.
OVERALL CONFIDENCE LEVEL: 35 percent
7. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
Dalton's win in Pittsburgh made me trust him more.
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After the Bengals lost at home to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 7 to drop their record to 3-4, coach Marvin Lewis singled out Dalton, saying he needed better leadership from his quarterback if the Bengals were to make any noise in 2012.
Since then, the Bengals have won seven of nine games, with much of their success due to the play of their sophomore signal-caller.
Cincinnati plays at 12-4 Houston on Saturday night, but the Bengals have been a terrific road team this year. Dalton led the team to a 6-2 road mark, tied for best in the NFL.
His victory over the Steelers in Pittsburgh in Week 16, which clinched a playoff berth for Cincinnati and knocked big, bad Pittsburgh out of the tournament, was a testament to how far the Bengals, and Dalton, have come.
His rapport with star wide receiver A.J. Green is electric, and he’s utilized his tight end, Jermaine Gresham, extremely effectively.
He does have one playoff game under his belt: a defeat last year in Houston, where he threw three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown by J.J. Watt.
I expect Dalton to play better in the rematch. If all he has to do is manage the game and make a few big plays, the Bengals can win. If they need Dalton to throw for 350 yards and three scores, well, I’m not so sure he can pull it off.
OVERALL CONFIDENCE LEVEL: 55 percent
6. Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins
I believe RG3's season will end on Sunday against Seattle.
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What an amazing regular season it was for RG3 and the Washington Redskins. As I’ve previously written: The NFL is a better place when the Redskins are relevant, and I expect the crowd at FedExField to be raucous on Sunday afternoon.
There’s no questioning the neophyte campaign that Griffin put together. He was majestic, throwing 20 touchdown passes against only five interceptions. He won his final six starts in leading Washington to a 10-6 record and its first NFC East title since 1999.
Griffin’s offensive line, particularly left tackle Trent Williams, has been very good. Alfred Morris has been a revelation at running back. The Redskins' offense has played at a very high level under Mike and Kyle Shanahan.
But I’m nervous about Griffin heading into Sunday’s game. He’s been battling a knee injury and didn’t appear to be close to 100 percent healthy in the season-ending win over the Cowboys.
If Griffin isn’t 100 percent, the Seahawks could be in for a feeding frenzy. Seattle was stout against the run in 2012, having the 10th-ranked rushing defense. The Redskins won’t be able to run all over the Seahawks like they did the Cowboys. At some point, it’ll be up to Griffin to put points on the board.
If he were 100 percent physically, my confidence level in Griffin would be higher. I just can’t imagine a situation where he can beat the Seahawks at less than optimal health.
OVERALL CONFIDENCE LEVEL: 60 percent
5. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Danger Russ Wilson.
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You know you had a successful first year as a quarterback when you tie Peyton Manning’s all-time rookie record for touchdown passes (26) and win 11 games, as Russell Wilson did for the Seahawks.
However, even with Wilson’s stellar play, the Seahawks struggled away from CenturyLink Field and its incredible home-field advantage. Many critics point to Seattle’s poor road record, 3-5, as a reason why they’ll lose on Sunday.
But, if you look closely, you’ll see that Wilson and the Seahawks played much better on the road as the season went on. In his last four games outside the Pacific Northwest, Wilson threw seven touchdown passes against only one interception.
The game that ultimately gives me confidence in Wilson’s ability to win on the road is the Seahawks’ amazing come-from-behind overtime victory in Soldier Field against the Bears in Week 13. No one gave Seattle much of a chance to win that game, and it was a stellar performance from Wilson which enabled the Seahawks to escape Chicago with a much-needed win.
I trust that Wilson can go on the road and defeat RG3 and the Washington Redskins, and I believe he’s capable of fourth-quarter magic if necessary.
OVERALL CONFIDENCE LEVEL: 65 percent
4. Matt Schaub, Houston Texans
Schaub makes his first postseason start on Saturday.
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While the Texans won their second consecutive AFC South title and finished at 12-4, they stumbled to the finish line, losing three of their final four games, all by double-digits.
Like his team, Schaub was brilliant early in the season, but faded late, as he threw only one touchdown pass and four interceptions in the final four games.
Let’s not mince words: This is a huge spot for Schaub. Despite all his regular-season success as Texans quarterback, he has yet to start a postseason game, as T.J. Yates played in both tournament games for Houston last year in relief of an injured Schaub.
Even with the negatives I’ve stated, I still expect Schaub to play well on Saturday. The Texans will dial up the ground game with Arian Foster, and Andre Johnson torched the Bengals in last year’s wild-card matchup, and that was with Yates throwing him the ball.
Schaub has been too good a quarterback for too long for me to not trust him heading into his first playoff start. I believe he’ll play well. If the Texans lose, it won’t be because of Schaub.
Although Schaub’s confidence level is the same as Wilson’s, Schaub is ranked higher because of his experience.
OVERALL CONFIDENCE LEVEL: 65 percent
3. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
My pick for Rookie of the Year.
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Andrew Luck is the 2012 Rookie of the Year. I greatly respect what RG3 and Wilson accomplished, but what Luck did was otherworldly.
I know that Luck's stats aren’t spectacular: 23 touchdown passes, 18 interceptions, 54 percent completion percentage. It doesn’t matter.
What matters is that Luck led a suspect Colts team to a stunning, 11-5 record, and was supremely clutch in doing so, with seven game-winning drives and four fourth-quarter comebacks.
His leadership has been outstanding, and he’s saved his best for when it’s mattered most.
While the Ravens might appear to be a tough matchup on paper, the Baltimore defense hasn’t been nearly as good in 2012 as past years. They finished 17th against the pass, and I expect Luck to have success slicing and dicing the Ravens' secondary, along with Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton and Coby Fleener.
I don’t care that Ray Lewis is back and will be retiring once the Ravens lose. Is it a great story? It certainly is. Will it provide the Ravens with an emotional lift? Yes. Is Lewis close to being the player he once was? No, he’s not. So, don’t try and tell me that Lewis’ return means that Luck can’t shine in Sunday’s game.
I’m picking the Ravens to win, but I believe it’ll be close, and I trust that Luck will play well in his first playoff start.
OVERALL CONFIDENCE LEVEL: 70 percent
2. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens
If Lee Evans doesn't drop this pass, perception of Joe Flacco is radically different.
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I wrote earlier in the season that I believe in Joe Flacco.
While his play throughout the year didn’t always reach my level of expectation, I still believe in him. His postseason experience is too much to ignore.
Flacco is the only quarterback in league history to win a playoff game in each of his first four seasons. To call him “battle-tested” would be an understatement. He is equipped to play January football.
Remember, Flacco thoroughly outplayed Brady in last year’s AFC title game. If not for a hideous drop by Lee Evans, the Ravens would have gone to the Super Bowl, and the perception of Flacco would be completely different.
I feel better about the Ravens' offense now that clueless Cam Cameron is no longer calling the plays. Since Cameron was fired with three games remaining in the season, new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell has made more of a commitment to the run game, as the team rushed for over 200 yards in two of the final three contests.
With more of a balanced attack on the docket, I expect Flacco to be lethal and efficient on Sunday, especially considering the Colts' pass defense ranked 21st on the season. Ray Rice will gash the Indianapolis defense, and Flacco will make big plays in the passing game to Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin. I’m very confident that Flacco will play well and the Ravens will win.
OVERALL CONFIDENCE LEVEL: 80 percent
1. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
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What, you were expecting someone else?
Simply put, Rodgers is perhaps the league’s finest quarterback. He put together another masterful season, tossing 39 touchdown passes against only eight interceptions.
His playoff record is superlative, with 15 touchdown passes and four interceptions. He was the MVP of Super Bowl XLV.
Plus, he has owned the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field since he became the Packers' starter, beating them four out of five times in Green Bay.
With all of his weapons healthy and expected to play on Sunday, I can’t envision a scenario where Rodgers struggles and the Packers lose. My confidence level in Rodgers is through the roof.
I wrote earlier in the season that I expected Green Bay to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. I stand by that prediction, and it’s mostly because of Rodgers.
OVERALL CONFIDENCE LEVEL: 95 percent