Three sensational rookie quarterbacks have stolen a lot of the attention leading up to the NFL playoffs, but anything those signal-callers continue to do will continue to be shockingly impressive. It will be proverbial gravy.
There are others, however, who are under far more pressure to carry their team to the Promised Land, and many of them are seasoned veterans.
Quarterback is the most complicated and exciting position to analyze in sports, and the debate is sure to heat up based on what these four players do in the postseason. Here is a breakdown of each of their situations and why they are crucial to their teams' fates.
Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens
As if the stakes weren't high enough for Flacco, who is in the final year of his rookie contract.
Future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis announced that he would retire after these playoffs were over earlier in the week, and the linebacker will be on the field for the last time in front of the Baltimore fans.
Lewis has been key to so many amazing Ravens defenses over the years, but has only one Super Bowl to show for it. While one Super Bowl is nothing to diminish, Lewis and Co. could have had more if not for perpetual ineptitude on offense.
And that is why Flacco is under so much pressure. He has to perform, but he will be facing the Indianapolis Colts—the team that has taken the NFL by storm in 2012 with its inspiring 11-win season amidst head coach Chuck Pagano's battle with leukemia.
So not only will every non-Ravens fan probably be cheering against Flacco—for whatever that's worth—it will essentially be up to him to be a competent QB.
The defense in Baltimore isn't what it has been in years past, but with running backs like Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce behind him, Flacco will have to put points on the board by making plays himself.
If the Ravens lose in the first round especially, it will be difficult for Flacco to sell himself as the future of the franchise at the position. The only problem is, there aren't many more potential upgrades for Baltimore in their draft position, through any trade or in free agency.
Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Not much more needs to be said about how critical it is for Ryan to get it done. Just check out his career postseason statistics in his three career, one-and-done appearances (h/t ProFootballReference.com).
Some of those numbers include a 5.31 yards per attempt, less than 200 yards per game, a passer rating of 71.2 and yes, as hinted in the previous paragraph, an 0-3 record.
Matty Ice has been cold in the playoffs, and certainly the subject of too many bad puns to that affect. If he were a comic book character, he would be Mr. Freeze of the Arnold Schwarzenegger variety from the 1997 classic Batman & Robin.
Yup, the one-liners Ahnold relentlessly delivered in that movie are about as bad as Ryan has been in the postseason, despite being armed with such an explosive supporting cast.
It appears that Ryan has taken a step forward this year, and the Falcons will have to hope that translates to the playoffs. With the NFC's No. 1 seed and home-field advantage, there should be no excuses.
Well, besides the fact that the defense is the ultimate definition of bend-but-don't break, and the Falcons have had one of the easier schedules in the league. Also, RB Michael Turner is having a career-worst year at the age of 30.
That makes this potential postseason run all the more on Ryan's shoulders.
Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers
There probably hasn't been this much pressure on a second-year quarterback in quite some time. With a blend of a cannon arm that is pretty darn accurate and sensational athleticism, Kaepernick's potential seems limitless.
That's why he was able to retain the starting job after incumbent Alex Smith suffered a concussion in the middle of the season.
Although he is much more explosive than Smith and can provide bigger plays, one thing Kaepernick hasn't really done yet is lead the Niners back from behind. What was impressive was his weathering of a furious comeback storm orchestrated by New England Patriots QB Tom Brady in Foxboro.
After San Francisco blew a huge lead, Kaepernick responded with a decisive TD pass to Michael Crabtree to get a key road victory.
But the second-seeded 49ers returned every starter on defense from last season, yet have looked very shaky without the services of DL Justin Smith. That was what led to the Pats' comeback effort and the blowout loss in Seattle in Week 16.
With teams keying in on the run-first attack, it will be on Kaepernick to make good decisions and manage the game—much like Smith has done—but to also make electric plays to put this team into the Super Bowl.
The supporting cast is available for Kaepernick to get it done, but the stakes couldn't be higher. It will be interesting to see how he responds.
Matt Schaub, Houston Texans
In the past month, Schaub has thrown only one touchdown. That has been part of the reason the Texans have lost three of four games.
This is now Schaub's sixth year as Houston's quarterback, and he will finally be making his postseason debut. Unfortunately, it comes against the Cincinnati Bengals, who will be eager to avenge last year's wild-card playoff loss at Reliant Stadium and enter the matchup in better form than the Texans.
The running game has been inconsistent lately, too, and the Bengals won't make it any easier since they sport a top-10 defense.
Thankfully for Schaub, his team has a pretty nasty defense of its own, led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate J.J. Watt. Houston's secondary has been vulnerable lately, though, and will have to do everything it can to stop dynamic Cincinnati WR A.J. Green from lighting it up.
Easier said than done. So is winning in the playoffs, which Schaub has never done. If he flops and the Texans lose, he will be under intense scrutiny. Conversely, if he orchestrates a 180 turnaround and Houston suddenly looks like the team that started 11-1, he could become an instant hero.
It's a very fine line in the NFL, and Schaub will likely have to win on the road in Round 2 to get ultimate approval from the Texans' faithful.
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