Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have been among the NFL's preeminent quarterbacks ever since Brady stepped off the bench in 2001 and led his New England Patriots to a Super Bowl victory. It's hard to imagine the NFL without them—but with Brady and Manning aged 36 and 37, respectively, that day is coming soon.
These two men practically define an era of quarterbacking all by themselves, bridging the gap from the great quarterbacks of the 1990s to today. Going into the divisional round of these 2013 NFL playoffs, Brady and Manning have 44 postseason starts, seven Super Bowl appearances, four victories, nine first-team All-Pro nods and 22 Pro Bowl trips between them, per Pro Football Reference.
As they captain the top two seeds in the AFC, either could go on to win the pair's fifth Super Bowl championship—and either, or both, could be eliminated this weekend.
Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and the just-eliminated-from-the-playoffs Aaron Rodgers are part of an entire generation of top quarterbacks who've been missing out on Pro Bowl trips and All-Pro nods because Manning and Brady just won't slow down. When they do finally hang 'em up, fans everywhere will realize just how good this second generation of quarterbacks is (and has been).
Or will they? The other teams left alive in the postseason boast quarterbacks—Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson—who are already putting up numbers that stand alongside the Breeses and Rodgerses of the world. More importantly, they're outplaying them head-to-head.
The Lost Generation
It's hard to explain just how incredible the production of today's quarterbacks has been. The combination of great quarterbacking talent and a never-before-seen focus on the passing game has created crazy statistical inflation, making the record books all but irrelevant.
Rivers, for example, has never quite sustained the bursts of truly excellent play he's shown throughout his career. Nevertheless, he's No. 31 on the all-time passing yardage list and currently playing some of the best football of his career.
Of the 30 quarterbacks above Rivers on the list, seven are active, four (Manning, Brees, Brady, Matt Hasselbeck) will be dressed to play this weekend, and two (Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer) just barely missed a postseason berth. The remaining player, Eli Manning, has won two of the last six Super Bowls.
If Rivers had played in any other era, the former No. 4 overall pick and five-time Pro Bowler would be a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. If he can lead the Chargers on a historic and improbable run to a Super Bowl championship in these playoffs, he might still have a case—but he'll have to break through today's quarterbacks.
Once Peyton and Tom call it quits, the "lost generation" of Rivers, Brees, Rodgers and Roethlisberger will have just two or three years to catch their sky-high statistical marks and career achievements.
They'll have to get past the young guns to do it.
The Young Guns
Kaepernick, Luck, Newton and Wilson—not to mention just-eliminated Andy Dalton or productive talents like Matthew Stafford and Robert Griffin III—are part of the most spectacularly talented crop of young quarterbacks the NFL's ever seen.
Not only are these players all gifted throwers of the ball, but the least mobile of them probably would have been considered an "athletic" quarterback a decade or two ago. Though they all took very different paths to the NFL, they all have achieved surprisingly quick success.
Let's look at this year's playoff quarterbacks and compare their career totals with some advanced rate stats from Pro Football Reference:
Pro Football Reference
The players and teams speak for themselves, as do familiar stat totals like yards and touchdowns. For more about how the advanced stats are calculated, check the Pro Football Reference glossary.
ANY/A is adjusted net yards per attempt, which is yards per attempt adjusted for touchdowns, interceptions and sacks. This is a nice whole-number statistic to measure how well, productively and safely a quarterback moves the ball, and its index is the statistic by which the table is sorted.
Touchdown percentage, interception percentage and sack percentage are exactly what they sound like: the percentage of pass attempts that result in a touchdown or interception, and the percentage of dropbacks that result in a sack.
Pro Football Reference assembles an index for each of these, as well as NFL passer efficiency rating, that normalizes the data to the league average for that season (100) and creates a scale based on standard deviations from the mean.
I included all active quarterbacks with at least 500 passing attempts in this chart, and the playoff quarterbacks' rank in ANY/A Index is the first column. Note that eight of the top 10 active ANY/A quarterbacks made the playoffs this year.
Aaron Rodgers leads the way in both ANY/A and touchdown rate, and he fell behind only Nick Foles' insanely good interception rate. Rodgers, it's no surprise, doesn't do as well in sack rate.
Peyton Manning is second to Rodgers in ANY/A and touchdown rate. Manning falls behind a bit in interception rate but leads the pack in sack rate. That Foles is nestled between Manning and Brady speaks to just how fantastic a season he's had—but Manning's and Rodgers' entire careers still ranking ahead of Foles speaks to how bananas both of those quarterbacks' production has been.
For all of Brady's accolades, Rivers' rate stats are quite comparable. If it weren't for his group-worst sack rate, Russell Wilson would have one of the strongest stat lines on the table; he's tied with Rodgers for best touchdown rate. The same goes for Colin Kaepernick, who throws picks less frequently than anyone but Rodgers and Foles.
Of course, none of these stats touch upon rushing production, a major facet of many of the younger quarterbacks' games.
As good as Manning and Brady are—and they're fantastic—Rodgers, Rivers and Brees have been playing at comparable levels throughout their careers. Moreover, the second- and third-year classes are already approaching those same levels throwing the ball and, in modern offenses, have even more to offer than a one-dimensional pocket passer.
Of course, part of what makes great players great is their ability to sustain greatness season after season. But in this divisional round, it's possible that the "young guns" could wrest three of the four conference championship game berths right out of the hands of the older guys.
Instead of the torch being graciously passed as Manning and Brady retire, hotshots like Luck, Griffin, Kaepernick and Newton could rip the torch right out of their hands.