Eight teams are left with a chance to win the Super Bowl, and eight quarterbacks are charged this coming weekend with leading their teams one step closer to a crack at the title.
Is it that simple? Can the divisional round of the NFL playoffs be boiled down to the guys under center? Yes and no.
But mostly yes.
Certainly with all the schemes and reads and checks and packages and complexities of a modern football game, it's not as easy as a coach saying, "Hey Peyton/Tom/Philip/Andrew/Russell/Colin/Cam/Drew go out and win this game for us."
It's not that simple, but maybe it can be. This weekend—with eight quarterbacks who have been so critical to the success of their franchises this year—everything hinges on which ones will stand tall and which will falter under the playoff pressure.
It seems negative to think one or more of the quarterbacks this weekend will make a mistake that eliminates his team from the playoffs, but chances are, someone will.
There are, after all, a few staunch defenses still left in the playoffs. (See, it's about more than quarterbacks!) Colin Kaepernick may have looked like a magician when he escaped all over the field last week, but he's playing the Panthers on Sunday, not the Packers.
Andrew Luck torched the Chiefs defense in the second half the Colts' Wild Card Weekend victory, but that was at home, not in the elements in Foxboro.
So which quarterbacks will shine and which will falter? With a special class left in the playoffs, they are all so talented that it's hard to just throw a dart to suggest one over the other. But let's do it anyway, using a bit of recent history and how each quarterback has fared against his divisional round opponent to help make things a little clearer.
Who is most likely to pull his team to safety, and who is most likely to sink?
Hey, have you heard? Drew Brees can't win a playoff game on the road. In fact, the Saints organization has never, in NFL history, won a playoff game on the road. When it's cold outside, in a hostile environment, the team is terrible. Winless. Putrid.
Note: I may have been given that information a week ago. Has anything changed since then?
Brees was 20-of-30 for 250 yards and a touchdown in the Saints' 26-24 win at Philadelphia last week. He wasn't spectacular—he did have two first-half interceptions that led to Philadelphia scoring opportunities—but he was nearly flawless in the second half, completing 10 of his 12 passes for 152 yards and a score.
The Saints scored on five of their final six drives of the game, including a game-winning field goal as time expired to erase any semblance of concern about winning outside, on the road, in the cold, on grass or anything else people said about Brees and the Saints heading into that game.
Now, of course, he faces a road environment in Seattle that will be every bit as hostile as Philadelphia, against a team—specifically a defense—that is much stronger.
Seattle boasted the best defense in the NFL this season in terms of yards per game (273.6) and points per game (14.4). The Seahawks have the best pass defense in football and the seventh-best run defense. This is going to be one heck of a test.
If anyone should be up for it, it's Brees. He is just 6-4 in his career in the postseason, but he has lost only once in his career in the divisional round. (For a player with a Super Bowl title and the stature in the sport that he's earned, Brees does have a remarkably thin playoff resume.)
In his 10 playoff starts, he has thrown 23 touchdowns and just six interceptions with a quarterback rating above 101. He averages more than 320 yards per game in January and February. This moment will not be too big for Brees.
In his career, he has been solid against the Seahawks as well, completing more than 62 percent of his passes in four games and throwing 10 touchdowns to just three interceptions. In the 2010 Wild Card Game in which New Orleans traveled to 7-9 Seattle, he was 39-of-60 for 404 yards and two scores in the loss.
He can play well on the road in the playoffs. He has.
Their meeting this season, however, did not go so well. Brees had subpar numbers for his standards—23-of-38 for 147 yards and a score—as Seattle rolled the Saints 34-7 in Week 13.
And despite the fact that Brees has only lost two games to the same team once since 2009—the Saints fell to Carolina twice in last year's horrible regular season—it's hard to think the Saints can do enough to upset Seattle at home this time.
The Saints have a ton of weapons on offense, but Seattle may be the one team in the league best suited to take away what Brees likes to do best.
He won't lose the game for the Saints, but he won't do enough to win it for them, either.
If Brees isn't going to win the game, the only way the Saints can win is if the guy with the ball on the other side loses it for his team. After watching Russell Wilson develop over the last two seasons in the NFL, has he shown any signs of being a player who shrinks in the spotlight?
Wilson is 1-1 in the playoffs in his career, but when Seattle lost last season in Atlanta in the divisional round, he was spectacular, throwing for 385 yards and two scores while grabbing another 60 yards and a touchdown on the ground. His only blemish was a last-second interception on a Hail Mary after the Falcons retook the lead with a late field goal. Before that game-winning answer by Matt Ryan, Wilson had thought he had a game-winning drive of his own, taking the Seahawks down the field and scoring with just 34 seconds left in the game.
Wilson did all he could do. He almost always does.
In his career, he has completed more than 63 percent of his passes with 55 touchdowns to 20 interceptions in both the regular season and playoffs. He averages more than 32 yards per game on the ground, but last season he rushed for 60 or more in both playoff games.
If there is one knock on him, and it's probably more a knock on his offensive line, it's that he takes far too many sacks. He finished the regular season tied for third in the NFL in quarterback sacks with 44, which is odd for such a mobile player. With that said, Cam Newton was one behind him with 43.
In the first game this season, New Orleans seemed to be no match for Wilson, sacking him only once while the second-year signal-caller torched the Saints to the tune of 310 yards passing, 47 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
All Wilson has to do is not lose the game for Seattle. And nothing in his career indicates he will.
Early in the Wild Card Game victory over Kansas City, I wondered aloud if maybe we have been overhyping Andrew Luck a bit.
Then the second half happened.
Luck threw a pick on his first pass of the second half—which was his second of three interceptions on the day—but from the time that Indianapolis got the ball back after another Chiefs touchdown, he was a different player. He led the Colts on five touchdown drives in the second half, throwing three TD passes. On the one scoring drive that he wasn't directly responsible for, he went 3-of-3 for 67 yards in three plays to set up the points.
Even with the two picks in the second half, Luck was 17-of-24 for 314 yards and three scores in an incredible comeback victory over a tough defense.
It's just...I don't think he can do it again.
He didn't have as much, ahem, good fortune last season on the road in the playoffs as he had at home this year, struggling against a tough Baltimore Ravens defense in the wild-card loss. And while I'm confident he will turn out to be one of the best quarterbacks of his generation—his play is getting better and better as his young career progresses—something about this matchup against Bill Belichick and the Patriots makes me think this won't be Luck's week.
Even though Luck halved his interceptions from his rookie season to his sophomore campaign, he has shown a penchant for trying to force the ball into windows that sometimes close more quickly than he anticipates.
While young, the Patriots secondary might be able to ball-hawk its way to a few turnovers. Luck threw three picks to go with a sack-fumble in last season's 59-24 thrashing at the hands of New England. Again, this is a totally different Colts team, and Luck is far more mature under center. But he did just throw three picks at home last week.
If there is any young quarterback who can make a writer regret not having faith in him, it's Luck. But against New England, on the road, his good fortune is going to run out.
Have you heard the news? Tom is Terrific.
There has been an odd backlash toward Brady recently in response to some people suggesting that he should be the MVP, given all the injuries, departures and off-the-field issues this season in New England.
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. He had a very good season, given the circumstances. Having said that, his completion percentage was down, he threw for fewer yards than any season but one since he missed a year for injury, and his touchdowns were way down, even for his standards over the last four years. We're not talking 2007 Tom or 2013 Peyton, but 25 touchdowns are, frankly, a little low given the rules in place today.
And yet, winning 12 games and securing a first-round bye with an incredibly young defense and a receiving corps made up of guys he basically met this summer is pretty terrific.
Oh, and if you agree that Tom is terrific on a regular basis, then you better be darn sure to agree he's terrific in the playoffs. In 24 playoff starts, he is 17-7, completing more than 62 percent of his passes while tossing 42 touchdowns to 22 interceptions.
At home in the playoffs, he is 11-3 in his career, with only two poor outings in those three losses. (Note: Brady didn't play great in a few of those wins, to be fair.)
He has been solid against the Colts too, at least recently. In that matchup last season, he was 24-of-35 for 331 yards and three scores.
He was, and will be on Saturday night, terrific.
There are four quarterbacks left in the NFL playoffs who have played in the Super Bowl in the last five years, and Colin Kaepernick is one of them.
You know, that line has far less impact than I wanted it to, but I hedged on writing "and Colin Kaepernick is the one with the best chance to get back there."
In fact, he has the worst chance of the four remaining Super Bowl quarterbacks to get back to the big game this year. At the very least, the 49ers quarterback has as tough a task as Drew Brees, as they both will have to face Seattle and Carolina (or each other) to make it to New York. (Note: With the Patriots and Broncos both favored, it will be a lock that Peyton Manning or Tom Brady returns to the Super Bowl if they both win this week.)
Anyway, the point of that line—pre-hedge—was to suggest that Kaepernick is playing at a level right now that has people thinking the 49ers might be the team to beat in the NFC. Even as the fifth seed facing games at Carolina and potentially Seattle, he has the 49ers clicking on offense right now, making it conceivable that San Francisco can make a rather historic run back to the title game.
As more and more weapons returned, we were able to see the Niners offense expand. Last week in the Wild Card Round at Green Bay, Kaepernick was finally able to show he has the stuff to get his team back to the Super Bowl this year.
Of course, that game was against the Packers and a defense with more holes than the foam cheese their fans wear on their heads. Carolina's defense is way better than that.
The Panthers defense, ranked second in the league in scoring and second in rush defense, isn't going to let Kaepernick loose for 98 yards on the ground. If Carolina can keep him in the pocket or at least limit those boundary runs to short inside gains, Kaepernick will have to rely more on his arm than he did last week.
He was rather pedestrian in the passing game in the Wild Card Round, completing 16-of-30 for 227 yards, one score and a pick. But in the fourth quarter, the young dual-threat quarterback was electric, leading San Francisco on two scoring drives to take the lead each time, including the final drive that lasted a full five minutes to end the game.
Again, that's all great against Green Bay. But can he do it against Carolina?
He didn't earlier this year, passing for a putrid 91 yards and rushing for 16 in San Francisco's November 10 home loss to the Panthers. But he didn't have his full arsenal of receivers—namely Michael Crabtree, who has become a security blanket of sorts for the QB.
If any team has the blueprint of how to stop Kaepernick, it is Carolina. But that was during the regular season. Nobody has been able to stop the guy in the playoffs. Even Baltimore couldn't stop him in the Super Bowl last year. The Ravens just had to outscore him.
In his four postseason games, Kaepernick has thrown five touchdowns passes and three interceptions while rushing for another three scores. He is averaging 256 yards in the air and a ridiculous 90.5 yards on the ground, which is buoyed by the 181-yard game in last year's divisional round against Green Bay.
Even without that game, he is averaging 60 yards rushing per game, and in all four playoff contests, he has a per-run average of 11.31 yards.
That's...insane. It's also obviously hard to stop, and as good as Carolina was on defense this year, it might not have enough to stop Kaepernick and a full complement of weapons. I'll be the first to admit that earlier in the year, I wasn't sold on him, thinking he was a bit overrated given how strong San Francisco is in other parts of the game. But he's won me over.
Winning seven straight games and playing the way he did down the stretch will do that.
Cam Newton is the only quarterback left in the playoffs who has never played in an NFL postseason game. There is no recent history to refer to like with Kaepernick, Luck and Wilson. There is no career anthology like with Brady, Manning and Brees.
It's now. It's all in front of him. Newton needs to win this game to prove he belongs in the conversation with the top names in the sport. On talent, he is already there. He just needs to add to his resume a home win against a team that's playing as well as any other in the entire NFL.
It's kind of ridiculous to think that people still don't have faith in Newton after he has been so good this year with very little help on offense.
DeAngelo Williams led the Panthers in rushing with 843 yards, the 18th-best total in the league. Greg Olsen led them in receptions with 73 (30th in the league) and yards with 816 (40th). You could say Steve Smith was their top receiver, but he had 64 catches for 745 yards. Brandon LaFell was next with 49 catches for 627 yards.
Essentially, it was Cam's show, and he had a bunch of mediocre role players to help on offense. And with a stout defense, he was able to lead Carolina to a first-round bye.
It's amazing, and it kills me to suggest that it's going to end. The Panthers just don't have enough to beat the 49ers right now. I know they're at home, and I saw what Newton did to the Saints late in the season to secure a bye. He can be as dynamic as anyone who ever played the position.
It's just not going to happen this weekend.
Feel free to clip this up and use it against me on Monday if the Panthers win. I'll deserve it.
The weekend's final game pits two division rivals against each other for a chance to get to the AFC Championship Game. One quarterback (note: not this guy) is playing with more pressure on him than anyone else in the league. The other (note: this guy) is playing with house money.
Philip Rivers had a career year by almost anyone's standards. He competed 69.5 percent of his passes for nearly 4,500 yards and threw 32 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. He was fantastic, but his team only won nine games and squeaked into the playoffs at the last possible moment with as much help as a team could ever get.
It's a funny thing about house money, though. When you're not afraid to lose, it might just help you win.
The problem for Rivers, of course, is that his defense won't be able to stop Denver's offense, so no matter how many points the Chargers score—and it could be a lot—they're not going to outscore Denver.
San Diego did hold the Broncos to just 28 points in the Chargers' Week 10 loss and stymied them in their Week 15 win at Denver, limiting the Broncos to just 20 points in that game. I cannot see that happening three times.
Rivers was great in both games, and against a depleted Denver defense, expect him to have even more time to find his deep roster of emerging skill position players.
In his career, he hasn't had great numbers in the postseason, completing fewer than 60 percent of his passes while throwing as many interceptions as touchdowns. He was, however, efficient in the impressive win last week over the Bengals, completing 75 percent of his throws despite only passing for 128 yards and one score. Frankly, the Chargers didn't need him to do any more.
This week, however, they will.
This game should be high scoring—and I'm sorry for jinxing everything by saying that—but Rivers will end up on the short end of the number this time.
If you've read this far, you know all of Manning's accolades. In two years in Denver, he's thrown for 10,136 yards and 92 touchdowns to just 21 interceptions. He's completed 68.4 percent of his passes, and the Broncos have won 26 of the 32 regular-season games in which he has played.
His record in the playoffs, however, is 0-1, after he lost at home to the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round last year.
Manning must win this year. He must. Everything about this experiment in Denver hinges on him winning this week. The Broncos can lose next week to the Patriots or Colts, and it would be disappointing, for sure, but nothing would be as devastating as losing this week.
I know Manning is 9-11 in the playoffs in his career. I get that he is 4-8 in his team's first playoff round, which is horrible when you think about how many times Indianapolis and Denver were favored in some of those games.
Hell, I know he hasn't even won a playoff game of any kind since January 24, 2010. He has to win: for himself, for his team, for his town.
There is more pressure on Manning than on any one player to win one football game than any time I can remember. It is all on his shoulders this week.
And he'll rise to the challenge.
Manning will torch the Chargers defense on Sunday. The game may be close because San Diego will beat up Denver's depleted defense, but Manning will shake off the playoff rust and have the best weekend of any quarterback in the playoffs.
I cannot see him losing this game. It's impossible.