NFL Playoff Rankings: The 25 Best Postseason Quarterbacks Ever
Quarterback is by far the most important position in professional sports, and whether it’s fair or not, quarterbacks are judged on what they do in the playoffs.
The regular season is great. After all, a team has to get to the playoffs first. But if you’re a quarterback and you throw three picks in your team’s only playoff game? You’re going to hear about that for a long time.
One person will argue that Quarterback A is better than Quarterback B because Quarterback A won more MVP awards, threw for more yards and had a higher passer rating.
“Yeah, but Quarterback B has more rings,” someone will say—and let the debate begin.
Twenty-five men have played quarterback since 1940 and earned a spot in the Hall of Fame. All but seven of those won a Super Bowl or NFL championship (in the pre-Super Bowl era). Only three—Dan Fouts, Sonny Jurgensen and Warren Moon—failed to ever make the NFL’s grandest stage.
A quarterback with the physical skills is great—a rocket arm, great pocket presence, laser-like accuracy and a quick release are attributes a team looks for in any leader. But those only count for so much. A quarterback needs to be able to win, and win playoff games.
Then again, Trent Dilfer has a Super Bowl ring and Dan Marino does not. So is Dilfer better than Marino?
Of course not.
How the Quarterbacks Were Judged
Football is the ultimate team game. A quarterback isn’t going to win much without a strong supporting cast. Then again, a quarterback with a really strong supporting cast who DOES win may have not done too much.
Bob Griese won consecutive Super Bowls with the Dolphins and was the first quarterback in history to start three straight Super Bowls. Yet he threw just 41 passes TOTAL in the three games, fewer than Kurt Warner threw in each of Warner’s three Super Bowls.
While it’s no disrespect to Griese—who was exactly what the Dolphins needed to complement a Hall of Fame-caliber running game and defense – he didn’t make the list. Throwing seven and 11 passes in two Super Bowl wins really isn’t much at all. Realistically, the Dolphins probably could have won with any of the other 25 starting quarterbacks in the NFL.
I tried not to focus so much on Super Bowl WINS but on PERFORMANCE in the Super Bowl. Tom Brady won three Super Bowls, and that’s a fantastic achievement, but how did he do in those games? Was Terry Bradshaw just another player on the Steelers, or was he essential to their dynasty?
The Primary Statistics I Viewed
I looked heavily at a team’s rushing statistics. Even diehard NFL fans would be stunned to realize just how strong the correlation is between a team’s rushing yards and the outcome of the game.
Case in point: Tom Brady, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning are a combined 16-36 when their team rushes for fewer than 50 yards. When their team rushes for over 150 yards, the team is 100-11.
I also factored in defense. The average NFL team scores about 20 or 21 points per game. That being said, a quarterback should win a game in which his team scores 20 or more points.
In Dan Marino’s final game, his team rushed for 21 yards on 18 carries and surrendered 62 points to the Jacksonville Jaguars. No quarterback on earth could win that kind of a game. (Now Marino didn’t help his case by leading the Dolphins to just a single touchdown, but I didn’t give him a lot of blame for a loss like that).
Aaron Rodgers last year led the Packers to 45 points against the Arizona Cardinals in the Wild Card Round, throwing for 423 yards and four touchdowns and posting a 121.4 passer rating. Unfortunately for Rodgers, his defense surrendered 51 points to the Cardinals, and it just goes in the books as a loss.
Rodgers gets major points in my book for that performance, even though the Packers lost.
That being said, here’s a list of the top 25 postseason quarterbacks in history based on their performance in the playoffs.
No. 25: Jim Kelly
Playoff Record: 9-7 (0-4 Super Bowl, 4-1 conference championship games)
Playoff Stats: 21 TD, 28 INT, 72.3 rating
Super Bowl Stats: 2 TD, 7 INT, 56.9 rating
The Case for Kelly: Just five quarterbacks in NFL history have played in more combined conference championship games and Super Bowls than Kelly (nine). Kelly is the only quarterback to have started four straight Super Bowls, and it’s certainly not his fault that the defense gave up over 30 points in three of the games.
The Case Against Kelly: The career TD to INT ratio (21:28) in the playoffs isn’t the mark of a highly successful quarterback, and no one has lost more Super Bowls than Kelly. He did play some very talented teams—the ’91 Redskins are probably one of the 10 best teams ever, and the ’92 and ’93 Cowboys are a dynasty that won three titles in four years—but Kelly didn’t help his case by throwing two total touchdowns in four games.
Bottom Line: Kelly compiled one of the most unusual playoff résumés of any quarterback ever, leading the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls without so much as a single win. A case could be made that Kelly was four good games away from being viewed as one of the five best quarterbacks who ever lived, but then again, he turned in four straight subpar performances.
No. 24: Phil Simms
Playoff Record: 6-4 (1-0 Super Bowl, 1-0 conference championship games)
Playoff Stats: 10 TD, 6 INT, 77.0 rating
Super Bowl Stats: 3 TD, 0 INT, 150.9 rating
The Case for Simms: His 1986 postseason run is one of the best ever for a quarterback. Simms defeated Joe Montana and John Elway en route to the Super Bowl championship, throwing eight touchdowns to no interceptions during the run. Simms’ Super Bowl MVP performance is one of the best ever—22-of-25 passing with three touchdowns.
The Case Against Simms: Take away that one postseason and he wouldn’t make this list. His career playoff record would be just 3-4, and he would have a career playoff TD to INT ratio of 2:6.
Bottom Line: Simms is on the list primarily because of one year, but nearly half of the quarterbacks on this list have one ring or fewer. Simms was a key part of the ’86 Giants team, and if he hadn’t gotten hurt in the Giants' 1990 Super Bowl run, he may have two rings and be ranked a lot higher on this list.
No. 23: Jim Plunkett
Playoff Record: 8-2 (2-0 Super Bowl, 2-0 conference championship games)
Playoff Stats: 11 TD, 12 INT, 81.9 rating
Super Bowl Stats: 4 TD, 0 INT, 122.8 rating
The Case for Plunkett: He is undefeated in the four biggest games of his life. Not many quarterbacks have two Super Bowls, and Plunkett turned in two phenomenal performances in each game, ending his Super Bowl career with four touchdown passes, no interceptions and a passer rating that would make Joe Montana proud.
The Case Against Plunkett: He really wasn’t a terrific quarterback. He won eight games in his postseason career, and Pro Football Reference says he should have won exactly 8.0. His career regular-season numbers don’t scare anyone, and his career postseason numbers (11 TD, 12 INT) certainly don’t awe anyone either. He was simply a good quarterback playing on a GREAT team.
Bottom Line: I was ready to leave Plunkett off this list. He has won two Super Bowls, which is no small feat, but he’s nowhere near one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. What put him on this list, however, was zero. That’s the number of times Plunkett has lost the four biggest games of his life. In addition, he’s tossed zero interceptions in two Super Bowl wins, coupled with an impressive four touchdown passes.
No. 22: Joe Theismann
Playoff Record: 6-2 (1-1 Super Bowl, 2-0 conference championship games)
Playoff Stats: 11 TD, 7 INT, 91.4 rating
Super Bowl Stats: 2 TD, 4 INT, 57.1 rating
The Case for Theismann: He was pretty dominant in the playoffs for a two-year span, winning six postseason games, two NFC Championship Games, and a Super Bowl. Theismann’s career postseason numbers (91.4 passer rating) are substantially better than his career regular season numbers (77.4), a trademark sign of a quarterback who turns it up on the NFL’s biggest stage.
The Case Against Theismann: He took two extremely talented Redskins teams to the Super Bowl and turned in subpar performances in both games. Theismann is one of just two Super Bowl quarterbacks in history to play in at least two games and throw multiple interceptions in every game (Craig Morton is the other).
Bottom Line: He was a consistent, solid performer in the playoffs. His Super Bowl numbers are worse than they should be, but Theismann does have a ring and a higher career playoff passer rating than Tom Brady.
No. 21: Aaron Rodgers
Playoff Record: 4-1 (1-0 Super Bowl, 1-0 conference championship games)
Playoff Stats: 13 TD, 3 INT, 112.6 rating
Super Bowl Stats: 3 TD, 0 INT, 111.5 rating
The Case for Rodgers: He’s thrown three or more touchdowns in four of his five playoff starts. He’s led the Pack to 20 points in every game he’s played in the playoffs, and his Super Bowl MVP performance was phenomenal (three TDs, no picks against a tough Steelers defense). Even in Rodgers’ sole loss, he led the Packers to 45 points.
The Case Against Rodgers: He just hasn’t played enough games. His five career playoff starts are by far the fewest of anyone on the list. The next lowest, Drew Brees, has seven starts.
Bottom Line: Rodgers looks like he is the type of quarterback who will move up this list fast. He has won a Super Bowl in half of his trips to the playoffs, and barring a gigantic defensive collapse in ’09, there’s no knowing how far he would have gone. A No. 21 ranking seems pretty generous for a guy with only four career playoff starts, but then again, Rodgers certainly has made the most of his opportunities.
No. 20: Ken Stabler
Playoff Record: 7-5 (1-0 Super Bowl, 1-4 conference championship games)
Playoff Stats: 19 TD, 13 INT, 84.2 rating
Super Bowl Stats: 1 TD, 0 INT, 111.7 rating
The Case for Stabler: Stabler has pretty solid career postseason numbers (84.2 passer rating in an era when passer ratings weren’t near as spectacular), and he did so playing against some tough Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins teams. He was the MVP of a dominating Super Bowl win over a Minnesota Vikings team that qualified for the Super Bowl four times in a decade.
The Case Against Stabler: He was Donovan McNabb. Five times in his career—five straight years, ironically—Stabler went to the AFC Championship Game. He walked away with just a single win. The difference is that Stabler won the Super Bowl he appeared in, so he will forever be forgiven.
Bottom Line: Stabler played some brutally tough AFC teams in the ‘70s and fared pretty well, given the circumstances. He posted a 2-3 record against the dynasty Steelers and came within a fluke Immaculate Reception of going 3-2, and he split games against the two-time Super Bowl champion Dolphins, keeping them from becoming a dynasty of their own. Then again, one win in five conference championship games isn’t very good no matter who the competition.
No. 19: Len Dawson
Playoff Record: 5-3 (1-1 Super Bowl, 3-0 conference championship games)
Playoff Stats: 7 TD, 8 INT, 77.4 rating
Super Bowl Stats: 2 TD, 2 INT, 84.8 rating
The Case for Dawson: One of the old AFL’s finest passers, Dawson led the Chiefs to the first-ever Super Bowl against the Packers and a win over the Vikings in Super Bowl IV. He went undefeated in AFL championship games (3-0) and turned in two solid performances in the Super Bowl, winning the game’s MVP in his win.
The Case Against Dawson: He threw more picks than touchdowns in his postseason career, and his passer rating of 77.4 in the postseason just isn’t that good. He also turned in a subpar performance in Super Bowl I, leading the Chiefs to just 10 points against the Packers.
Bottom Line: Dawson was an extremely, accurate precision passer who led the AFL in passing six times but was often overshadowed by the likes of Bart Starr or Johnny Unitas during the 1960s. He was a tough performer in the playoffs who isn’t given enough credit for leading the Chiefs to a big upset win over the Vikings in Super Bowl IV.
No. 18: Brett Favre
Playoff Record: 13-11 (1-1 Super Bowl, 2-3 conference championship games)
Playoff Stats: 44 TD, 30 INT, 86.5 rating
Super Bowl Stats: 5 TD, 1 INT, 97.6 rating
The Case for Favre: No quarterback has been to the playoffs as many times or played in as many postseason games as Brett Favre. Favre took the Packers to consecutive Super Bowls in the ‘90s, winning the first while putting up a strong performance in the other. Favre took teams to the NFC Championship Game five times throughout his career, spanning an incredible 14 seasons.
The Case Against Favre: There are almost two parts of Brett Favre’s postseason career. The modern Favre turned in some of the worst performances in playoff history—six picks against the Rams, four against the Vikings, getting blown out at home to the Falcons and multiple overtime interceptions. He holds the NFL record for most postseason losses (11), and one ring in five final four trips isn’t too impressive.
Bottom Line: Favre won a Super Bowl so early in his career that his eventual playoff failures began to diminish his legacy. During the 1990s, Favre was on pace to become one of the best postseason quarterbacks who ever lived, appearing in two Super Bowls and winning one. During the 2000s, Favre underperformed year after year after year, which drastically dropped his ranking.
No. 17: Peyton Manning
Playoff Record: 9-10 (1-1 Super Bowl, 2-2 conference championship games)
Playoff Stats: 29 TD, 19 INT, 88.4 rating
Super Bowl Stats: 2 TD, 2 INT, 85.4 rating
The Case for Manning: Manning took longer than most great quarterbacks to win his first Super Bowl, but the bottom line is that he did do it, and he earned MVP honors for his performance in the game.
He will constantly be compared to Tom Brady, who owns three rings to Manning’s one and has beaten Manning two of three times in the playoffs, but despite that, Manning still has a higher postseason passer rating than Brady.
The Case Against Manning: Peyton Manning is a lot like Dan Marino—tremendous regular-season success with the “can’t win the big one” label. Manning does have a ring, but it was as a result of a less than spectacular performance in ’06, and it’s safe to say Dominic Rhodes (or Rex Grossman) deserved the MVP for the game.
Manning is a shocking one-and-done seven times in the postseason, and his losses are brutal—blowout losses to Chad Pennington in ’02 and Tom Brady in both ’03 and ’04, an upset loss to Ben Roethlisberger in ’05 and close one-score losses to Philip Rivers in both ’07 and ’08 and Mark Sanchez in ‘10.
Bottom Line: The Indianapolis Colts are a strange organization in that they build their team more around one player than any team ever has in the history of the NFL. While it usually works in the regular season, Peyton Manning’s postseason performances are hard to justify. In nine of the team’s 10 losses, Manning has led the Colts to fewer than 20 points, and his interception to Tracy Porter in the ’09 Super Bowl was possibly the most costly turnover in the history of the NFL.
Manning is a tremendous regular-season quarterback—maybe the best ever—but it’s pretty evident his play in the playoffs is subpar.
No. 16: Johnny Unitas
Playoff Record: 6-3 (1-1 Super Bowl, 2-1 NFL championship games)
Playoff Stats: 7 TD, 10 INT, 68.9 rating
Super Bowl Stats: 1 TD, 3 INT, 34.7 rating
The Case for Unitas: He led the Colts to an overtime win in The Greatest Game Ever Played and followed that up with another championship the next year. Unitas was the cool, confident, collected leader of the Colts, and he turned in two stellar performances in each of those wins.
The Case Against Unitas: Following his two early NFL titles, Unitas was a postseason flop. He got shut out by the Browns, 27-0, in the 1964 NFL championship. He completed FEWER than 36.7 percent of his passes in all three of the Colts’ playoff wins in 1970, and he actually got knocked out of the Super Bowl in the second quarter. His career Super Bowl passer rating is an embarrassment.
Bottom Line: Behind the crew cut, the legendary right arm and the toughness was a quarterback who vastly underachieved in the playoffs. There’s no denying his two early titles, but his performances after that weren’t what you would expect from a man frequently referred to as the greatest quarterback who ever lived.
No. 15: Drew Brees
Playoff Record: 4-3 (1-0 Super Bowl, 1-1 conference championship games)
Playoff Stats: 15 TD, 2 INT, 102.0 rating
Super Bowl Stats: 2 TD, 0 INT, 114.5 rating
The Case for Brees: Don’t hold Brees’ lack of games (seven) against him. He’s made the most of them, throwing 15 touchdowns to just two interceptions, by far the best career postseason TD to INT ratio of a passer with at least 10 touchdowns.
Last year’s Super Bowl victory put Brees on the path to being one of the all-time greats at his position. Brees threw eight touchdowns and no interceptions during the Saints’ playoff run and completed 82.1 percent of his passes in a 31-17 Super Bowl win. Even in his loss this year to the underdog Seahawks, Brees did his part by leading the Saints to 36 points.
The Case Against Brees: He simply hasn’t played enough postseason games to rank high on this list. He’s only made the playoffs in four seasons, and he’s only won a playoff game in two different years. Take away his Super Bowl season and he wouldn’t crack this list. Very few other guys ranked this high are on the list because of one season.
Bottom Line: If he wins another Super Bowl, Brees will likely move into the ranks of the top 10 all-time postseason quarterbacks. He has taken the Saints on two deep playoff runs thus far, and he has posted a passer rating of at least 80 in every single game.
No. 14: Steve Young
Playoff Record: 8-5 (1-0 Super Bowl, 1-3 conference championship games)
Playoff Stats: 20 TD, 13 INT, 85.8 rating
Super Bowl Stats: 6 TD, 0 INT, 134.1 rating
The Case for Young: He was buried in Joe Montana’s shadow for much of his career, but Young was actually a phenomenal quarterback with more raw talent than Montana. Young led the Niners to 30 points six times in the postseason, including a legendary six-touchdown performance in the Super Bowl that earned Young the game’s MVP award.
The Case Against Young: A 2-5 career playoff record against Brett Favre and Troy Aikman hurts Young’s case, and he took the 49ers to just a single Super Bowl appearance.
Bottom Line: Young spent a lot of his career on the bench backing up Montana, but Young probably could have won both the ’88 and ’89 Super Bowls that Montana did. Young also posted better numbers in his only Super Bowl appearance than Montana ever did in his four. Then again, Young’s inability to beat NFC counterparts Aikman and Favre consistently hurts his case.
No. 13: Dan Marino
Playoff Record: 8-10 (0-1 Super Bowl, 1-2 conference championship games)
Playoff Stats: 32 TD, 24 INT, 77.1 rating
Super Bowl Stats: 1 TD, 2 INT, 66.9 rating
The Case for Marino: Marino is perhaps the most scrutinized quarterback on the face of the earth. It would be expected that the NFL’s all-time leader in most passing categories (until Favre passed him) would have a Super Bowl ring to his name. He doesn’t. Then again, in Marino’s 10 postseason losses, his team rushed for an average of 53 yards per game, while the defense surrendered an average of 34.5 points per game. No one could win with that support.
The Case Against Marino: He will always be known as the best quarterback in history to never win a Super Bowl. His numbers (29-of-50, 318, 1, 2) in the game weren’t great, and he led the Dolphins to just 16 points. In each of his first five playoff losses, he threw two interceptions and posted a passer rating under 80. His career passer rating in the playoffs (77.4) is almost 10 points lower than his career rating in the regular season.
Bottom Line: An 8-10 career playoff record and just a single Super Bowl appearance are certainly less than spectacular, but Pro Football Reference did a detailed study analyzing a quarterback’s rushing and defensive support. The result of this study showed Marino should have won 5.6 playoff games in his career. This means he actually overachieved—significantly—in winning an additional 2.4 games. Put Marino on the Montana 49ers, and they still would have been a dynasty.
The fact that Marino is viewed as a poster boy for guys who couldn’t win the big one rather than one of the five greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game is unfortunate.
No. 12: Troy Aikman
Playoff Record: 11-5 (3-0 Super Bowl, 3-1 conference championship games)
Playoff Stats: 23 TD, 17 INT, 88.3 rating
Super Bowl Stats: 5 TD, 1 INT, 111.9 rating
The Case for Aikman: Aikman had a major hand in the Cowboys dynasty—leading the team to three Super Bowl titles in four years and earning the Super Bowl MVP in the first game for his four-touchdown, no-interception performance. He played some quality opponents during his career—posting an 8-1 career record against Hall of Famers Brett Favre, Jim Kelly and Steve Young.
The Case Against Aikman: I always felt Troy Aikman was too much of a game manager who benefited greatly from Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and Pro Bowlers at nearly every offensive position. Aikman was a rich man’s Bob Griese—a talented quarterback who needed the guys around him to make a name for himself.
Bottom Line: Say what you want about his teammates, but Aikman was a guy you wanted on your team when the playoffs rolled around. He turned it up a notch, posting a 100-plus passer rating nine times in 16 games. His Cowboys averaged 28.3 points per game with Aikman behind center (scoring 27 or more in 12 straight!) and 36.3 in the three Super Bowls. It seemed the higher the stakes, the better Aikman played.
No. 11: Ben Roethlisberger
Playoff Record: 10-3 (2-1 Super Bowl, 3-1 conference championship games)
Playoff Stats: 19 TD, 16 INT, 84.5 rating
Super Bowl Stats: 3 TD, 5 INT, 69.9 rating
The Case for Roethlisberger: He’s led the Steelers to 20 points in every single playoff game he’s ever started. He won two Super Bowls in his first five seasons and has already appeared in six conference championship games. His touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes in the 2008 Super Bowl was the stuff champions are made from. In his three LOSSES, he’s led the Steelers to an average of 27 points per game.
The Case Against Roethlisberger: He shouldn’t have earned a ring for his dud performance in that first Super Bowl, when he became the quarterback with the lowest passer rating ever (22.6) to win a Super Bowl. He’s thrown multiple interceptions in four of his seven conference championships and Super Bowl games. His career Super Bowl numbers aren’t the mark of a stud quarterback either.
Bottom Line: Roethlisberger doesn’t dominate games, but the Steelers are ALWAYS in the games he starts. He turns the ball over a little too much (16 interceptions in 13 career playoff games), but he’s a competitor, a playmaker and is one of the top 10 guys in history I would want leading my team on a two-minute drill. He has the potential to crack the top 10 on this list, although a game-winning drive against the Packers in this year’s Super Bowl would have put him there already.
No. 10: Sammy Baugh
Playoff Record: 3-3
NFL Championship Game Record: 2-3
Defining Moment: 337 passing yards as rookie in ’37 NFL championship
The Case for Baugh: It’s tough to measure an old-time football player like Sammy Baugh, but he played—and excelled—at multiple positions, proving to be a key piece of a Redskins unit that appeared in five NFL title games, winning two, during the late 1930s and 1940s. Baugh threw for a rookie record 337 yards in the 1937 NFL championship, and he helped the Redskins formulate what could constitute a dynasty.
The Case Against Baugh: Baugh had some pretty poor championship game performances. He was the losing QB of the infamous 73-0 game against the Bears. While it wasn’t Baugh’s fault that the Redskins gave up 73 points, Baugh didn’t lead the ‘Skins to a single score. For his career, Baugh had a sub-.500 winning percentage in the five biggest games of his life.
Bottom Line: The position of quarterback has changed a lot since the Sammy Baugh days, but Baugh helped to revolutionize the modern passing game. He’s been forgotten since he played in the pre-Super Bowl era, but Baugh was a top-notch quarterback who was far and above the best player on those Redskins teams. If you factor in his ability to play defensive back and punter, Baugh is one of the most valuable postseason performers of all time.
No. 9: Terry Bradshaw
Playoff Record: 14-5 (4-0 Super Bowl, 4-2 conference championship games)
Playoff Stats: 30 TD, 26 INT, 83.0 rating
Super Bowl Stats: 9 TD, 4 INT, 112.8 rating
Defining Moment: 64-yard fourth quarter TD pass to Lynn Swann in Super Bowl X that brought the Steelers from down 17-14 to up 21-17
The Case for Bradshaw: Terry Bradshaw played good, old-fashioned football, and he played it the right way. In an era when defenders were actually allowed to hit the quarterback, Bradshaw stood out as a playmaker that was an integral part of the Steelers dynasty in the 1970s. Bradshaw took the Steelers to four Super Bowls and walked away with a perfect 4-0 record, defeating Hall of Famers Fran Tarkenton and Roger Staubach (twice). Bradshaw posted a 100-plus passer rating in all four games.
The Case Against Bradshaw: Bradshaw wouldn’t have gotten the chance to play in four Super Bowls without a team that at one point included nine Hall of Famers (plus the coach). Sure, he established himself as an NFL icon with his tough play, but he can thank his defense, offensive line, offensive supporting cast and his head coach for giving him the opportunity to do so. Put Bradshaw on an average team and he never would have reached a Super Bowl.
Bottom Line: The Steelers wouldn’t have gone 4-for-4 in America’s biggest game without the gritty play of Bradshaw, who tossed key fourth quarter touchdown passes in three of the games, twice earning the game’s MVP. Bradshaw may have been an overrated quarterback who was fortunate to play in four Super Bowls, but there’s no denying that Bradshaw made the most of his opportunities.
No. 8: Kurt Warner
Playoff Record: 9-4 (1-2 Super Bowl, 3-0 conference championship games)
Playoff Stats: 31 TD, 14 INT, 102.8 rating
Super Bowl Stats: 6 TD, 3 INT, 95.9 rating
Defining Moment: Game-winning TD pass to Isaac Bruce in ’99 Super Bowl
The Case for Warner: He never lost a conference championship game (3-0) and put up the three highest single-game passing totals in Super Bowl history. Warner led his teams to at least 28 points in eight of his 13 playoff starts, and in six of those games he threw for over 350 yards. Warner also took two separate franchises to the Super Bowl, and he came within a defensive collapse of being the only quarterback in history to win a Super Bowl with two different teams.
The Case Against Warner: He has produced some of the costliest turnovers in the history of the NFL—the 47-yard interception return for a touchdown by Ty Law in the ’01 Super Bowl, the 100-yard interception return for a touchdown by James Harrison and the fumble at the end of the ’08 Super Bowl. Warner also won just one of his three Super Bowls, and if not for a clutch stop by his defense at the end of the first one, Warner may not even have a ring.
Bottom Line: When it’s the playoffs, this is a guy I would want taking the snaps for my team. Sure, he “only” has one ring in three trips to the Super Bowl, but take away Adam Vinatieri’s 48-yard field goal and Ben Roethlisberger’s heroic TD pass to Santonio Holmes, and Warner might have three rings. He led touchdown drives in the final three minutes of all three Super Bowls he was in. That’s clutch.
No. 7: John Elway
Playoff Record: 14-8 (2-3 Super Bowl, 5-1 conference championship games)
Playoff Stats: 27 TD, 21 INT, 79.7 rating
Super Bowl Stats: 3 TD, 8 INT, 59.3 rating (four rushing TD)
Defining Moment: The Drive
The Case for Elway: Elway remains the only quarterback in history to play in five Super Bowls, and his first three were for teams that didn’t have a whole lot of offensive talent. Elway made a living out of dashing Cleveland’s Super Bowl dreams in the late ‘80s (going 3-0 against the Browns in the AFC Championship Game), and he sailed off into the sunset following two straight Super Bowl wins, the first against a Brett Favre Packers team that had won it all the year before.
The Case Against Elway: Elway never had a strong Super Bowl performance in all five of his games. He needed Terrell Davis before he could finally get rid of the “can’t win the big one” label. Even Elway’s Super Bowl MVP award (18-of-29, 336, 1,1) can more be credited to Davis (102 rushing yards) and a tough defense that held the Falcons to 12 points until a late meaningless touchdown.
Although Elway finished his career with seven straight playoff wins, he threw just six touchdowns during those games—but fortunately for Elway, Davis averaged 150 rushing yards and 1.5 touchdowns per game during that span, and Elway’s defense held opponents to just 14.8 points per game.
Bottom Line: Elway needed Davis to get over the hump and win it all late in his career, but the Broncos never would have gone to three Super Bowls in the late ‘80s without Elway. Pro Football Reference credits Elway with winning an additional 3.7 games over what an “average” quarterback would have won given Elway’s supporting cast, a total higher than Tom Brady (3.4) or Joe Montana (2.9). In fact, Elway’s 3.7 additional wins rank No. 1 all-time among quarterbacks.
No. 6: Roger Staubach
Playoff Record: 12-6 (2-2 Super Bowl, 4-2 conference championship games)
Playoff Stats: 24 TD, 19 INT, 76.0 rating
Super Bowl Stats: 8 TD, 4 INT, 96.3 rating
Defining Moment: The Hail Mary
The Case for Staubach: Staubach didn’t become a full-time starter until he was 29 years old, but he still managed to lead the Cowboys to an unprecedented six conference championship games, four Super Bowls and two titles during his tenure as the starter. Staubach probably should have three rings—it’s not his fault the Cowboys defense gave up 35 points to the Steelers—and then he would be undoubtedly viewed as one of the five greatest quarterbacks who ever lived.
The Case Against Staubach: The Cowboys made the Super Bowl the year before Staubach took over as full-time quarterback, and they made three straight NFC Championship Games after he retired. It seemed this was just an incredibly talented team that won football games no matter who was under center. Pro Football Reference determined that Staubach actually should have won MORE playoff games that he did in his career.
Bottom Line: A 2:1 career TD to INT ratio and 96.3 career passer rating in four Super Bowls is the stuff of a Hall of Fame quarterback. Staubach (like Young) could have won more rings than he did had he been given the opportunity to start earlier in his career; the fact that he accomplished what he did in so few years is remarkable.
No. 5: Otto Graham
Playoff Record: 9-4 (7-3 championship games)
Playoff Stats: 14 TD, 17 INT
Defining Moment: Comeback win in 1950 NFL championship game
The Case for Graham: Graham is the only quarterback in NFL history to appear in the championship game every year of his career—10 appearances (1946-55). He won the first four in the AAFC before transitioning to the NFL and leading the Browns to a big 30-28 win over the powerful Rams in the 1950 NFL title game. Graham’s finest game came as a six-touchdown performance in the ’54 win over the Lions.
The Case Against Graham: His first four titles were in the AAFC, which was then viewed upon as the little sister of the NFL, and Graham’s 1953 NFL title game performance (2-of-15, 20, 0, 2) is one of the worst in football history, especially considering his team lost by just a single point. Graham also was backed by a No. 1 defense in eight of 10 seasons and a No. 2-ranked defense the other two years. Put Graham on an average team, and I don’t know how many championships he would have made.
Bottom Line: Graham has more big-game experience than any quarterback who ever lived. Even if you discredit his four straight titles in the AAFC, he still won three championships in six years in the dominant National Football League. He can take snaps for my team any day.
No. 4: Sid Luckman
Playoff Record: 5-1 (4-1 NFL championship games)
Playoff Stats: 7 TD, 4 INT
Defining Moment: Winner of 73-0 NFL championship, most points in championship game history
The Case for Luckman: Luckman helped to invent the modern passer, and he was at his best when it mattered the most. He helped lead the Bears to a huge 73-0 blowout win in the 1940 championship and then tossed five touchdowns—an extraordinary feat for any era, but especially back then—in the ’43 title game (he also intercepted two passes on defense and led both teams with 64 rushing yards, turning in possibly the greatest single-game postseason performance in history).
The Case Against Luckman: He had an absolutely miserable performance in the ’42 championship game. Luckman completed five of 12 passes for two yards. He was intercepted twice, rushed two times for negative-28 yards and led the Bears to just six points in a loss to Sammy Baugh’s Redskins.
Bottom Line: Luckman and Baugh during the ‘40s didn’t get the publicity that Manning vs. Brady does now, but it pitted two phenomenal quarterbacks going head to head in three championship games—with Luckman’s Bears taking two of the three. Among quarterbacks with at least five starts in the playoffs, Luckman’s career .833 winning percentage is exceeded by just Bart Starr (.900).
No. 3: Tom Brady
Playoff Record: 14-5 (3-1 Super Bowl, 4-1 conference championship games)
Playoff Stats: 30 TD, 16 INT, 85.7 rating
Super Bowl Stats: 7 TD, 1 INT, 94.5 rating
Defining Moment: The Tuck Rule Game
The Case for Brady: Not since Joe Cool has the NFL seen a quarterback like Tom Brady. Brady took over for an injured Drew Bledsoe early in the 2001 season and was Super Bowl MVP by year’s end. Brady won his first 10 playoff games—including three Super Bowls—and is a David Tyree helmet catch away from having four rings.
In fact, a strong case could be made that had Brady’s defense stopped Peyton Manning’s final drive in the 2006 AFC Championship Game, Brady would likely have five rings (beating the Rex Grossman Bears wouldn’t have been too much of a problem for Brady) and thus undoubtedly would be considered the greatest quarterback who ever lived.
The Case Against Brady: Brady needed two huge kicks from Adam Vinatieri to win his first Super Bowl, another big one to win his second and a very subpar performance from a top-notch Eagles team to win his third. Since Spygate, Brady has lost three straight playoff games to quarterbacks named Eli Manning, Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez, and he’s had five straight postseasons end in disappointing fashion.
Bottom Line: When all is said and done, Brady could go down as the greatest quarterback who ever lived—in the regular season and postseason. He’s been blessed with a tremendous head coach, but few—if any—quarterbacks in history have shown Brady’s knack for coming through in the clutch. Brady trails only Joe Montana in playoff wins (14), and he’s playing for a team with the potential to contend for a Super Bowl championship every single year.
No. 2: Joe Montana
Playoff Record: 16-7 (4-0 Super Bowl, 4-2 conference championship games)
Playoff Stats: 45 TD, 21 INT, 95.6 rating
Super Bowl Stats: 11 TD, 0 INT, 127.8 rating (two rushing TD)
Defining Moment: The Drive
The Case for Montana: Montana holds NFL records for most playoff wins (16), most Super Bowl wins (four), most Super Bowl touchdowns (11) and most passing touchdowns in the playoffs (45). If Montana had been able to stay healthy and hadn’t been forced out of San Francisco due to the emergence of Steve Young, Montana probably could have won five or six Super Bowls.
The Case Against Montana: He had three straight absolute duds in the playoffs in the middle of his career. He led the ‘Niners to exactly three points in three straight games, losing all of them. In two of them, Montana didn’t even finish the game. During that span (’85-’87), Montana tossed four interceptions without a single touchdown pass. It’s shocking that no one remembers these games, but it was a trio of atrocious performances in a row by one of the all-time greats.
Bottom Line: Bill Walsh designed the West Coast offense to fit Joe Montana, and Montana knew how to run it like a champion. The result was four Super Bowl appearances and four wins—and most remarkable was that Montana accounted for 13 touchdowns in those games without throwing a single interception.
No. 1: Bart Starr
Playoff Record: 9-1 (2-0 Super Bowl, 5-1 conference championship games)
Playoff Stats: 15 TD, 3 INT, 104.8 rating
Super Bowl Stats: 3 TD, 1 INT, 106.0 rating
Defining Moment: The QB sneak in the Ice Bowl
The Case for Starr: He has the best winning percentage in the postseason of any quarterback who ever lived (.900), and he’s won more titles (five) than any quarterback who ever lived. Starr lost his first-ever playoff game to the Eagles in 1960 and proceeded to win nine straight, including the first two Super Bowls. Starr’s playoff passer rating—given the era in which he played—is simply remarkable. He was also MVP of both Super Bowls he played in.
The Case Against Starr: He had loads and loads of talented, Hall of Fame teammates. Starr’s defense ranked first or second in the league seven times. He had a Hall of Fame coach, Hall of Fame running backs and a Hall of Fame line. There’s no way the Packers would have won five championships without Starr’s supporting cast.
Bottom Line: It’s not Starr’s fault that his teammates were incredibly talented, and it’s impossible to argue that Starr was simply lights out in the postseason. He was a winner, plain and simple. There is absolutely no way the Packers would have won five titles without the play of their Hall of Fame quarterback. Starr never had a series of poor postseason games like Montana did. Starr posted a passer rating nearly 25 points higher in the postseason than the regular season—the true mark of a champion.