Tim Tebow, Tom Brady and the 11 Most Clutch Offensive Players in the NFL
Watching Tom Brady and Tim Tebow play quarterback is like watching two players play two completely different positions. Brady has the deadly accurate arm, while Tebow can be erratic and inaccurate. Tebow is fleet of foot and daring as a runner, while Brady runs as if he hopes no one is watching him. Brady is a defense's worst nightmare on 3rd-and-10, Tebow is the same on 3rd-and-2.
But these two quarterbacks share a trait, and it's the most important for a player at that position to have: when the game is at its most tense, most difficult and most critical stages, they get better, almost every time.
Call it competitiveness, call it intangibles, call it whatever you want. It's that quality that has made opposing coaches fear the combination of Brady, the ball and the final few minutes, and it's making them feel the same way about Tebow.
It's a quality possessed by plenty of other players as well. These are the players that are bigger than any stage they play on, that have their most fun when their team's fans are chomping away at their fingernails.
Simply put, if it's crunch time or a big game and your team's hopes are riding on these players, you're feeling pretty good about your chances.
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Tom Brady is the most clutch player in football, and while it's certainly possible to argue otherwise, it's not easy.
Brady's resume is extensive. There are the three Super Bowl titles and two MVPs, and it would likely be four and three had the Patriots defense been able to back up what would have been Brady's third game-winning drive.
In fact, the defensive letdown that allowed Eli Manning (more on him later) and the Giants to snatch the victory and championship overshadowed what might have been the iconic moment in Brady's career. The Patriots were losing by three when they took over at their 20 with 7:54 to play, and Brady shrugged off the pressure of the game and the perfect season to go 80 yards in just over five minutes for the go-ahead score.
Instead, Brady will have to settle for a meager two Super Bowl-winning drives. Life just isn't fair.
He's 14-5 in his postseason career, and he's shown this year that he still has the late-game magic that's allowed him to put up such a mark. He led a game-winning drive against the Cowboys in the final minute, and would have had another game-winning drive against the Giants had New York not pulled another rabbit out of Eli's helmet.
The Patriots' defensive decline has put them through two tough postseasons in a row, but New England fans still have every reason to believe that their best chances are with the ball in Brady's hands late in the game.
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Tim Tebow doesn't have the Super Bowl MVPs, postseason wins or even guaranteed 2012 starting spots that belong to Brady and the other inclusions on this list, but he has every bit the late-game heart and nerve that they do.
Tebow is 8-3 as an NFL starter, and he's done it by showing a masterful trait of keeping his team close and then excelling when it's up for grabs. He apparently can't throw, can't read defenses and can't anticipate blitzes, but when the fourth quarter rolls around, he figures everything out.
He has six fourth-quarter comebacks in 11 starts. That's why he's on this list. He's got to be clutch—if he wasn't, he probably wouldn't be in the league.
The idea that a quarterback is as good as his winning percentage is an overused analysis. Sometimes, it seems as if a quarterback can complete 25 percent of his passes and throw three picks, but if his team won, he "made the plays he had to to win."
But in Tebow's case, it's an accurate assessment. When the Broncos have won this year, it's almost always been because of Tebow figuring out how to flummox yet another opposing head coach.
The Broncos are in first place in the AFC West because of their quarterback. They escape from seemingly impossible deficits because of their quarterback. It's hard to be more clutch than that.
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Eli Manning has critics. Plenty of them.
He has naysayers. Plenty of them.
He has people reminding him he's not as good as his brother. Almost everyone would side with this crowd.
But Eli has guts. And he's been making good friends with fourth quarters lately.
Manning's clutch legacy is defined by the Giants' Super Bowl run of 2007, and for good reason. He led the Giants to four straight postseason victories, all on the road, and eventually took home Super Bowl MVP honors when New York pulled off the upset over New England.
Sure, Manning benefited from a few lucky breaks along the way. His NFC championship game outing (21-of-40, no touchdowns) was mediocre, but he was bailed out by notorious playoff loose cannon Brett Favre. His game-winning drive in the Super Bowl wasn't completely smooth, as he was bailed out by David Tyree's jaw-dropping helmet catch and Asante Samuel's dropped interception.
But the breaks shouldn't overshadow the poise Manning showed consistently. He led two go-ahead drives in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl with the Lombardi Trophy on the line, and he had his two best quarterback ratings of the season in the first two games of the playoffs, when everyone expected the team to be an early exit.
This season, Eli has shown his resiliency numerous times. He has six fourth-quarter victories, with one making him the first quarterback to one-up Tom Brady in New England since 2006 and the other erasing a late two-score deficit in a crucial game in Dallas.
If he keeps it up, the Giants will be back in the playoffs, and chances are he'll be a tough matchup there this year as well.
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Yeah, yeah, yeah, Ben Roethlisberger has had some ugly Super Bowl performances. Yeah, yeah, yeah, he can look clumsy and awkward playing quarterback sometimes.
But Roethlisberger has shown one thing to be true during his growing playoff and big-game legacy. If the game comes down to one play that he and the Steelers have to have, the chances are he's going to make it.
Roethlisberger doesn't have the sparkling Super Bowl record that belongs to Joe Montana and Tom Brady, who almost never erred on the ultimate stage. Far from it. His first Super Bowl performance (9-of-21, 123 yards, two interceptions, 22.6 rating), in Super Bowl XL, was a bomb. His effort in last year's Super Bowl (25-of-40, 263 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions, 77.4 rating) wasn't great, either.
But that Super Bowl came down to a final Pittsburgh drive with a six-point deficit and 2:07 left. Roethlisberger and the Steelers couldn't reach the end zone, and millions of people watching on TV were shocked.
After all, Roethlisberger hadn't shown any reason to doubt him there.
Big Ben has come up biggest in the big moments. He's evolved into a brilliant playmaker, often creating plays while out of the pocket and on the run, either with his arm or his legs. And he seems to always make the right play when the game's on the line.
His game-winning touchdown drive in Super Bowl XLIII against Arizona, which he capped off with an absolutely perfect throw to an outstretched Santonio Holmes, is the most illustrious example, but it's not the only one.
In last year's AFC title game, for instance, the New York Jets were charging back from a 24-0 deficit, had narrowed the gap to 24-19 and had the Steelers at 3rd-and-6 with two minutes left. With all of the momentum on the Jets sideline, Roethlisberger rolled away from a broken pocket, threw against his body and calmly fired a 14-yard strike right to rookie Antonio Brown to win the game.
It was quintessential Roethlisberger, the clutch form that's allowed him to go 11-3 in the playoffs and stand as one of the game's best pressure performers around.
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Few quarterbacks are asked to do more by their teams than Drew Brees is.
The New Orleans Saints have a plethora of options, but Brees is the one that allows for them all to flourish. The offense relies completely on his right arm, as he has led the league in pass attempts three times (including this year) since 2007 and was second in 2009.
Because the Saints have become one of the elite teams in the league, they've played big games over the years. And because of that offensive style, Brees has often had to be great to give his team a chance to win.
Brees excels in the spotlight. This was never made more apparent than during New Orleans' captivating Super Bowl run in 2009, in which Brees threw no interceptions while finishing with a rating over 100 in each of the three games. His best performance was saved for Super Bowl XLIV, as he went 32-of-39 for 288 yards and two touchdowns to upset Peyton Manning and the Colts and earn MVP honors.
But Brees hasn't needed the postseason to show his big stage presence. He's a dangerous Monday Night Football performer as well, routinely carving up opponents in front of a national audience. He threw five touchdowns and had a perfect 158.3 rating in an evisceration of New England in 2009, and threw for 363 yards and four touchdowns in a 49-24 massacre of the Giants this year.
The Saints live or die by Brees' arm. As he has shown, no matter how big the game, that's not a bad thing.
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Aaron Rodgers doesn't have the longest clutch resume, but there's no question he belongs on this list.
Every time the Green Bay Packers get looked at by a national audience, Rodgers excels. He's great in the playoffs. He's great in prime time. As this season has shown, he's pretty much great every time he takes the snap.
There's no reason to doubt Rodgers in pressure situations. He's never really failed. Even in his one playoff loss, to Arizona in 2009, he threw for 423 yards, four touchdowns and one interception and had a rating of 121.4. He led Green Bay to 45 points; normally that's enough, but the Packers allowed 51, the final six coming in overtime when Rodgers was hit during a throw and his fumble took a flukey bounce into the arms of Karlos Dansby, who went in for the winning score.
Of course, Rodgers has his playoff victories, too. There's that whole 2010 postseason thing, in which he threw nine touchdowns against two picks over four games as he led the sixth-seeded Packers to a Super Bowl championship. In the title game, he went 24-of-39 for 304 yards and three touchdowns and came up big repeatedly as he kept Green Bay afloat in what became a shootout.
Still, some people had their doubts about Rodgers, and that's what this season has been all about. Even in a situation in which the Packers were finally challenged, tied with the Giants 35-35 with the ball and 57 seconds left, Rodgers made it look easy. He needed only four passes to go 68 yards, setting Mason Crosby up for a chip shot 29-yard field goal and the win.
The message was simple. Rodgers is quite possibly the most dangerous quarterback in the league today, and in crunch time, he doesn't skip a beat.
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Deion Branch has never made a Pro Bowl. He never will. He's not fast enough, he's not flashy enough and he doesn't rack up the 100-catch, 1,000-yard seasons needed to get there.
But that's not what this list is about. This list is about the players that up their game when it matters most. And that perfectly describes the kind of player Branch is.
When the New England Patriots were running roughshod through postseasons and winning Super Bowls, Branch was the one transforming overnight into Jerry Rice. He ran every route perfectly, always got open and always hauled in whatever Tom Brady threw his way. At the end of the game, the formula was the same. Brady to Branch. Over and over.
The proof is in the stats. Branch was a deserving candidate for MVP (won by Brady) in Super Bowl XXXVIII against Carolina, catching 10 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown, with no catch bigger than a 16-yard reception on 3rd-and-3 with 14 seconds left that set up Adam Vinatieri's game-winning 41-yard field goal.
His postseason a year later was even better. He had four catches for 116 yards and a touchdown and a 23-yard rush for a touchdown in the AFC championship game against Pittsburgh, and then managed to win Super Bowl MVP honors with 11 catches for 133 yards against Philadelphia. In 2005, for good measure, he had eight catches for 153 yards in a divisional round loss to Denver.
Branch is a smart receiver who relies more on timing than pure athletic prowess, and he never really established that same connection with Matt Hasselbeck during his injury-prone sojourn in Seattle. But in his return to New England, he and Brady have gotten in sync quickly, as if Branch never left.
Who knows? Maybe there are some more postseason heroics in store for both of them.
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Hines Ward played in his first playoff game with the Pittsburgh Steelers in January of the 2001 season, and since then, he and the team have seen plenty of quarterbacks. Kordell Stewart was the first under center, then Tommy Maddox gave it a shot and then Ben Roethlisberger took over for good in 2004.
Three completely different quarterbacks, but they all knew the same thing. When the stakes were high, Ward was the man to go to. So they did. He never disappointed.
Ward has been a consistent playoff performer for a team that's consistently in the playoffs. He has 10 receiving touchdowns in 17 games to go with 88 catches for 1,181 yards. That translates to a little more than a full season of postseason play, and Ward's stats would probably get him into the Pro Bowl.
The playoff book on Ward is extensive. He caught eight touchdown passes in an eight-game stretch between 2002 and 2005, culminating in his MVP performance (five catches, 123 yards and a touchdown) in Super Bowl XL. He has five 100-yard receiving games in the playoffs. Even in last year's Super Bowl loss to Green Bay, the Old Man River of the Steelers receiving corps was a bright spot, catching seven passes for 78 yards and a touchdown.
It's no surprise that Ward makes the big stage his own. He's a tough, physical player who thrives while doing the dirty work to put the Steelers on top. It's no wonder he doesn't back down when the pressure is at its greatest.
Ward is not the fastest or most athletic wideout in the game. He never was. But when it's late in the game and the Steelers need a play, Ward's the one making it. He's proven it time and time again.
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You can debate with anyone over whether or not Santonio Holmes is a top-level wide receiver. You'll have a case either way.
Just don't fight that battle in the playoffs, though. You'll lose. That's when Holmes is at his best.
Unlike Hines Ward, who seems to draw his big-game ability from his professionalism and workmanlike demeanor, Holmes displays a complete arrogance in the spotlight. He loves to celebrate, loves to brag, loves to show off.
The thing is, in order to do those things, you have to produce when it matters most.
Love him or hate him, Holmes has proven himself to be nothing less than a gamer. He has five receiving touchdowns in seven postseason games and has been a favorite target for both Ben Roethlisberger and Mark Sanchez.
Sometimes, he saves himself for the biggest moments. He only had three catches for 20 yards in the Jets' playoff victory over the Patriots last year, for instance, but one of those catches was a brilliant seven-yard touchdown reception that turned the tide for good in New York's favor.
And, of course, Holmes is equally adept at being a whole-game force. He was the MVP of Super Bowl XLIII with nine catches for 131 yards, as well as a touchdown on Roethlisberger's final pass of the game, which Holmes caught while somehow managing to stretch out and drag the tips of his cleats at the same time.
You can question Holmes as a person or teammate, but not as a clutch performer. He comes up big, and does so routinely.
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The Arizona Cardinals have been mostly mediocre-to-bad during Larry Fitzgerald's career, but there was a two-year stretch in which they were good enough to make the playoffs and give Fitzgerald a chance to show what he could do in January.
How did Fitzgerald respond? During that 2008 postseason run, which carried Arizona to Super Bowl XLIII, he was the single greatest player on the planet.
Jerry Rice, Randy Moss and insert receiver here had to marvel at what Fitzgerald did to defenses that January and February. He jumped over defenders, raced past them, dove past them and out-muscled them. It wasn't fair. When Kurt Warner was looking Fitzgerald's way, he was catching the ball. You just had to hope he wasn't landing in the end zone.
Which highlight was your favorite? The flea flicker touchdown in the first round against Atlanta, in which he beat double coverage for the ball? His eight-catch, 166-yard performance against Carolina in the divisional round? His nine catches, 152 yards and three touchdowns against Philadelphia in the NFC championship?
Or maybe you preferred his seven catches for 127 yards in the Super Bowl, which rallied Arizona back and set the stage for as thrilling a Super Bowl as we've seen? Maybe your favorite play was the go-ahead, 64-yard touchdown that would have been the winner, if not for Ben Roethlisberger's and Santonio Holmes' heroics.
In six playoff games, Fitzgerald has 42 catches for 705 yards and nine touchdowns. Translated to a full 16-game season, that's 112 catches for 1,880 yards and 24 touchdowns. The final two stats would be single-season records.
Fitzgerald is arguably the best receiver in the game today. It's a different story in the clutch. In pressure situations, he's as good a player as we've ever seen.
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Kickers have to be clutch. It's a requirement. It's the only position in football you can't play if you're not good under pressure. Every kicker will be called upon to kick a game-winning field goal at some point. And if he can't do it, he's quickly out of a job.
That being said, the fact that Adam Vinatieri will be headed to the Hall of Fame when he finally hangs up those magic cleats says something about how cold-blooded he's been when the pressure's been at its most stifling.
He has two Super Bowl-winning field goals. He kicked a 46-yard field goal to break a 14-14 tie against Tennessee in the 2003 divisional round in four-degree weather. He went 5-for-5 with Indianapolis in a 15-6 victory over Baltimore in the divisional round in 2006.
And, of course, his 45-yard field goal in a snowstorm with New England against Oakland in 2001 is one of the greatest plays, forget field goals, of all time.
He may just be a kicker, but there's plenty of reason to argue that Vinatieri is the most clutch player in the game. Almost every time he had his number called in the playoffs, it was for a big kick. And every time the game was on the line, he converted.
The sight of Vinatieri lining up for a game-winning field goal has been the equivalent of money in the bank. Colts and Patriots fans can certainly agree to that.