Let's admit it.
The playoffs are how we judge quarterbacks. Sometimes it's the only thing used to judge quarterbacks. Why else are guys like Troy Aikman and Bart Starr considered to be among the finer passers in the game's history?
It's simple. They win playoff games—especially championships.
It's one thing to dominate in the regular season. It's quite another thing to dominate in the postseason. Everything changes in the playoffs. It's win or go home. The defenses step up. Teams are a little more aggressive, a little more determined, a little more...desperate.
So many of the great quarterbacks throughout history haven't won a Super Bowl.
Dan Marino is one of the best pure passers in NFL history. Instead of judging him on his 61361 passing yards or 420 touchdown passes, history will judge him by his zero. Zero Super Bowl wins.
Donovan McNabb is the least intercepted quarterback in NFL history. He even has a winning playoff record. The only thing missing? A ring.
Football can be cruel too. Sometimes just winning a Super Bowl doesn't get a quarterback off the hook.
Look at Peyton Manning, who has won three regular season MVPs and a Super Bowl MVP. Many fans still focus on his career playoff record, which, at 7-8, is a far cry from his regular season credentials.
I have always said that it's not about the Super Bowl titles. It's not even about the playoff record. It's about how well you play in the postseason.
Sorry Steelers fans, but when your quarterback posts a 22.6 passer rating, he deserves no credit for winning a Super Bowl.
And yes, Cardinals fans (if there are any), if your quarterback throws for 377 yards and three touchdowns, he deserves a tremendous amount of credit, even if his team falls short in the Super Bowl.
Cold Hard Football Facts did an extensive study on the correlation between the number of interceptions a quarterback throws in a playoff game and the final result of the game. Their results were fascinating.
A quarterback who throws zero interceptions will play for the winning team in 78.3 percent of postseason games. A quarterback who throws one interceptions plays for the winning team 55.6 percent of the time. Two interceptions? Just 31.4 percent. Three interceptions? A paltry 18.3 percent. And four or more interceptions? Forget about it--only one out of 41 times.
Below is a list of the best of the best.
These are the guys who had what it takes to step up their game in the postseason. They won Super Bowls and NFL championships. They led game-winning drives.
They shredded defenses with their pinpoint accuracy. Each of the quarterbacks on this list has won a Super Bowl (or championship). Most won two or more. And a few have the potential to improve their ranking with continued success in the postseason.
10) John Elway, Denver Broncos.
Career postseason record: 14-8
Career postseason statistics: 355-651, 4964 yards, 27 TD, 21 INT; 79.7 passer rating
John Elway is the only quarterback in NFL history to lead his team to five Super Bowls. After beatdowns in each of his first three Super Bowls, Elway led the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl titles in his final two seasons.
Elway's career highlight came in the 1986 AFC championship game against the Browns. The Broncos trailed the Browns 20-13, with 5:32 remaining, and the ball on their own two-yard line.
Elway then led what is now known as "The Drive," completing six of nine passes for 88 yards, and rushing twice for 20 yards (a 10-yard penalty and an eight-yard sack pushed the Broncos back).
With third down from the Cleveland five-yard line and just 39 seconds remaining in the game, Elway tossed a five-yard touchdown pass to Mark Jackson to tie the game. The Broncos won in overtime 23-20.
Elway has less than satisfactory statistics in his Super Bowl performances. He did throw for 304 yards and a touchdown against the Giants in 1986. And he threw for 336 yards and a touchdown in his final NFL game against the Falcons in 1998.
His total Super Bowl statistics look like this:
76-152, 1128 yards, 3 TD, 8 INT
Elway was at his best in conference championship games, where he led the Broncos to wins in five of six games. He victimized the Cleveland Browns not once, not twice, but three times in a four-year span.
However, Elway only had one phenomenal postseason game, when he completed 20 of 36 passes for 385 yards and three touchdowns against the Browns in the 1989 AFC championship game.
He posted a triple-digit passer rating five times, but he also turned in some pretty poor games. He posted a passer rating under 65 in eight games, including three Super Bowls.
For the most part, Elway was a great postseason quarterback, as he tossed a combined 24 touchdowns against 13 interceptions in the wild-card, divisional, and conference championship games. However, his statistics are hurt by his inconsistency in the game's biggest stage.
9) Otto Graham, Cleveland Browns.
Career postseason record: 9-3
Career postseason statistics: 159-300, 2101 yards, 14 TD, 17 INT; 67.4 passer rating
Otto Graham is the only quarterback to play in the postseason in every season of his career. Not only did he play in every postseason, but he appeared in a record ten championship games, four straight in the AAFC and the final six in the NFL.
Graham led the Browns to victories in the AAFC championship from 1946-1949. While he never turned in a spectacular passing performance, he led the Browns to 49 points in the 1948 AAFC championship. He threw just two interceptions in 89 passes, for a dazzling interception rate of 2.24 percent.
In 1950, the Browns moved to the NFL, where Graham received much pressure to continue his dominance from the AAFC in the much superior NFL. He led the Browns to a 10-2 record, with both losses coming against the Giants.
In the playoffs, he got revenge, leading the Browns to a victory over the Giants in the divisional round. He led a come-from-behind game-winning drive against the Rams in the NFL championship, giving the Browns a 30-28 victory. In the game, Graham tossed four touchdowns and rushed for 99 yards.
The Browns lost their next three NFL championship games, the first against the Rams, and the last two against the Detroit Lions. Graham played poorly in all three games, tossing only one touchdown against six interceptions. He posted a 0.0 passer rating in the final game.
Graham got revenge on the Lions in 1955, throwing for three touchdowns and rushing for three more in a 56-10 blowout victory. He retired after the 1955 season but returned to lead the Browns to a seventh championship. He avenged his 1951 loss to the Rams, throwing for two touchdowns in a 38-14 victory.
In all, Graham's postseason statistics weren't spectacular:
14 touchdowns, 17 interceptions, 67.4 passer rating
However, he helped the Browns average 25 points per playoff game, while winning a record seven championships. His most notable contribution will always be his game-winning drive against the Rams in the 1950 NFL championship, as he proved that his Browns could compete not only in the AAFC, but in the National Football League.
8) Troy Aikman, Dallas Cowboys.
Career postseason record: 11-5
Career postseason statistics: 320-502, 3849 yards, 23 TD, 17 INT; 88.3 passer rating
Aikman is another quarterback who probably wouldn't be in the Hall of Fame if it weren't for the postseason. It was in January when Aikman truly shined.
He led the Cowboys to three Super Bowl victories in a four-year span in the 1990's, including a 52-17 stomping of the Buffalo Bills in 1992. He threw for 273 yards and four touchdown passes in this game, earning MVP honors. He posted a triple-digit passer rating in nine of his 16 postseason games, all victories.
Aikman lost his first and his final three postseason games. In between, he led the Cowboys to victories in 10 of 11 games.
Aikman's Cowboys have been so dominant in the postseason that all 11 victories have come by 10 or more points. Their five losses have all come by nine or more points, meaning Aikman has never really been involved in an exciting win or heartbreaking loss. He's just been consistent in almost every game.
The only knock against Aikman?
The bottom line, however, is that in the three biggest games of his life, Aikman led the Cowboys to victory all three times, with the average win coming by 21 points.
7) Kurt Warner, St. Louis Rams & Arizona Cardinals.
Career postseason record: 8-3
Career postseason statistics: 261-403, 3368 yards, 26 TD, 13 INT; 98.9 passer rating
Besides being one of the best, Kurt Warner is also one of the most exciting postseason quarterbacks in NFL history.
Warner led the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl title in 1999.
In the three playoff games, Warner threw eight touchdown passes, including five against the Vikings in the divisional round. He threw a game-winning touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of the NFC championship game against the Bucs, and he threw two touchdowns in the Super Bowl against the Titans.
Warner's final pass in the Super Bowl was a 73-yard game-winning touchdown to Isaac Bruce with just under two minutes remaining.
Warner took the Rams back to the Super Bowl in 2001. He led the "Greatest Show on Turf" back from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter, tossing a game-tying 26-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl with under two minutes remaining.
In 2008, Warner took the Cardinals on one of the most impressive Cinderella runs in recent memory.
They won two straight road playoff games, with Warner throwing two touchdown passes in each, before becoming the first 9-7 team to host a conference championship game. Warner threw four touchdowns, while leading the Cardinals to their first Super Bowl in team history.
In the Super Bowl, Warner threw for 377 yards and three touchdowns. His 64-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald gave the Cardinals a 23-20 lead with under three minutes remaining.
Warner holds the three highest single game passing totals in Super Bowl history: 414 in 1999 against the Titans, 377 in 2008 against the Steelers, and 365 in 2001 against the Patriots. His career passer rating in the Super Bowl is 95.9.
He completed 14 of 19 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter against the Steelers. In fact, he has thrown a touchdown pass in all three fourth quarters he has played in, and his career fourth quarter statistics in the Super Bowl are as follows:
26-40, 457 yards, 4 touchdowns
Were it not for a few costly turnovers--a 47 yard interception touchdown by Ty Law in the 2001 Super Bowl; a 100 yard interception touchdown by James Harrison in 2008; and a lost fumble with five seconds remaining in the same Super Bowl—Warner would likely have three Super Bowl rings and would probably rank as the third or fourth greatest postseason quarterback in NFL history.
6) Roger Staubach, Dallas Cowboys.
Career postseason record: 12-6
Career postseason statistics: 223-410, 2791 yards, 24 TD, 19 INT; 76.0 passer rating
Staubach was nicknamed "Captain America" for a reason. He helped the Cowboys become "America's Team" during the 1970's.
Staubach played in four Super Bowls during the decade. He led the Cowboys to blowout victories in two of them, winning the MVP trophy in 1971 against the Dolphins. He posted a 102.6 passer rating in a 27-10 victory over the Broncos in 1977.
He threw three touchdown passes and posted another triple digit passer rating in a loss to the Steelers in 1978. His worst Super Bowl performance still resulted in two touchdown passes and a 77.8 passer rating against the Steel Curtain in 1975.
Staubach authored one of the most famous plays in NFL history in the divisional playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings in 1975. With the Cowboys trailing 14-10 and under a minute remaining, Staubach hooked up with receiver Drew Pearson for a 50-yard touchdown pass, the first known "Hail Mary" pass.
Staubach completed his first six postseason games without throwing an interception. His battles with the Rams became legendary, as the Cowboys walked away victorious in three of the five battles from 1973-1979, including both times in the conference championship game.
In 1975, Staubach helped the Cowboys put up 37 points against a defense that allowed just 135 in the regular season.
Staubach's legs added excitement, as "Roger Dodger" scrambled for 432 yards on just 76 rushes, for an average of 5.7 yards per run. Staubach topped 20 rushing yards in 11 postseason games, with a high of 59 against the Redskins in 1972.
Staubach faced some pretty incredible defenses in the 1970s. He faced the Purple People Eaters three times. He faced the Steel Curtain dynasty twice. He even squared off against the No Name Defense. Even the Los Angeles Rams regularly ranked among the NFL's best defenses.
Had Staubach managed to defeat the Steel Curtain in one or both of the Super Bowls, he would probably be one of the three greatest postseason quarterbacks in NFL history.
5) Sid Luckman, Chicago Bears.
Career postseason record: 5-1
Career postseason statistics: 45-85, 721 yards, 7 TD, 4 INT; 89.4 passer rating
Luckman is probably the most underrated quarterback in the history of the NFL. Besides turning in the greatest regular season by a quarterback in NFL history, he is one of the more effective quarterbacks in postseason history.
Luckman's first playoff game came in the 1940 NFL championship against Sammy Baugh and the arch-rival Washington Redskins.
The Redskins had defeated the Bears 7-3 in the regular season, after which Redskins' owner George Allen called the Bears "crybabies" and announced that they quit when the going got tough. Bears' coach George Halas used Allen's remarks to fire up his players, posting Allen's comments on a bulletin board in the locker room.
It worked. The Bears throttled the Redskins 73-0. That's right. 73-0.
It remains, to this day, the single most dominating performance by any team in any championship, in any sport, throughout history.
Luckman passed just four times, completion three for 88 yards and a touchdown. That's all he needed to do, as the Bears rushed 57 times for 382 yards and seven touchdowns.
The Bears won the NFL championship the next year, thrashing the New York Giants 37-9. Luckman completed 9 of 12 passes for 160 yards, for a 116.7 passer rating.
The Redskins dominated Luckman and the Bears in the 1942 NFL championship game. The Bears posted an 11-0 record in the regular season, scoring 376 points, while allowing just 84.
They remain, to this day, probably the greatest team in NFL history to not win a championship. Luckman's championship game performance is one of the worst in history, as he completed 5 of 12 passes for two yards, zero touchdowns, and two interceptions.
Luckman led the Bears back into the winner's circle the following season, defeating Baugh and the Redskins 41-21, for his third NFL championship. He threw for 286 yards and a championship-game record five touchdowns, while also rushing for 64 yards.
Luckman played in a final NFL championship in 1946, leading the Bears to a 24-14 victory against the Giants. He threw for 144 yards and a touchdown, but his two interceptions brought his passer rating down to an anemic 40.7.
Overall, Luckman won four of five NFL championships. He participated in the greatest thrashing in championship history. He topped a 115 passer rating three times, and his career passer rating of 89.4 is unbelievable, considering his era.
4) Tom Brady, New England Patriots.
Career postseason record: 14-3
Career postseason statistics: 372-595, 3954 yards, 26 TD, 12 INT; 88.0 passer rating
Brady could retire one day as the greatest postseason quarterback in history. It's unlikely, but it's possible.
As of now, he has three Super Bowl trophies under his belt, as well as a fourth appearance. He won the MVP trophy in his first two Super Bowls and should have won it against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Brady became an instant hero in the playoffs. In his first postseason game, he rallied the Patriots from a 13-3 fourth quarter deficit.
The Patriots defeated the Oakland Raiders in overtime, 16-13. He led a classic two-minute game-winning drive against the St. Louis Rams in 2001, before Adam Vinatieri's walk-off 48 yard field goal gave the Patriots one of the greatest upset wins in NFL history.
He led the same drive against the Carolina Panthers in 2003, before Adam Vinatieri's 41-yard field goal with four seconds remaining gave the Patriots a second title. He led a classic drive against the New York Giants in 2007, giving the Patriots a 14-10 lead with a touchdown pass to Randy Moss with under three minutes remaining.
Brady has thrown one or fewer interceptions in 14 of his 17 postseason games. 10 times he didn't throw an interception, including three of his four Super Bowls. He may not post the most dominating statistics, but he knows how to win football games, and that's by not turning the ball over.
He also has avoided 'dud' playoff games. His worst playoff game ever? 27 for 51 for 280 yards, two touchdowns, and three interceptions. Sure, it's not a good game by any standards. But find me a quarterback who has played 17 playoff games who can call that his worst playoff game.
For Brady to be considered the greatest playoff quarterback in NFL history, he will probably need to win a fourth and a fifth Super Bowl title. MVP trophies in both games would help.
3) Terry Bradshaw, Pittsburgh Steelers.
Career postseason record: 14-5
Career postseason statistics: 261-456, 3833 yards, 30 TD, 26 INT; 83.0 passer rating
Terry Bradshaw is just one of two quarterbacks to win four Super Bowls. In each of the Steelers' Super Bowl victories, he posted a passer rating above 100. He led a fourth quarter comeback in the second and fourth games, and threw a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of each game.
As a matter of fact, Bradshaw's fourth quarter passing statistics in the Super Bowl look like this:
11-16, 292 yards, 4 TD
That is not a typo. Bradshaw averaged 18 yards per pass attempt. He threw five incompletions against four touchdown passes. His final pass in his first three Super Bowls was a touchdown pass, and in his fourth Super Bowl, it was a 45-yard completion that set up a final touchdown.
His passer rating is a jaw-dropping 151.0, and he was awarded the MVP trophy in his final two Super Bowls.
Bradshaw doesn't just shine in the Super Bowl either.
There was the "Immaculate Reception," a fourth-down, game-winning, 60-yard touchdown pass to Franco Harris on the final play of the game. Then there were the 1976 AFC divisional playoffs, where Bradshaw posted a perfect passer rating against the Baltimore Colts.
Bradshaw threw for two or more touchdown passes in his final seven postseason games, all of which the Steelers scored 27+ points. He averaged an incredible 8.4 yards per pass attempt throughout his playoff career.
Bradshaw may have been only slightly above average in the regular season, but in the postseason, his success was topped by only two men.
2) Bart Starr, Green Bay Packers.
Career postseason record: 8-1
Career postseason statistics: 130-213, 1753 yards, 15 TD, 3 INT; 104.8 passer rating
Simply put, Bart Starr is the winningest quarterback in NFL playoff history, in terms of both postseason winning percentage and championships won.
Starr has led the Green Bay Packers to five NFL championships, in 1961, 1962, 1965, 1966, and 1967. The final two championships came in the first ever Super Bowls. Starr earned the MVP trophy in both games.
Starr participated in just a single postseason loss, by virtue of the mighty 1960 Philadelphia Eagles. Still, this game wasn't decided until the game's final play, when Chuck Bednarik tackled Hall of Fame running back Jim Taylor on the eight-yard line.
Starr holds the record for highest career postseason passer rating: 104.3. He topped 100 in five of his nine games. His career Super Bowl passer rating is 106.0.
Even more incredibly, he threw just three interceptions in his nine playoff games! His 1.41 interception percentage would be the 15th best regular season total in NFL history. When factoring in the quality of the defenses that Starr faced, his achievement is one of the most impressive in NFL history. It is a record that will likely never be broken.
Tom Brady came close. After his first ten playoff games, all victories, he had thrown three interceptions in 331 passes. His 0.90 mark was significantly better than Starr's career mark. Then he threw nine interceptions in his next 264 passes, still an impressive rate. But 12 interceptions in 595 pass attempts? Not even close to Starr.
Bottom line: You're not going to lose football games if you don't turn the ball over.
Starr even found a way to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in one of the most unlikely scenarios. In the 1966 NFL championship game, now known as the "Ice Bowl," the Packers trailed Dallas 17-14, with 16 seconds remaining. The Packers faced a third-and-goal from the one-yard line with no timeouts remaining.
Any sensible quarterback would have called for the field goal team. Instead Starr audibled. He carried the ball himself for the game-winning touchdown. Even more impressive? The game time temperature was 18 degrees--below zero.
Starr wasn't just a game manager either. His 15 touchdown passes in just 213 pass attempts give him one of the best touchdown percentages in playoff history.
In the playoffs, Starr helped to victimize two tough New York Giants teams. He took down a Jim Brown-led Browns team. He defeated a Johnny Unitas-led Colts team. He ousted a stingy one-loss Rams team.
He throttled an Oakland Raiders team that many call the greatest team in AFL history. And he took down the tough Dallas Cowboys in consecutive conference championship games.
Starr's intangibles as a leader, as well as his knack for not turning the ball over, are what makes him the second most successful quarterback in postseason history.
1) Joe Montana, San Francisco 49ers & Kansas City Chiefs.
Career postseason record: 16-7
Career postseason statistics: 460-734, 5772 yards, 45 TD, 21 INT; 95.6 passer rating
There's no way around it.
Joe Montana is the greatest postseason quarterback in the history of the National Football League.
Montana holds a 4-0 record in the Super Bowl. All four times he posted a triple-digit passer rating. His 11 touchdowns are a Super Bowl record and his zero interceptions in 122 pass attempts are a testament to his greatness.
He helped the 49ers jump out to a 20-0 lead against the Bengals in 1981. They scored 38 points against the Dolphins in 1984. He led one of the greatest fourth quarter game-winning drives in NFL history in a rematch with the Bengals in 1988, culminating in a 10-yard touchdown pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds remaining.
And he threw five touchdown passes against the Broncos, while helping the 49ers score 55 points.
Montana has thrown one or fewer interceptions in 18 of his 23 postseason games. He posted a passer rating above 100 in 12 of his 23 playoff games, including eight in a row. He averages 250 yards and two touchdown passes per game.
Even when Montana struggles, he often finds a way to get the job done. He threw three interceptions against the Cowboys in the 1981 NFC championship game, before firing a game-winning third-down touchdown pass to Dwight Clark with under a minute remaining.
He threw three interceptions against the Giants in the 1984 divisional round, yet still threw for 309 yards and three touchdowns, while rushing for 63 yards, including a 53-yard scamper, in a 21-10 victory.
"Joe Cool" could win games any way. He won close games: 28-27, 20-16, 27-24. He won blowouts: 55-10. 41-13. 38-16. Simply put, Montana was legendary in the regular season.
In the postseason? He was simply magical.