The Elite 8: A Playoff Quarterback Breakdown

Leading up to the Divisional Round of the 2015 NFL Playoffs, I teamed up with The Players’ Tribune to break down the eight starting quarterbacks who will be battling it out on the gridiron this weekend.

As a 17-year NFL veteran QB with seven years of playoff experience under my belt, I can’t help but watch the playoffs as both a commentator and a fan. These eight quarterbacks are among the best of their era—maybe any era. Some of them I know personally and others I’ve admired and studied from a distance. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that this weekend features some of the best quarterbacking talent in a long time.

Here’s my breakdown:

Peyton Manning

I call Peyton “The Professor” of quarterbacks because of how he approaches the game. Peyton’s a guy that loves to prepare. And he prepares meticulously. He doesn’t have the arm strength that he had five years ago, but he makes up for it with anticipation. He knows what the defense is going to do before he snaps the football, and he’s got the weapons around him to take advantage.

Some have written Peyton off as being too old, and I think that’s something that’s driving him. The week off probably helped him as much as anyone as far as refreshing his body and arm. Hopefully his arm is nice and rested so that he can make the throws that he needs to make, because one of the biggest knocks on him is that he doesn’t throw the ball as effectively in bad weather.

It’s also unfortunate that Peyton gets criticized for not winning more Super Bowls. Football is a team game. Peyton has never had to make a tackle or stop anybody on 3rd-and-1. He can only do his part as a quarterback to help his team win—and sometimes he’s able to get that done. Don’t forget that he also has a tremendous amount of playoff experience—he’s 1-2 in the Super Bowl, but he’s won 11 playoff games.

The key is, he always has his team in a position to win, and that’s all you can really ask for. You’ve got to play a really solid football game as a team to keep advancing.

The Broncos are going to be a tough out because of the weapons Peyton has around him. They’re also better on the defensive side of the ball this year, and that’s going to help them. This improved defensive team will be facing a Colts offense that is one of the best in the league—averaging 28.6 points per game—but it’s still quite one-dimensional. The Colts rank first in passing yards per game with 305.9 but 22nd in rushing with just 100.8 yards per game—the lowest among the remaining playoff teams.

Andrew Luck

Not since John Elway has a quarterback come out of college as ready for the NFL as Andrew Luck. At Stanford, he ran an offense that gave him lots of responsibility at the line of scrimmage. This experience was pivotal in preparing him for the NFL. He’s got it all. He’s big and strong and can stand in the pocket. He’s physically and mentally tough. Also, he can run the football better than most people think.

I played with his dad, Oliver, who was my backup quarterback in Houston in the ‘80s. When I first met Andrew, he was probably seven or eight years old, and I’ve followed his career from high school all the way through Stanford. I even helped train him a little before the NFL Draft. I know the type of skill set he has firsthand. Even with great expectations, he hasn’t disappointed since he’s been in the league.

Andrew’s Colts have won 11 games each of the three years he’s been in the league. But one of the things that’s going to hurt them in the playoffs is their lack of balance. They don’t run the ball very well. A lot is put on Andrew’s plate. He is called on to throw the football more than a lot of other quarterbacks. Only Matt Ryan and Drew Brees attempted more passes this season.

It’s difficult when you become one-dimensional, especially against a team like Denver, which has great pass rushers on the outside with guys like Demarcus Ware. It’s going to be tough on Andrew if the Colts get behind because they won’t be able to run the football, and that’s when the turnovers happen. Denver is tied for seventh in the league in interceptions this year with 18. Andrew’s interceptions have gone from nine last season to 16 this year.

He’s still a young quarterback with a lot of football left to play, but I think he’ll do well this weekend if the Colts can keep the game close.

Tom Brady

Tom has tremendous playoff and Super Bowl experience. His three Super Bowl wins in five appearances speak volumes. But it’s been a few years since he’s been to the big game, so I know he’s thirsting to get back. It feels like he has a good enough team around him on both sides of the ball to get that done.

I’ve known Tom since he came into the league, and I tried to give him as much advice as I could when he was a young guy getting started. He had great success early when he took the reins as quarterback in New England, and he hasn’t looked back since.

The weather will be one of the key players in the Patriots-Ravens game. But don’t forget about Tom. He is very hard to beat in New England in cold weather when it’s playoff time. In fact, in his career, he’s 12-3 at home in the playoffs. Then again, of those three losses, two came at the hands of Joe Flacco and the Ravens.

But it’s the Ravens defense that’s the reason they seem to have the Pats’ number in recent years. Baltimore plays a physical style of football that New England can have trouble matching up with. The Ravens know that in order to beat Tom Brady, you have to be the more physical football team. You have to pressure him. You don’t have to necessarily sack him, but you have to be around him and you’ve got to harass him. You have to make him move more than he wants to. The Ravens have been able to do that against Brady, all while effectively stopping the run. Baltimore’s defense has only given up 16.9 points per game this season. In 2012—the year they won it all—their defense gave up 21.5 points per game.

Joe Flacco

Joe didn’t get much fanfare coming out of Delaware, but he was still a fairly high draft pick at 19th overall, and he came to a great football team with a defense at the time led by Ray Lewis and a strong running game, so he didn’t have to come in and set the world on fire right away. Instead he was just able to smartly manage the football game, and success followed. Over the last couple years, the Ravens have switched their offensive philosophy to focus more on the passing game, and that’s translated to a few big years for Joe. Now he’s on fire, and there’s nothing stopping him.

Where Joe really excels is in the playoffs. He is one of the most successful quarterbacks in playoff history, believe it or not, and his 10 playoff wins are the most of any quarterback since 2008. The playoffs are where he steps his game up—he’s cool, calm and collected in the pocket. He doesn’t always get the respect he deserves, but he starts to get it at this time of the year. You won’t hear his name throughout the regular season. You hear of Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and all those guys who throw for 300 or 400 yards every week, but when Joe’s name comes up, it’s at the most important time of the year.

And one last thing: Joe is a road guy. His seven playoff road wins are the most by any quarterback in NFL history. As I said above, Baltimore is 2-1 in playoff games against New England in Foxborough—and that one loss was decided by a last-second missed field goal. They know how to play the Patriots. They know they have a big-time quarterback who steps up in big moments. They’ve got balance too. Justin Forsett has revived the Ravens’ running game, which takes some of the pressure off Flacco.

Russell Wilson

I’ve been around Russell a lot since he came into the league three years ago. I talk to him regularly about everything, but mostly about football, and he’s just a sponge. He has progressed because he is hungry for information and he constantly wants to know how he can get better. Yes, he is a gifted kid as far as what he can do with his arm and legs, but people may not know how tremendous his work ethic is.

This has been a big year for Russell’s leadership. He was always a leader as far as leading by example on the field, but now he’s starting to assert himself vocally on and off the field. He’s starting to understand how to be a good teammate as well as a leader. He pats guys on the back as well as tells them what needs to be corrected. That’s something that takes confidence for a young QB.

Even if Russell’s numbers have been lower this year, what’s important is that his game continues to evolve. After all, Seattle doesn’t ask him to throw the football a ton. But he ran for almost 900 yards and six touchdowns this season. He can hurt you with his legs, he can hurt you with his arm, he can hurt you with his mind. When the football in his hands, he’s not going to make a lot of bad calls, and that means more touchdowns and fewer turnovers. In fact, he has 6 TDs and just one interception in his young playoff career.

Yes, the Panthers snuck into the playoffs with a 7-8-1 record, but they won the last four games of the season to get there before beating the Cardinals in the Wild Card round. Cam Newton has thrown seven touchdowns and just two interceptions during the Panthers’ 5-game win streak (he missed one game with injury).

Momentum can be a powerful thing, so Russell shouldn’t overlook this game.

Cam Newton

Cam had pretty sluggish middle part of the season, but he has really bounced back. First, he came into the season unhealthy after ankle surgery in the offseason. Then he broke some ribs in the preseason. Then he had the car accident later on in the year. So it’s been one of those years where his body has been physically tested. As a result, Cam hasn’t played to his full potential, but I think he’s feeling healthier right now, which is just the right time.

He is 3-0 since the car accident. That says a lot about his resilience. The fact that he has both running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart healthy also helps lighten his offensive load. With running back support now, you can see that their offense is playing a lot better.

It’s going to be a big game for Cam coming into the intimidating environment at CenturyLink Field. How can he handle the noise? How can he communicate in those conditions? If the defense makes some big plays against him, how is he going to handle the adversity? Those are going to be the big questions for Cam. When things go wrong, he doesn’t always handle it very well. So I want to see if he’s able to overcome that adversity.

That said, I think he’s matured. He’s handling things better as a leader. I notice the changes in the way he talks when he’s in front of a podium after football games—win or lose. You’re starting to see a guy who carries himself more like a quarterback. As a quarterback, you’ve got to always present that positive and confident front. You speak for your guys—for your team. You’ve got to be that positive voice and that positive identity for your whole football team. Everybody has to know that even after a rough week, there’s another week ahead.

For Carolina, that leadership has to start with Cam.

Tony Romo

I’ve always been a Tony Romo fan. A lot of people have been riding him over the years because of some mistakes he’s made at critical moments, but the reality is, he’s been one of the most productive quarterbacks in the league over the last several years. He’s the all-time leading passer for the Dallas Cowboys, putting him ahead of some legends.

He’s finally getting his due this year because they’ve put a running game around him. It’s no longer entirely on his shoulders to win football games, and that’s what made Dallas into a 12-win team. Mistakes happen when everyone knows you have to throw the ball. Balance on offense wins football games.

And he’s got that balance now with DeMarco Murray. He’s been safer with the football because he doesn’t have to be as daring now. He’s got good weapons on the outside, too. Dez Bryant is one of the best receivers in the league right now. Cole Beasley has emerged as a dependable receiver. Jason Witten is still there for him, as he’s always been. We also saw the kid Terrance Williams make two touchdown catches last weekend.

You can see that Tony is more relaxed right now than he’s ever been. I feel confident in the Cowboys going on the road to Green Bay because they’re 8-0 in away games this season—including a win at Seattle—so they’ve proven they can win in tough environments on the road. They don’t fear the road game, but weather is always a factor at Lambeau. They’re a dome team—one with a retractable roof but they’re still a dome team—and most dome teams have a tough time going out into inclement weather, so we’ll see how they deal with that, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

Offensively, they’ll do fine, because they are in the zone right now.

Aaron Rodgers

Aaron is just one of those guys who’s made for the quarterback position. He has some of the best arm talent in the league. He can make all the different types of throws from any angle he wants. He doesn’t have to set his feet—he can throw it off balance and maintain great accuracy and velocity. He’s just a complete quarterback and he has great command of the Packers system.

The big concern with Aaron is his calf injury. Is it going to be completely healed? Can he reinjure it in the game? It’s going to be cold—you never know when you’re going to re-strain a muscle in that kind of weather. If he stays healthy, he’s got a ton of weapons on the outside and he’s going to be a tough out because they have been playing lights-out football at Lambeau this year. They haven’t lost a game at home and they’ve been beating teams at home by almost 20 points a game.

If not for that calf injury, I’d expect the Packers to roll against a comparatively weak Dallas secondary.

But with Aaron Rodgers, you can never count out a big-time performance.