As if any further proof was needed that the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, look at the eight quarterbacks left in the playoffs.
There are the legends, or close to legends, in Denver's Peyton Manning, New England's Tom Brady and New Orleans' Drew Brees. There's the underrated veteran in San Diego's Philip Rivers. And, of course, there are the young guns in Carolina's Cam Newton, San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, Indianapolis' Andrew Luck and Seattle's Russell Wilson.
What's fascinating is how each one of those quarterbacks seems like the perfect fit for his team. I can't imagine the Seahawks' Wilson playing for the Patriots or the Patriots' Brady playing for the Panthers or the Broncos' Manning playing for the Colts. Wait. I might be able to imagine that last one. Yet it's hard to picture any team not feeling good about the quarterback it has at the helm.
So let's take this one step farther, and make it one step harder. How would you rank those eight, from first to the eighth? (I won't say first to last, because even the eighth-best is ahead, for now, of 24 others in the offseason. Sorry, Aaron Rodgers, those are the breaks for this exercise.)
My first thought was to use a quick, surface statistical comparison using experience (playoff games played) and 2013 rankings (traditional passer rating and the newer QBR).
I didn't include playoff won-lost records because, after all, where would Brady or Manning stand in that category without Adam Vinatieri and hundreds of others?
Using just those three narrow factors, giving one point for ranking highest in each category and eight points for lowest, here's how the rankings shook out: 1. Manning (5), 2. Brees (13), 3. Brady (16), Rivers (16), 5. Kaepernick (19), 6. Luck (22), 7. Wilson (24), 8. Newton (25).
Obviously, the older guys reap the natural benefit of having been around longer and playing in more playoff games, although Brees finished ahead of Brady despite appearing in 14 fewer playoff games. The other categories don't take into account the defenses these quarterbacks have faced or the playing conditions, among other variables.
That quick ranking didn't include any opinion, which is where we're going next. Here's how I would rank the remaining eight quarterbacks and why:
1. Manning. No one has had a statistical year like he had this season. Some of that can be attributed to the evolution of the rules that leads to looser coverage of receivers, but the fact is no one else put up these numbers (5,477 yards, 55 touchdowns). Manning makes everything look ridiculously easy most of the time. He has the weapons around him to be effective, and he knows how to make the most use of those. All of the eight remaining playoff quarterbacks do their fair share of studying. They can match, but they won't pass, Manning in the cerebral side.
2. Brady. This has been one of his lesser statistical seasons. Given the loss of his favorite receivers Wes Welker (to the Broncos) and Rob Gronkowski (to repeated injuries), the Patriots offense should be called Brady & the Backups. It's an interesting dynamic as Brady grows older and has less to work with in terms of personnel around him. The fact he's seen so many things, both in the regular season and the postseason, sets him apart. It wouldn't be a crime to rank Manning and Brady 1 and 1A.
3. Brees. Another 5,000-plus passing season with 39 touchdowns and Brees led the Saints back to the playoffs after a horrific 2012 season. He also went to Philadelphia and helped disprove the idea the Saints can't win in bad weather and/or outside of a dome. Brees is slightly more of a gambler than Manning or Brady, but the energy he brings to his team is palpable. He might be the most vocal “rah-rah” leader of all the remaining quarterbacks. It's a personality trait that teammates appreciate.
4. Luck. This seems like a bit of a homer ranking, given I've covered Luck throughout his short career and I've seen his progress and his continued ability to come through late in the clutch. You could put Luck, Kaepernick, Wilson and Newton into a hat, draw one name out and start a franchise from there. I'm giving Luck the edge because of his ability to clearly make those around him better. Like Brady, he lost two of his biggest weapons in the passing game as Colts receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dwayne Allen both had season-ending injuries. Like Brady, he found ways to help his team win. Last Saturday's comeback earns him bonus points.
5. Kaepernick. He came up with the plays at Green Bay last weekend, he's been to the Super Bowl already and he has a knack for big moments. While he's been in the league a year longer than Luck and Wilson, this is essentially Kaepernick's second season, too. He can hurt teams with his arm, his legs and the way he controls the offensive tempo. Kaepernick is a good fit for the frenetic coaching of Jim Harbaugh, who has taught him all he knows about being the next Captain Comeback.
6. Wilson. Again, Wilson could easily be ranked higher on this list and has the best team around him of any of the young guns. He can hurt teams with his arm and legs, but is first-and-foremost a pure passer. He's able to make throws that lead to gasps as well as touchdowns. It takes a special quality to be a quarterback for the (overly) excitable Pete Carroll, and Wilson has that rare quality. I don't know how you separate Wilson, Luck, Kaepernick and Newton with any real definitiveness.
7. Newton. There's an adage that you shouldn't judge quarterbacks until their third season as a starter because of the growth necessary to be consistent in the pro game. Newton's second year in 2012 wasn't nearly as strong as his first, but he has bounced back and improved his game in this third season. Few people question that he can be the long-term star for the Carolina Panthers. Newton's size, speed and power make him formidable. The fact he still has room to mature as a quarterback means his best days are likely still to come.
8. Rivers. Am I shortchanging Rivers? Maybe. Should his experience and age rank him ahead of the young guns and up with Manning, Brady and Brees? I don't think so. Rivers is like the Bears' Jay Cutler. Both have strong arms. Both have moments where it's hard to believe they made such a flawless, spectacular throw. Both will take the occasional chance that leaves coaches and fans shaking their heads. Rivers put up some nice numbers this year and helped the Chargers win in Cincinnati. Maybe this is his year.
These rankings could be scrambled and still make sense. If I were to rank the quarterbacks on their ability to come through in the clutch, Luck and Kaepernick would be rising fast and Manning and Brady would need to prove they've still got it.
Maybe It's a circle of life thing. Should we call it the huddle of life?