This was the most pass-heavy season in NFL history, and four players widely considered to be the league’s top MVP candidates — Cam Newton, Carson Palmer, Russell Wilson and Tom Brady — are men in charge of throwing passes for some of the biggest Super Bowl favorites.
It’s no coincidence that on wild-card weekend we saw four quarterbacks with extensive playoff experience beat four quarterbacks who had never won in the playoffs. Under center this weekend, we’ll see four former No. 1 overall picks, four Super Bowl champions, four MVPs (assuming Newton, Palmer or Wilson wins this season) and every single quarterback who has won an MVP in the last decade.
The quarterbacks who will take the field Saturday and Sunday have participated in a combined 14 Super Bowls. So yeah, the pivots matter. Here’s how we rank them within the elite eight.
T-1. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks:
Wilson didn’t have his best game Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, but can you blame him? It was a road game against a great defense in minus-474-degree weather. All that really matters is this: During the final seven weeks of the season, Wilson had 24 touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 132.8. All obviously led the league. He’s been here, done this and he’s a master improviser as well.
T-1. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers:
Newton’s numbers were within Wilson’s range during the second half of the season, and he’s the most dangerous quarterback in the league inside the red zone because he’s so damn tough to bring down. Newton scored 10 rushing touchdowns (to Wilson’s one) and led all quarterbacks with 636 rushing yards. I trust Wilson a tad more, but Newton’s got a higher ceiling.
3. Tom Brady, New England Patriots:
I know it’s a cliché, but Brady is Brady. The man has been to six freakin’ Super Bowls for a reason. New England’s offense has been carpet-bombed by injuries, and yet Brady still led the NFL in touchdowns while maintaining the lowest qualified interception rate in the game. With most of his weapons back this weekend, he should do plenty of damage.
T-4. Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals:
Dating back to October of 2013, Arizona is 26-5 with Palmer under center. The reality is he’s been a stud for quite awhile, but this has been the best year of his career. With a deep receiving corps and plenty of help on defense, Palmer averaged 8.7 yards per attempt in the regular season while no other qualified quarterbacks averaged more than 8.4. And his 65 20-yard completions ranked ahead of everyone else on this list.
T-4. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers:
That’s right, another tie. And yes, I’m trying to make a point. Rodgers doesn’t have Palmer-type numbers (Josh McCown had a higher passer rating, Blaine Gabbert had a higher completion percentage and Sam Bradford had a higher yards-per-attempt average), but Rodgers is still the highest-rated passer in NFL history and it certainly feels as though a sleeping giant has awoken. After starting Sunday’s game 1-for-8, Rodgers finished the affair 20-for-28 for 199 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Let’s also not forget that the former Super Bowl MVP still had 31 touchdowns and only eight picks despite a severe lack of support this year. If he has found a new groove, the Cardinals could be in big trouble.
6. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers:
Big Ben had a league-high 17 completions of 40 yards or more despite the fact he missed a quarter of the regular season, proving that when he’s healthy he’s as dangerous as any signal-caller in football. The problem is that right now he’s not healthy, and neither is his All-Pro wide receiver, Antonio Brown.
7. Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos:
The league’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdown was the league’s lowest-rated qualified passer in 2015. Actually, that’s a lie — he was tied for last with Ryan Mallett, but that probably doesn’t make Broncos fans feel much better. I’d like to say Manning is Manning, but his playoff résumé (11 wins and 24 interceptions in 24 games, and a passer rating of 88.4) just isn’t up to snuff. The five-time MVP is still the smartest quarterback I’ve ever seen play, so he avoids a last-place ranking among players at an inherently cerebral position, but he’s more of a game manager these days.
8. Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs:
Meanwhile, Smith is the ultimate game manager. Problem is, game managers don’t really win Super Bowls these days. Sure, Smith threw only seven interceptions this season, but that’s not exceptionally hard to do when the riskiest pass in your playbook contains the word “flip.” This man’s idea of a successful third down is living to see fourth down. It’s like he seriously doesn’t know he’s allowed to throw past the sticks. Smith isn’t bad, he’s just insignificant. On a weekend like this, that’s a problem.