Quarterback play has become increasingly important in the NFL, and that's never clearer than during the playoffs. All 12 remaining teams are well-coached, all 12 teams have plenty of talent on the roster, and it's next to impossible to overcome mistakes. Having a quarterback who can play well is paramount to having postseason success, especially when it comes to winning on the road. With that in mind, I decided to rank the 12 starting quarterbacks in the playoffs.
These rankings were done according to a combination of factors, especially past playoff experience. That's why, as promising as they are, rookies like Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III are ranked below veteran peers like Matt Ryan and Matt Schaub; Aaron Rodgers, for example, has a significant playoff résumé, while Russell Wilson has none. And that's why a guy like Joe Flacco, who might not seem like a world-beater in the regular season, is ranked as highly as he is; he's a proven playoff winner.
1) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Rodgers' quarterback rating in the playoffs is 105.5, the highest all-time among players to attempt 150 postseason passes or more. He's good during the regular season and good during the playoffs; he's just always good. This season, he's been winning while throwing to James Jones, who is OK but is no Greg Jennings. Rodgers is just really accurate and fairly mobile; when he gets into trouble, he can run to get out of it, which is something that the next quarterback on this list, Peyton Manning, can't do as much of.
2) Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
Manning's terrific, and it's hard to bet against him, but he just hasn't been great in the playoffs, that one Super Bowl win notwithstanding. I don't know the reason for that; maybe part of it is that he feasts on lesser teams during the regular season. I still think he's an excellent quarterback, but if someone asked me whether I'd rather have Manning or Rodgers for one game, I'd go with Rodgers. Manning can pass, but he's not as mobile as Rodgers.
3) Tom Brady, New England Patriots
He's really smart and makes great decisions. He hadn't had much of a running game at his disposal before this season, but he's got a better one now. He'll also get plenty of help from tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Wes Welker.
4) Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens
I know people tend to be hard on Flacco, but he wins in the playoffs, having gone to the postseason every year he's been in the league. He really elevates his game, playing better than he does from Weeks 1 to 17. However, the Ravens have been on a slide recently, something that Flacco will have to turn around. If Baltimore is going anywhere this postseason, it's going to be with their quarterback.
5) Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Ryan's got 56 wins in five years, but he hasn't played well in the playoffs. Where guys like Flacco play better in the postseason, Ryan seems to have trouble. The quarterback should be the guy making the difference; Ryan should be coming to the fore when the stakes are high. Perhaps offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who's done a great job in his first year with the Falcons, will help Ryan find postseason success.
6) Matt Schaub, Houston Texans
Another guy going for his first playoff win (T.J. Yates was under center for the Texans during last season's wild-card victory over the Cincinnati Bengals), Schaub is a very smart player who makes good decisions. However, he struggled to close out the regular season; we'll have to see if he can turn it up a notch mentally in the playoffs, when it's absolutely crucial to do so.
7) Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
Statistics don't tell the story when it comes to quarterbacks; wins do. Luck illustrates that perfectly. His numbers aren't amazing, but he's winning with lesser players around him than anyone else in the postseason. He's just been able to make plays that result in wins. He's also got incredible mental toughness. I don't think he'll have any jitters as a rookie; this guy's got ice water in his veins.
8) Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins
RG3 is helped greatly by the presence of Pro Bowl tackle Trent Williams. The Redskins also have a great system and a great running back in Alfred Morris. However, that shouldn't diminish the excellent play of RG3, who is an outstanding dual-threat quarterback. He did miss some time toward the end of the season with a knee injury, so there is some concern regarding his health. Against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 17, it looked like the knee slowed him down in the first half but not at all in the second.
9) Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
He's gotten a lot better on the road since the beginning of the season. At one point, he'd given up seven interceptions on the road; since Week 8, however, he hasn't been picked off on the road once. It's worth noting that Wilson, who spent five years in college, is 24 years old, which is on the older side for a rookie; that gives him a little bit more maturity and experience than Luck or Griffin.
10) Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
He's not flashy, but he gets the job done, leading the Bengals to seven wins in their final eight games of the regular season. Having receiver A.J. Green helps. This might even be a bit too low for him; we'll see how he does Saturday.
11) Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers
Kaepernick makes things happen -- both good and bad. This is a very good 49ers team, and if he can make some plays and help them win games, then I think San Francisco has a chance to make the Super Bowl. However, I don't like how inconsistent he is, accuracy-wise; I think he'll throw some bad passes. In the playoffs, guys can't get away with making some of the bad throws they can in the regular season. The teams are closer in talent, and quarterbacks just can't be inconsistent. Kaepernick's either a home-run hitter or he strikes out; there doesn't seem to be much in-between, which makes him a potential liability for the Niners.
I'm an Alex Smith guy, so I'm not sure the Niners made the right move when they benched Smith for Kaepernick. However, I'm not with the team every day; I'm not the one making the decisions. I have great respect for Jim Harbaugh, who's done a great job with that team. Obviously they're winning; time will tell if Kaepernick was the right choice.
I also understand the rationale. When I was working for the Dallas Cowboys, we made a similar decision when we benched Craig Morton, who was a reliable passer, for Roger Staubach, who was a better runner and more mobile. We wound up winning Super Bowl VI with Staubach. Would we have with Morton? I don't think so. I'm not saying Kaepernick is as good as Staubach, but I do see where the 49ers are coming from.
12) Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings
Ponder really came on in the last four games of the regular season, especially in the second half against the Green Bay Packers in Week 17, when he was exceptional. I think he's more of an indoor quarterback, because he doesn't have great arm strength; I don't think it's a coincidence that seven of the Vikings' victories came at home. However, Ponder is really smart.
After analyzing statistics like sack differential, point differential and third-down conversion rates, I've predicted the winners of all four wild-card games as follows (I've also provided a thought or two on each matchup):
» To give you an idea of how the Texans' roster was shaped, of the eight players who made the 2013 Pro Bowl, three were first-round draft picks by Houston (Duane Brown, Andre Johnson and J.J. Watt), one was an undrafted college free agent (Arian Foster) and four were acquired as veterans (Schaub, Johnathan Joseph, Chris Myers and Wade Smith).
» The Packers can be beaten, because aside from Rodgers, they don't have much going for them. Their offensive line isn't very good, and they don't have much of a running game at all. Rodgers will have to be perfect. Of course, he is the best ever in the postseason.
» When the weather's bad, you'd rather be running than passing; when it's windy, it doesn't matter if the wind is at your back or not, it makes things tricky. Adrian Peterson can obviously play a big role here.
» When I look at the Colts' 11 wins, I can't figure out how they got there except to say that it had everything to do with Luck. His stats aren't great, but as I said, when it comes to quarterbacks, don't pay attention to stats; pay attention to guys who make crucial plays at crucial times.
» Wilson and RG3 are obviously the headline-grabbing rookies in this matchup, but the key guy in this game is another first-year player: Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner. He has to make plays against Redskins rookie Alfred Morris for Seattle to have a chance.
» I think the Seahawks caught a good break with this game. Even though they have to travel out east, it's a late game, starting at about the same time they'd get going in Seattle.
» Both teams have left tackles in the Pro Bowl, which makes it a lot safer to be a rookie starting at quarterback.
ONE MORE OBSERVATION
» In the past, the officiating crews that worked the playoffs were the same crews that worked together during the regular season. This season, however, the postseason crews will be made up based on a rating system, comprised of the highest-rated individual officials. The lower-ranked officials will work Wild Card Weekend.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.