|The Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco (left), 28, and Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan, 27, represent the young elite at QB.|
The two quarterbacks who will -- the San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick and the Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco -- have something in common that sets them apart from many of the more established veteran stars at the position: They're both under 30.
So as they prepare to spar for the Lombardi Trophy, I thought I'd take stock of the best quarterbacks in that age group.
First, a couple of notes: Jay Cutler is 29, but because he'll turn 30 on April 29 -- well before the 2013 season starts -- I left him off this list. Second, all ages listed are current as of Thursday, Jan. 24.
I've listed the quarterbacks in order and put them into groups, to differentiate between guys who should be taking their teams to the playoffs on a regular basis (Group B) and the guys who will need a stronger supporting cast to win (Group C). Of course, the first guy is in a class of his own ...
1) Aaron Rodgers, 29, Green Bay Packers
Rodgers, who will turn 30 next December, was a one-man team in 2012, finding ways to scare defenses and win with an average offensive line and not much of a running attack. The Packers made it as far as they did this season solely due to Rodgers' ability.
2) Matt Ryan, 27, Atlanta Falcons
Over the past five seasons, Ryan has more regular-season wins than any other NFL quarterback. He led Atlanta to 13 wins this season, plus another win in the playoffs. His fumble and interception in the NFC Championship Game were costly, though the pick wasn't really his fault.
It might seem odd that I ranked Ryan, who will be watching Super Bowl XLVII, above the two quarterbacks who will be playing in it. But when it comes to the numbers that indicate future success, Ryan's are simply better.
3) Joe Flacco, 28, Baltimore Ravens
Flacco doesn't put up eye-popping stats, but he wins big games on the road, especially in the playoffs, where he has more road wins than any quarterback in NFL history. No one in the NFL has a better arm than Flacco. He played much better after Jim Caldwell took over as the Ravens' offensive coordinator in December.
Incidentally, Flacco's incredible success this postseason -- he's thrown eight touchdowns and zero interceptions -- bodes well for him in the Super Bowl. Five other quarterbacks have thrown eight or more touchdowns and zero picks in the postseason: Joe Montana, Steve Young, Phil Simms, Troy Aikman and Drew Brees. All won the Lombardi Trophy that season while being named the MVP of the title game.
4) Andrew Luck, 23, Indianapolis Colts
Luck is a much better athlete than you'd think. He works very hard on game prep, which is one reason for the success he had as a rookie, winning 11 games and going to the playoffs with a team that went 2-14 in 2011. Luck was asked to do more than the other rookie quarterbacks this season and passed all of his tests with flying colors.
5) Colin Kaepernick, 25, San Francisco 49ers
Kaepernick led the 49ers to the promised land after becoming the starter in Week 11. I doubt that San Francisco would have been able to come back against the Falcons in the NFC title game without the dual-threat signal-caller's second-half efforts. Atlanta took the QB run away in that game, but Kaepernick was still able to win through the air.
6) Russell Wilson, 24, Seattle Seahawks
The short Wilson (listed at 5-foot-11) reminds some of Doug Flutie, but Wilson is faster and more talented. The biggest difference between him and the four quarterbacks ahead of him in this group is his height, but even that doesn't seem to affect his play much. Wilson, who has great work habits, was as good as any quarterback in the second half of the 2012 season.
7) Cam Newton, 23, Carolina Panthers
If Newton always played like he did in the latter half of 2012, he would move up this list. I wish he would demonstrate more involvement in the game when he's on the sideline between series. His arm strength and athleticism give him unlimited potential.
8) Robert Griffin III, 22, Washington Redskins
I had a tough time deciding what to do with RG3, because we don't know exactly how his knee injury is going to affect him going forward. In fact, given the uncertainty surrounding his situation, I toyed with the idea of leaving him off this list entirely, just because it's so difficult to predict what's going to happen. However, if we knew RG3 was going to be fully healthy heading into the 2013 season, this is where he would go after taking a team that finished at the bottom of the NFC East in 2011 to the top in 2012.
9) Matthew Stafford, 24, Detroit Lions
Stafford helped the Lions jump out to a 5-0 start in 2011, but the team has won just nine games since then. Stafford is a bit of an enigma in that he has everything needed to succeed, including all the mental and physical tools, but couldn't do much with the Lions this season. Would an improved running game help? Stafford can jump into Group B with a better 2013 campaign.
10) Sam Bradford, 25, St. Louis Rams
Bradford, who didn't have very good receivers to work with this season, wound up with the second seven-win campaign of his three-year career. He has all the tools to be successful, including athletic ability, but he just might be, well, too nice. He does have the work habits to prevail in a make-or-break 2013 season.
11) Alex Smith, 28, San Francisco 49ers
Smith was playing well in 2012 before a concussion sent him to the sideline, clearing the way for Kaepernick to take over. The comparatively older Smith is better than advertised as a player, but there are still question marks about him. Would he have been able to bring the Niners back from a 17-0 deficit in Atlanta last Sunday? Like I alluded to above, it's highly questionable.
12) Ryan Tannehill, 24, Miami Dolphins
Tannehill has the size, arm strength and athletic ability to eventually jump into Group B. It will help if the Dolphins can surround him with a more talented cast. He'll also benefit -- more than any other player in Group C -- from having a year of experience under his belt.
13) Andy Dalton, 25, Cincinnati Bengals
Dalton is a very solid, hard-working player who most likely won't win much on his own. He did take Cincinnati to the playoffs his first two seasons in the league, but he seems to need the help of an outstanding supporting cast to get anywhere.
14) Josh Freeman, 25, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After a great 2010 and an awful 2011, Freeman was inconsistent in 2012. He did lose weight last offseason, and it seemed to give him a boost in the early going ... before he fell back late. He possesses everything needed to do the job; why does he run so hot and cold?
Missed the cut
Jake Locker, 24, Tennessee Titans: I don't think we know enough about whether he can hack it at this level or not. ... Christian Ponder, 24, Minnesota Vikings: Many wrote him off as a failure before he helped take the Vikings to the playoffs this season. ... Blaine Gabbert, 23, Jacksonville Jaguars: Gabbert has the tools, but hasn't done much so far; perhaps new coordinator Jedd Fisch might help. ... Brandon Weeden, 29, Cleveland Browns: His status is in flux with yet another new regime taking over in Cleveland. ... Matt Flynn, 27, Seattle Seahawks: We haven't seen much of him, but the fact that the Seahawks do a very good job evaluating players leads you to think he likely has some serious potential.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.