Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo among trustworthy playoff QBs


The most important thing for a quarterback leading his team into battle in the NFL playoffs is composure.

Everything is more intense than it is in the regular season. The stakes are higher. The caliber of competition is elite. And there are no do-overs for the losers.

To have any hope of advancing, a quarterback cannot crumble when things get tough, cannot panic in the face of adversity. And because opponents in the playoffs tend to be relatively unfamiliar, he must be smart enough to read defenses and get the most out of mismatches.

When the Divisional Round of the playoffs commences this weekend, some quarterbacks will rise to the challenge, while others will find themselves heading home for the offseason. Below you'll find my ranking of the eight signal-callers who will be taking the field, listed according to who I trust the most going forward right now.

1) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

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Rodgers has everything you want in a playoff quarterback. He's very cool under fire; you rarely see him get rattled or do things like slam the ball down on the turf after he's been sacked. His recognition skills are out of this world. He knows how to exploit mismatches, and he checks out of plays really well. The Packers give him some latitude, and he makes the most of it. He seems to have eyes in the back of his head when it comes to avoiding sacks, à la Dan Marino. And he almost never turns the ball over, especially at Lambeau Field, where he hasn't thrown a pick since Dec. 2, 2012. The only concern with Rodgers is related to a calf injury that bothered him in Week 17. Otherwise, he's a savvy signal-caller with a strong postseason résumé who also just put together an amazing campaign (4,381 yards and 38 touchdowns against five picks).

2) Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys

Forget about Romo's playoff record entering 2014: one win, three losses, a 59.3 percent completion rate, 208 yards per game and a passer rating of 80.8. Forget about the old, "Bad Romo," who seemed to make his biggest mistakes under the brightest spotlights. This is a changed person, as we've seen during an MVP-caliber season. In his past five games, he's thrown just one interception, against the Washington Redskins in Week 17, and that's probably the only time he forced a throw in that span. He's playing under control and not taking the risks he once did; no longer does he throw the ball up and hope someone on his team comes down with it. I'm confident we won't see "Bad Romo" again this postseason, especially after Sunday's comeback victory over the Detroit Lions. Because if ever that guy was going to rear his ugly head, it would have been in that game, when Detroit did everything it could to discombobulate him. Instead of falling apart, however, Romo made the throws he needed to make to win.

3) Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens

Two years ago, Flacco went on a playoff run for the ages, tossing 11 touchdown passes against zero picks in four games en route to winning Super Bowl XLVII. In Saturday's wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, he continued that pace, notching two scores, zero picks and a passer rating of 114.0. The performance was very impressive; Flacco showed excellent awareness and threw the ball with accuracy and velocity, though he was also able to take something off of it if needed. His lifetime postseason record is 10-4, including seven road wins -- two of which came in New England, where he'll lead the Ravens against the Patriots this weekend. Yes, Flacco had a terrible 2013. And he had some down moments in 2014, but overall, he had a good season, demonstrating proficiency in the offense that coordinator Gary Kubiak installed in Baltimore. He's very even-keeled, which is obviously an asset. And when it comes down to it, you can't top that playoff résumé. Flacco has been simply extraordinary in huge games.

4) Tom Brady, New England Patriots

Brady is among the most accomplished postseason quarterbacks ever, with three Super Bowl wins (in five appearances), an 18-8 record, a 62.1 percent completion rate, 43 touchdown passes, 22 picks and 6,424 yards, the second most in NFL history. And after a rocky start to his 15th NFL season, he put up some nice numbers -- 4,109 yards and 33 touchdown passes against nine picks -- while pushing the Patriots to a 12-4 record and their 12th playoff appearance since he joined the team. But though he's as smart as ever, there are times when he doesn't seem to have as much juice on the ball as he did, say, three years ago; it looks like he comes up short sometimes. He obviously still has the ability to win, especially when tight end Rob Gronkowski is operating at full force, but the 37-year-old's skill set seems to have slipped a bit.

5) Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos

Though I ultimately slotted Brady ahead of Manning, the decision was very difficult, as the two players are very close. Mentally, Manning continues to measure off the charts. He's probably better at reading and understanding defenses than anyone who's ever played. You might be able to fool him once, but it's nearly impossible to fool him with the same trick twice. But if it weren't for his intellect, he wouldn't be winning and succeeding like he is at age 38. And while a sharp mind might be able to help counter a dip in physical ability, it can't wholly make up for it. I don't see Manning's throws going as far downfield as they once did. He's still completing the shorter passes, but defenders are crowding the line more, limiting the amount of damage his receivers can do after the catch. Manning did post 4,727 yards (fourth-most in the NFL), 39 touchdown passes (second-best) and a passer rating of 101.5. But his touchdown-to-interception ratio over the last four regular-season games was an unwieldy 3:6. Of course, it hasn't helped that tight end Julius Thomas has been banged up.

6) Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

Wilson has only been in the NFL for three seasons, but he's already compiled quite the playoff résumé, including a 4-1 record, a 63.1 percent completion rate, 1,096 yards, six touchdown passes, one pick and a rating of 102.0. Seattle's run-first system doesn't require him to do as much as other quarterbacks, and his arm strength is merely average, but Wilson can make things happen on the ground -- and he's a proven winner, with a history of success against some of the game's best. Consider that he's 2-0 against Manning, Rodgers and Drew Brees, respectively, and 1-0 against Brady. And, of course, he also won Super Bowl XLVIII, which gives him an edge over Andrew Luck. That kind of experience is invaluable; once you've successfully navigated the distractions that come with participating in the biggest sporting event in the world, the stresses of a divisional playoff game can seem like nothing.

7) Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts

If we make another list like this in five years or so, Luck will probably be No. 1. For now, though, he's simply asked to do too much by himself. And while he's nonetheless been able to accomplish a lot -- like single-handedly lifting the Colts to the playoffs for the third straight year, or throwing an NFL-best 40 touchdown passes this season -- he winds up taking chances. Chances become turnovers (16 interceptions and 13 fumbles, including six lost, during the regular season), and turnovers are postseason poison. Luck undoubtedly will become a great player in the future -- the Manning or Brady of his time -- but at this point, there just isn't enough around him.

8) Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers

Newton didn't have a great campaign, notching career lows in passing yards (3,127), touchdown passes (18) and yards per attempt (7.0). Of course, considering the various health issues he dealt with (offseason ankle surgery, a rib injury suffered in the preseason and transverse process fractures suffered in a December car accident), it's amazing he even played that well. Newton has struggled with accuracy and consistency, and he hasn't shown the same ability to dodge and evade the pass rush that he has in the past. His performance in Saturday's win over the Cardinals (18 of 32 for 198 yards and two turnovers, with just 35 rushing yards on seven carries) was not especially encouraging. I think very highly of Newton personally, and you have to give him credit for helping rally Carolina to the playoffs despite sinking to a 3-8-1 record at one point this season. Still, you can't turn the ball over like that against opponents like the Seahawks.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.



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