Wild Card Weekend has come and gone, leaving eight playoff teams -- and eight starting quarterbacks -- standing. As the pressure mounts and the competition intensifies, I thought I'd rank each of these quarterbacks according to whom I trust most.
Who would I go with if I needed to pick one quarterback to win on a big stage with sky-high stakes? You can see in the list below. Note that this is a reflection of where these quarterbacks stand now, at this moment, with overall playoff pedigree mattering less than how they've been playing recently.
What Newton did in 2015 more than makes up for the relative thinness of his career playoff résumé (1-2 record, five touchdowns, five picks, 80.5 passer rating). He's done more with less than any other top-end quarterback this season, pushing the Panthers to a 15-1 finish with an MVP-caliber campaign despite a serious dearth of surrounding talent. Notably, his completion percentage improved a tick (59.8 percent in 2015, up from 58.5 in 2014) despite the fact that 4.8 percent of his pass attempts were dropped.
I've watched the All-Pro grow as a player, thanks to the work offensive coordinator Mike Shula's been doing with him; he's making better reads and taking fewer chances. He's become a pretty mature guy, which means the game won't get too big for him. And he's shown -- via big-time comebacks against the Seahawksand Saints -- that Carolina can never be counted out as long as he's on the field. Newton is as competitive as they come, and I think Seattle will bring out the best in the quarterback and his teammates this Sunday.
Palmer is 10 years older than Newton, but his playoff résumé is even thinner than the Carolina quarterback's: Palmer has an 0-2 record, a 51.4 percent completion rate, one touchdown, one pick and a passer rating of 66.5. Both of those appearances came when he was with the Bengals, of course, and most of those stats came in one game, a 24-14 loss to the Jets in the 2009 playoffs. Palmer's playoff debut in the 2005 postseason famously ended with a torn ACL after one pass attempt (which, not for nothing, was a 66-yard completion). But since then, Palmer's obviously matured a lot, and maturity can be a big help on the playoff stage.
Moreover, Palmer is coming off a career season (4,671 passing yards, 35 passing touchdowns, 11 picks, 104.6 passer rating) during which he powered the NFL's No. 1 offense. I think the stability of the coaching staff he's working with in Arizona -- Bruce Arians and, especially, assistant head coach/offense Tom Moore -- has helped Palmer rise to this level. Yes, he has a talented roster around him, but Palmer is clearly the reason the Cardinals are where they are, as Arizona's early playoff exit with Palmer on the shelf last season illustrated. Palmer's injury history (two ACL tears) and relative lack of mobility are a slight concern. But the bottom line is, this guy is pretty good.
Wilson's trustworthiness can be illustrated by one moment from Seattle's wild-card win over the Vikings: when he turned a badly botched snap that bounced several yards behind him into a 35-yard pass play. Most people, no matter how experienced they are, would have fallen on the ball in that scenario, but Wilson, a consummate playmaker, created something out of nothing. Though he was without offensive pieces like Jimmy Graham, Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls for large chunks of the second half, Wilson had an unbelievable finish to the regular season, going 6-2 while throwing for 2,146 yards and 25 touchdowns against just two picks and compiling a passer rating of 124.3 in his final eight games. He amazes me every time I watch him. Oh, and he's played in the last two Super Bowls.
Brady put up big numbers (4,770 passing yards, 36 passing touchdowns, seven picks, 102.2 passer rating) despite working with a receiving corps that dropped 4.8 percent of his passes, as bad as what the Panthers did to Newton. But thanks to a suspect offensive line, Brady was hit a lot, and his stats dipped (242 passing yards per game, 11 touchdowns, three picks and a passer rating of 92.2) during the Pats' 2-4 finish. Losing Dion Lewis in Week 9 and Julian Edelman in Week 10 didn't help, but Brady just didn't look that sharp over that stretch, especially in the Week 17 loss to the Dolphins, in which Brady suffered a high ankle sprain. He remains a playoff great, of course (21-8 record, 53 touchdowns against 26 picks). But he's 38 and playing behind a line that hasn't done a great job protecting him.
Smith doesn't throw a lot and hasn't exactly racked up the passing touchdowns, but he played extremely well in helping the 1-5 Chiefs dash off 10 straight wins and embark on an unlikely playoff journey. He's off-the-charts smart and a legitimate mobile threat (498 rushing yards, two rushing scores) who gets more out of bad plays than anyone on this list, outside of maybe Brady. Dismiss Smith as a "game manager" if you want, but based on how they've been playing lately, if I needed a quarterback for just one contest, I'd have a tough time picking between Smith and Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers' 2015 numbers (31 touchdown passes, eight picks, 3,821 yards, 92.7 passer rating) are a shadow of what they've been recently; consider that the 2015 campaign was Rodgers' first in which he started 16 games and failed to crack the 4,000-yard mark. Since starting the season 6-0, Rodgers and the Packers have looked like an average team. They won their wild-card matchup with the Redskins, but I'm not sure how much of that performance can be attributed to an offensive turnaround and how much can be pinned on Washington's ineptness. Rodgers did not look sharp to start the game, completing just one of his first eight passes. That he's been playing with a less-than-stellar receiving corps -- and, crucially, without Jordy Nelson -- is a factor, but a significant amount of the blame for the Packers' struggles this season belongs to Rodgers.
I respect Roethlisberger's toughness, but his latest injury -- torn ligaments in his throwing shoulder and a sprained AC joint -- in a year that also saw him miss time with a knee injurymakes him a major question mark heading into the Steelers' Divisional Round matchup with the Broncos. I'm also concerned about Roethlisberger's lack of road touchdowns in 2015 -- just five of his 21 touchdown passes have come on the road, and three of those came in Cleveland. Of course, if Roethlisberger can't play Sunday and the Steelers have to go with backup Landry Jones, they'll be in real trouble.
Manning played well enough coming off the bench in Denver's Week 17 win over the Chargers, but we shouldn't forget about his awful numbers (59.8 percent completion rate, 2,249 passing yards, nine passing touchdowns, 17 picks and a 67.9 passer rating in 10 games) in his 18th pro season. Whatever role his foot injuries played in his struggles, Manning's overall ability has definitely slipped. He just does not have the velocity on the ball he needs to succeed; defenders can creep up on him without fear that he'll throw it over their heads. All that said, I think players do tend to get a bit of a boost from playing with someone like Manning, who means so much to the game and the franchise. And it's not like Denver would be that much better off with youngster Brock Osweiler starting in Manning's place; the fourth-year pro just doesn't have the experience necessary for succeeding against the caliber of competition you see in the playoffs.