QB Index: Biggest obstacles for playoff QBs

Peyton Manning looked like a different quarterback in Week 1. I turned on Game Rewind this week to rewatch Colts-Broncos from the season opener, and Manning's arm stood out.

Manning aggressively pushed the ball down the field, and his passes had plenty of zip on them. We haven't seen those passes in a while. We also haven't seen tight end Julius Thomas destroy opponents in a long time like the way he destroyed the Colts' linebackers in the opener.

The Colts dared Manning to go deep in Week 1, and he was able to call their bluff. Can he do it again in cold weather after a season worth of hits and throws? That's his biggest challenge heading into the Divisional Round.

With our year-end rankings behind us, the focus on the Quarterback Index this week turns towards the eight remaining signal callers in the playoffs. Since the immortal Gil Brandt and mortal Dan Hanzus already ranked the eight quarterbacks left, let's do something a little different this week.

We've chosen Manning's biggest obstacle this week. What is the biggest challenge that the other seven quarterbacks face this weekend in order to reach the final four?

Andrew Luck: Can the Colts offense survive without a huge performance by T.Y. Hilton? Luck and Colts fans have to be concerned their offense doesn't have enough dimensions beyond Luck and Hilton's incredible skill sets. This is a particular issue this week because the Broncos have the cornerbacks -- especially Chris Harris -- that could give Hilton serious problems. Hilton only had 41 yards on 11 targets in the season opener; Harris is the rare cornerback that can tail Hilton on the inside and out.

Indianapolis surprisingly did a fantastic job protecting Luck against Denver's dynamic pass rushing duo in Week 1, but the offensive line mostly struggled late in the season. Hakeem Nicks and Reggie Wayne both struggled to get separation from defenders, and the Colts' running game has been erratic at best. Luck needs more help from his supporting cast.

Tom Brady: It sounds strange, but Brady's biggest concern is his running game. Baltimore's big nasties up front -- Brandon Williams, Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Courtney Upshaw, and Pernell McPhee -- are playing fantastic. They have a chance to manhandle New England in the running game without putting extra defenders in the box. That makes the Patriots one dimensional and too reliant on long drives for an offense that struggles to dial up big plays.

The Jets, who held the Patriots to 17 points in Week 16, has a similarly physical line to Baltimore. They held the Patriots to 85 yards rushing and applied pressure on Brady throughout the game.

Joe Flacco: The biggest challenge for Flacco will be to avoid forcing throws. He's a dangerous quarterback in the playoffs because he's always aggressive, but he might not see a lot of separation for Torrey Smith and Steve Smith against New England's secondary. Flacco tends to be a boom or bust quarterback. When things go bad (like Week 16 against Houston), they can spiral out of control. It will be tricky to balance playing "loose" and giving the playmakers in the Patriots defense too many chances. New England has finished among the top two in turnover margin in four of the last five seasons.


Tony Romo: My biggest concern for Romo is a combination of his health and communication with his offensive line. They go hand in hand. Detroit got a ridiculous amount of free rushers on Romo. When you look at Dallas' worst games offensively this year, a theme emerges: Romo and his line fail to recognize where pressure is coming from. The first half against Detroit was a disaster. It's hard to determine whose fault that is, but Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers doesn't need an excuse to get creative with his blitz packages and stunts.

Romo's accuracy was compromised last week. He missed a number of throws and his back issues could pop up more in frigid conditions Sunday. Especially if the Packers get some clean shots on him.

Aaron Rodgers: There's not much to be worried about for Rodgers other than his calf injury. But he relies on improvising a handful of big plays each week, and the injury could limit Rodgers' mobility. Dallas' defense doesn't try to confuse the opposition much. Its a defense that relies on execution and effort, and that won't be enough against Green Bay if Rodgers is healthy.

Cam Newton: There's no telling what Newton will show up in a given week or a given quarter. Give Newton credit for recognizing after last week's win that his mechanics needed to be much better against Arizona, which led to many of his overthrows. He's the streakiest quarterback in the league, and Carolina needs four quarters of hot streak Cam to show up in Seattle to have a chance to win.

Russell Wilson: Pass protection remains a concern for Wilson. The Rams' pass rush terrorized him in Week 17, with Seattle's offense only scoring 13 points because of it. Wilson relies on making plays "late in the down" but at some point the Seahawks will want a few more plays where Wilson takes his drop, sticks his foot in the ground, and gets rid of the ball. That just doesn't happen very often in the Seahawks offense.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast previews every Divisional Round game and breaks down the Manning-Luck matchup. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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