The new generation of quarterbacks has arrived. One year after the class of 2012 took the league by storm, this young crop of signal-callers has moved a step closer to taking over the league. They are starting to advance in the playoffs.
The final eight teams alive provide a perfect dichotomy of new school versus old school. Half of the remaining teams are led by mobile quarterbacks in their second or third season: Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick. In the other corner, the old guard looks as strong as ever: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers.
Change on a league-wide level happens gradually. Manning and Brady have shown remarkably few signs of decline, but Father Time is undefeated. They are both over 36 years old and can stay at this level for just so long. College football is producing quarterbacks with mobility, almost exclusively. It's hard to find guys like Rivers or Manning among the best prospects in each draft. Players like Luck, Wilson and Newton all need to throw well from the pocket to succeed, but their athleticism makes them different to prepare for.
We've been ranking every quarterbacks throughout the season, and you can see our year-end rankings here. Let's take a look at how each quarterback is playing entering the season's best weekend of football.
I'm still trying to process what Andrew Luck accomplished against Kansas City. It was, in so many ways, a typical Luck 2013 performance. He missed more open throws than you remember, but most of them happened in the first half. He made a few poor decisions and paid for them dearly with three interceptions. And then Luck made so many plays that took your breath away. These are plays that other quarterbacks just can't make.
People talk about Luck's pocket movement, but not enough. A young Tom Brady was the best I've ever seen at creating extra time to throw in the pocket -- until Luck came along. He's just silly. Indianapolis' offensive line held up well last week in the second half, and Luck has been increasingly effective as the Colts' offense has grown more aggressive in recent weeks. Four of their five second-half touchdown drives went for 80 yards or more. The Colts are built around the quick passing game, not unlike the Patriots.
After a slow start to the year, no player has been better than Brady in the second half. His numbers have declined somewhat since Rob Gronkowski was hurt, but the Patriots' running game has picked up the slack. The Colts' defense struggled to cover Kansas City's running backs and quick throws last week. Look for New England to have more of a ball-control offense than we're used to.
The clash of the generations will take center stage during Saturday's matchups. The part of the story that no one is talking about: Drew Brees and Russell Wilson aren't playing their best football lately.
It's amazing the Saints finally won a road playoff game last week on a night when Brees was not effective. He struggled badly in the first half for six straight possessions. Brees missed open throws deep, and he did not have a lot of life on his passes. He's lucky the Saints' defense picked him up after two early interceptions.
Brees bounced back with a solid, if unspectacular, second half. The running game led the way. It has to be a concern for the Saints that Brees has struggled in three straight outdoor starts against Seattle, Carolina and Philadelphia. He has three touchdowns and four picks in those games, including a 147-yard effort in Seattle. The Saints' offensive line was abused in two of those games.
Wilson has not played his best football down the stretch as well. He has four touchdowns and three interceptions in that span, including two Seahawks losses. The Seattle pass protection is a yearlong problem that hasn't been solved, and Wilson has occasionally started to leave the pocket too soon because he expects pressure to come. This is a tougher matchup than conventional wisdom suggests. The Saints' defense is playing at a high level, while the Seahawks' offense is erratic.
I wrote about the top 10 quarterbacks age 25 and under last offseason. Kaepernick has enjoyed a birthday in the meantime, but it's a treat that we get to watch two of the top five in this game.
It's hard to judge Kaepernick's play last week because the conditions were so brutal. Both he and Aaron Rodgers struggled with accuracy down the field. Kaepernick is doing a better job going to his check downs than early in the year, and that is largely due to the incredible protection he's been afforded. Carolina's front seven roughed up San Francisco last time and forced Kaepernick into one of the worst performances of his career (22 pass attempts, 91 yards, six sacks.)
The return of Michael Crabtree has changed the 49ers' offense. Kaepernick is more willing to throw the ball to Crabtree, even when he's well covered. And for all the running Kaepernick did last week, the two key plays of the game were throws from the pocket. (His touchdown to Vernon Davis and his late third-and-10 throw to Crabtree.)
The 49ers showed a willingness to call runs for Kaepernick more against Green Bay than they did early in the season. The Panthers also figure to run Newton plenty. The Panthers' passing attack did not progress throughout the season, and Newton's accuracy was inconsistent at best. He missed a lot of throws in his final two games against New Orleans and Atlanta. Newton, however, had an uncanny knack for making key throws in big moments. That's been chalked up to "maturity" from Newton, but the Panthers' passing game is less explosive now. Newton is one of the most dangerous weapons in football, but that was true in 2012 as well. The defense is just better now, and Newton is smarter about avoiding big mistakes.
Philip Rivers is coming off a near-flawless performance. Rivers had only four incompletions against Cincinnati. Two came on miscommunications with a receiver, and one was thrown away. San Diego's ball-control style has worked well against Denver, averaging more than 38 minutes per game. Time of possession is overrated, but the Chargers get points for their efforts and the Chargers' offensive line is playing better of late. It's easy to imagine Rivers picking Manning apart with a lot of third-and-5 completions. The Chargers' staff has put so much pressure on Rivers by not throwing on early downs, and he has come through.
Rivers is a game manager in the best sense of the word. He's in control of the flow of the game, not unlike Manning. Just watch him look off Bengals safety Reggie Nelson in the play to the right.
There's not much left to say about Manning's season that hasn't been said. I'm most interested to see if Denver's sudden propensity to throw the ball deep in December carries over into the postseason. San Diego's secondary gave up a ton of big plays for most of the year, but it has improved greatly over the last six weeks.
Manning and Rivers are similar in many ways, and their meeting guarantees that at least one of the "old guard" quarterbacks will make it to the final four. It will be a weekend to enjoy some of the greatest players of all time, and one of the most promising young quarterback crops the league has ever seen.
It's not often we see career paths cross quite like this, and I can't wait to watch it.
The latest "Around The League Podcast" featured a special in-studio visit from Bears star Brandon Marshall.