Looking at the eight teams left in the NFL playoffs, one thing quickly jumps out at you: eight elite quarterbacks. You might not think the eight QBs remaining are the eight best signal-callers in football, but they all probably fall somewhere within the top 10 or 12, and that says a lot about the importance of each player to his respective team.
In this weekend's divisional round, the matchups are highlighted by quarterback pairings full of similarities. Of course, the 45 other players on each team will significantly impact results, but these four QB duels will set the tone. Take a look:
The Commanders: Drew Brees and Russell Wilson
Both of these quarterbacks were downgraded entering the draft due to their lack of ideal size. Brees is listed at 6-feet tall ... and maybe he is (with his helmet on). Wilson, meanwhile, is listed at what might be a similarly optimistic height of 5-11. What they share beyond that is status as fierce leaders whose teammates would follow them anywhere. Even more, Brees' arrival in New Orleans gave the Saints an identity; Wilson's presence in Seattle accelerated the Seahawks' rise, as well.
Seattle blew out New Orleans, 34-7, in Week 13 by shutting down the run game (Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles combined for 33 yards on 15 carries) and harassing Brees in the pocket. If the Seahawks can do so again, expect a similar result.
What both defenses will try to do is apply pressure up the middle and get arms in the face of the opposing quarterback. The Seahawks' defense is better suited for that, but if the Saints can spring Ingram, they've got a chance, especially since Seattle's secondary isn't what it was at the beginning of the season.
The All-Americans: Andrew Luck and Tom Brady
One quarterback is a cosmopolitan "metrosexual" with an UGG Boots endorsement deal. The other is an obsessive gym rat who surely is the last starting quarterback in the NFL to use a flip phone. While Brady and Luck diverge in a style sense, they share a fierce -- almost manic -- competitiveness.
GMC Never Say Never Moment
Tom Brady and the Patriots overcame a 24-point halftime deficit against the Broncos to prevail in Week 12. Was it the best moment of 2013?
It's no coincidence that they engineered the two unlikeliest comebacks in football this season: Brady brought the Patriots back from a 24-0 halftime deficit against Denver in Week 12 to secure a 34-31 overtime win; Luck, just last week, dug the Colts out of a 38-10 second-half hole to earn a thrilling, 45-44 wild-card victory over Kansas City.
If you go back and look at those two games, you'll find both quarterbacks were largely subpar in the first half, and both became frustrated with themselves because nothing was working. But they never stopped believing, and that persistence kept their teammates believing as well, thus sparking those improbable rallies.
In Week 11 of last season, a very different Patriots team blew the doors off Indy, 59-24. The Patriots aren't where they were a year ago -- having endured too many injuries on both sides of the ball this season -- but you can bet they'll find a way to neutralize T.Y. Hilton and make Luck try to beat them with someone else. For the Colts in New England in January, that won't be easy.
The New Hybrids: Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton
Silver: Kaepernick's growing legend
I've questioned this notion that "Dual-threat quarterbacks will revolutionize football" before, and I'll continue to do so until it actually becomes more than a notion. Randall Cunningham ... Michael Vick ... Tim Tebow ... We've been through an entire generation of hybrid QBs, and each new subject has been billed as a game-changing figure. But show me one dual-threat who's been consistently stellar and won championships in the pros. Steve Young? He might come the closest, but take another look at his stats; while Young ran a lot early in his career, in his Super Bowl-winning season, he totaled just 293 rushing yards. Young's greatest career success came with him working as a passer.
But I'll admit that if anybody is to break the mold, it could be one of the two quarterbacks in 49ers-Panthers. It's been an uneven season for Kaepernick, a full-time starter for the first time. He was on the cover of every magazine this side of People and Rolling Stone over the offseason, and he started strong in the 49ers' season-opening win over Green Bay. But he was hurt by the decimation of San Francisco's receiving corps. With Michael Crabtree back in the fold, Kaepernick has played better, and the Niners have rolled off seven straight wins. Meanwhile, Newton is enjoying his best season to date, having shown signs of maturing into a terrific leader, making better decisions than he did in his first two years.
With two rugged defenses on the field, though, this game is not likely to be settled by the legs of either quarterback. The key will be which QB passes more effectively -- and whether Carolina's Steve Smith can be close to 100 percent.
The Classics: Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning
FedEx Air & Ground Players of Year
Peyton Manning set new NFL single-season records for passing yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55). Was it the best performance for a quarterback in 2013?
It's not just their tall, prototypical builds and bulky knee braces; it's also their superior pocket presence and persistent toughness. While most of the other surviving quarterbacks can hurt you running the ball, Rivers and Manning are old-school dropback passers who only run as a last resort (and only if you're using the term "run" loosely).
It's been a great season for Rivers, who was unfairly maligned in the past as the Chargers' talent surrounding him winnowed away. He's been sharp all season. Add in Ryan Mathews' renaissance and a stout Chargers front seven, and this San Diego squad is a very difficult playoff match.
San Diego must establish a running game Sunday, because the Bolts still don't want to get into a shootout with Manning, especially given the question marks in the Chargers' secondary. Manning is playing at the top of his game, and with tight end Julius Thomas combining with the best trio of wideouts in the league (Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and a healthy Wes Welker), San Diego will be hard-pressed to keep up with the Broncos. I know the Chargers beat Denver *in Denver* just last month. I don't expect it to happen again.