In the playoffs, everything -- the stakes, the caliber of competition, the glare of the spotlight -- is elevated, making the already daunting task of quarterbacking an NFL team that much more harrowing. For the third year in a row, I've examined the playoff field heading into the Divisional Round and arranged the eight quarterbacks remaining according to their trustworthiness.
Who do I have the most confidence in? Here's how it shakes out:
1) Tom Brady, New England Patriots
Brady dominates the playoff record books. He's started 31 postseason games (the most by any player at any position), with the most 300-yard passing games (10), completions (738), passing yards (7,957) and passing touchdowns (56) ever. I thought Brady was at the height of his powers about four years ago, but -- incredibly, for a 39-year-old quarterback -- he just keeps raising that bar. Despite missing Rob Gronkowski for much of the season, Brady posted unbelievable numbers, including the best touchdown-to-interception ratio (28:2) in NFL history. And while he'll be without Gronk in these playoffs, he will have Martellus Bennett, LeGarrette Blount and Michael Floyd at his disposal -- unlike in last season's playoffs, which ended with a loss to the Broncos in the AFC title match. Brady doesn't seem to lose games and is so smooth at everything he does. He's a playmaker who never gives the ball away, and his combination of experience and ability puts him at the top of this list.
2) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
You could flip Rodgers and Brady pretty easily, with Rodgers getting slightly dinged for the lackluster (at least, for him) start to the season. I've never seen anyone flip a switch like Rodgers did down the stretch. Through his first 10 games in 2016, he had a TD-to-INT ratio of 25:7 and a passer rating of 96.0; over his next seven games (including last week's wild-card win over the Giants), he threw an astounding 19 touchdown passes against zero picks while posting a passer rating of 121.7. Last week, he posted his sixth playoff game with a passer rating of 110 or better, tying Joe Montana and Brady for the most in NFL history -- and Rodgers has only played in 14 postseason games. I worry about the offense potentially being without Jordy Nelson, but Rodgers will still have Davante Adams, Randall Cobb and Jared Cook to throw to -- and Rodgers is still the improvisational wizard who pulled the Packers here after a 4-6 start. (UPDATE: Mike McCarthy announced on Friday that Nelson will miss Sunday's game.)
3) Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
Roethlisberger's toughness puts him here, along with his big-game and playoff experience; consider that his 12 playoff wins are the seventh-most in the NFL since 1950. His career playoff completion percentage (61.9) is a little misleading, because he's improved significantly since leading the Steelers to a title in his second pro season. Yes, his recent playoff performances have taken a dip (2-4 over his last six playoff outings, with a TD-to-INT ratio of 7:7), and there's a foot injury to keep an eye on. But he's been to three Super Bowls and won two, and it's hard to look past that.
4) Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Going off this regular season alone, Ryan would rank ahead of Big Ben, given that he led the NFL with a passer rating of 117.1 -- the fourth-highest single-season passer rating in NFL history -- while pushing Atlanta to 11 wins and the NFC South title. But a spotty playoff resume -- 1-4 with a 9:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a passer rating of 85.2 -- keeps him slotted at No. 4. Ryan could very well make good on his stellar regular season with a legacy-changing postseason run, but as of now, the track record just isn't there, especially when you consider that he posted two or more giveaways in four of his five playoff games thus far.
5) Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
A series of injuries this season seemed to severely limit Wilson's mobility, and while he played without a knee brace in last week's win over the Lions, he also posted a negative rushing total (-3) for just the fourth time in 91 career games (including playoffs). Otherwise, he'd probably be up over Ryan. Wilson has made the playoffs in all five of his NFL seasons, posting 18 touchdown passes against nine picks with a career playoff passer rating of 95.9. He also has eight playoff wins in that span, more than anyone in the league. The thing that stands out the most about him is his ability to keep plays -- and the Seahawks -- alive. Think about the epic reversal he helped marshal in Seattle two years ago, coming back from an extremely rough start to push the Seahawks past the Packers for the NFC title.
6) Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs
Smith's career playoff passer rating of 99.1 is the third best among active quarterbacks with at least three playoff starts, while his win-loss record (2-3) is mitigated by the fact that his teams lost those games by a combined margin of 11 points. He can make people miss and has pretty good accuracy; moreover, he won't lose any games for you with a bad pass or play. But he also won't win a lot of games for you; he doesn't seem to be able to make that one, decisive play. He has a pretty high floor but a fairly limited ceiling, which keeps him from climbing any higher here.
7) Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
Prescott is difficult to evaluate, only because his playoff resume is nonexistent. Based on what I saw during his off-the-charts debut season, I think he has a very good chance of becoming the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to start and win a Super Bowl. Everybody's wondering when he'll fail, but I think he'll just get better and better in every big game he plays, with no real weaknesses revealing themselves as the year wore on. I was especially struck by the way he followed a Week 14 loss to the Giants with monster performances against the Buccaneersand Lions. Still, he's never been on this stage before. While I'm expecting big things, we do have to wait for him to accomplish something in the postseason before ranking him above his more experienced peers.
8) Brock Osweiler, Houston Texans
Osweiler is in a distant, distant eighth place on this list. The fact that the Broncosturned to Peyton Manning -- who had been terrible all year long -- rather than give Osweiler his first career playoff reps last season is telling, as is the fact that he was benched in Houston just three weeks ago. Though he has strong receivers to throw to, Osweiler failed to pass for more than 200 yards per game while tallying a TD-to-INT ratio of 15:16 this season. That said, he looked like a completely different player in the Texans' wild-card win over the Raiders, posting a modest line (14 of 25 for 168 yards with one touchdown, zero picks and a passer rating of 90.1) that seriously exceeded my expectations for him, based on his ragged regular season. I think there's a chance that growth is sustainable, because he does have talent, but there's no question that at this point, he's far less trustworthy than any of his playoff peers.