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Wild-card weekend focus will be on quarterbacks

Eli Manning, Vince Young, and Philip Rivers bring the best quarterbacking pedigree to the wild-card round of the playoffs.

They also arguably bring the largest question marks of the eight starting signal-callers this weekend.

If the New York Giants are to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Manning, the top overall draft pick of 2004, will likely have to perform as he did in leading a near-upset of the New England Patriots on Dec. 29. The worry for the Giants is that he could have a meltdown similar to the one he had in throwing four interceptions (with three returned for touchdowns) against Minnesota on Nov. 25 or another of the weak showings that have made for a checkered career. Manning carries the additional burden of being 0-2 in the playoffs and the younger brother of one of the best quarterbacks the game has ever seen.

If the Tennessee Titans are to beat the San Diego Chargers, Young, the third overall choice in 2006, will likely have to be much more efficient as a passer than he has through most of his second NFL season. Of course, he'll first have to recover from a quadriceps injury that has him listed as questionable for the game.

If the Chargers are to win, Rivers, the fourth overall selection in '04, will likely have to play with greater consistency than he has shown even in helping his club win its last six games.

This isn't to suggest that the five other wild-card quarterbacks are dominant forces. But they do enter the postseason with fewer blemishes on their games than Eli Manning, Young, and Rivers.

Take Manning's counterpart Sunday, Jeff Garcia. The ninth-year veteran who entered the NFL as a free agent after a five-year career in the Canadian Football League is the primary reason the Buccaneers are back in the playoffs after a 4-12 finish in '06.

Garcia is seeking his third playoff victory against the Giants with his third different team, having already beaten them with the San Francisco 49ers in 2002 and the Philadelphia Eagles in 2006. In all, he has played for five NFL clubs. Yet, despite forgettable stints in Cleveland (2004) and Detroit (2005), he is more than a well-traveled journeyman. Garcia has been a perfect fit in Jon Gruden's West Coast offense, running it with more precision and effectiveness than any quarterback Gruden has had since Rich Gannon in Oakland.

"It's exciting for me," Garcia said of preparing for another playoff game. "Anytime you take it to that next level, I'm a guy who rides the emotion and the electricity and understands the importance of the game. I'll be flying high."

Saturday's NFC wild-card quarterback duel is between Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck, who joined the Seahawks in a trade from Green Bay three years after the Packers made him a sixth-round draft pick, and Washington's Todd Collins, who became the Redskins' starter after Jason Campbell suffered an injury in Week 14.

Hasselbeck made it to the Pro Bowl by using his talented passing arm to carry a Seahawks offense that, through injury and poor play up front, has shown an inability to run the ball. Despite his Pro Bowl recognition and appearance in Super Bowl XL, his talent has been largely underappreciated. Had it not been for Tom Brady's 50 touchdown passes or Brett Favre's revival, Hasselbeck might have grabbed a larger share of attention for his excellent season.

Collins has been equally important to the Redskins, providing a much-needed spark to their offense. But who would have believed that, after washing out as the heir apparent to Buffalo Hall-of-Famer Jim Kelly in 1997 and spending the next 10 years as a backup in Kansas City and Washington, Collins would be a key figure in the postseason? Collins, who joined the Bills as a second-round draft pick in 1995, has taken full advantage of the Redskins' explosive receivers while taking very good care of the football.

"I think Todd's opening things up for everybody the way he's spraying the ball around," Redskins running back Clinton Portis said. "Teams got to play us honest."

The only first-rounder of the remaining quarterbacks in the wild-card round is Ben Roethlisberger, whom the Pittsburgh Steelers made the 11th overall pick of the '04 draft. Roethlisberger has had the best season of his career, battling back from a poor 2006 campaign to make the Pro Bowl.

David Garrard, Roethlisberger's counterpart in Saturday night's game against Jacksonville, joined the Jaguars as a fourth-round choice in 2002. He has been one of the remarkable stories of the '07 season. After the sudden release of Byron Leftwich only days before the Jaguars' season-opener, Garrard suddenly found himself in the No. 1 role. He had plenty to prove as a starter, but responded impressively by leading the Jags to the playoffs.

How satisfying has it been for Garrard?

"It couldn't have been any better," he said. "And I think (it has been) for the team. I think everybody's main goal was to make it to the postseason. I think everybody's definitely happy with what we've done this year, but it's not over. We have a long way to go."

If the wild-card lineup shows us nothing else, it is that playoff quarterbacks can have a wide range of backgrounds.

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