This could be the greatest field of starting quarterbacks in NFC playoff history. It certainly is the most prolific. And there is Alex Smith, right in the middle of five other NFC QBs who combined this season to throw for an astronomical 24,267 yards and 190 TDs passing. Even after delivering the best performance of his seven-year career, Smith has a difficult time measuring up with this group.
If this year's conference playoff tournament turns into a throwing contest, Smith will be a decided underdog against each of the other passing heavyweights who share space with him and the 49ers in this year's field of NFC contenders.
Smith had a career-high 3,150 yards passing this season – the most by a San Francisco quarterback in nine seasons – and he still didn't even come within 1,000 yards of any other QB in this year's stacked NFC postseason derby.
There's no shame in that, since the conference produced some of the most spectacular individual passing seasons in NFL history. Quarterbacks figure to be an even larger factor than usual in this year's NFC tournament, and here's how we see the conference's six starters stacking up against each other with Saturday's playoff openers looming.
1a. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay
As the reigning Super Bowl MVP for the reigning Super Bowl champions, Rodgers deservedly enters the playoffs as the reigning king of all NFC signal-callers. Long live the king. But despite being a consensus favorite for NFL MVP honors this season after producing an extraordinary, record-setting year for the 15-1 Packers, Rodgers can't even be considered a clear No. 1 among this extraordinary field. But he can't be considered anything less, either. Not after setting a new NFL record with a 122.5 passer rating, truly a remarkable number. Not after throwing 45 touchdown passes against just six interceptions. Not after throwing for 4,643 yards, a number that would have been even greater if Rodgers had not sat out Green Bay's season finale, a game in which his backup threw for franchise-record totals of 480 yards and six TDs. As difficult as it may be to fathom, that yardage total – the 19th-best single-season total in NFL history – ranks only fourth amongst this group. But Rodgers has proven all season that he's the best of the best, and he can beat any defense from anywhere on the field. And he just keeps getting better and better the closer the Packers get to the end zone, which is often. Rodgers has thrown 30 touchdown passes and just one interception this season when the Packers get in the red zone. That pinpoint production will be difficult for anybody else to match, or perhaps even approach.
1b. Drew Brees, New Orleans
In any other season, Rodgers would be a unanimous, no-doubt-about-it, nobody-even-close No. 1. But you can also say the same for Brees, because that's the kind of season he had in New Orleans for the 13-3 Saints. While Rodgers was setting new league standards in Green Bay, Brees was setting even more of them down in the Big Easy, where the Saints will open the playoffs with an eight-game winning streak and one of the hottest quarterbacks in NFL history. Brees, who has his own Super Bowl ring and MVP trophy from when he took the Saints to the NFL title two seasons ago, set a gaggle of meaningful league records this year that clearly insinuate the 11th-year veteran had the greatest season ever by a quarterback. All Brees did was set new NFL standards for passing yards (5,476), completion percentage (71.2), completions (468), first downs passing (278), 300-yard games (13) and consecutive 300-yard games (seven). He also put up a glittering passer rating of 110.6. The New Orleans passing game became virtually unstoppable over the final two months of the season, and nobody is in a better groove entering the playoffs than Brees. Even with Rodgers around, there's just no way he gets anything less than a co-No. 1 ranking.
3. Eli Manning, New York
Manning is the third member of this group with a Super Bowl ring and a Super Bowl MVP trophy to go with it, and he completely carried a New York team lacking a running game and a reliable defense to the NFC East title and playoff berth that went with it. With both of those prizes on the line in last week's season finale against Dallas, Manning shredded the Cowboys for 346 yards and three touchdowns passing to validate the finest season of his career. Manning threw for 4,933 yards this season – the No. 6 total in NFL history – surpassing his previous career high by more than 900 yards. He also threw 29 touchdown passes and finished with a solid 92.9 passer rating. He doesn't move as well in the pocket as other quarterbacks and can be a little streaky, but when Manning is on, he can be as good as anybody both in production and in the clutch. Especially in the clutch, as he has shown many times. Manning got the NFC's third Pro Bowl berth at QB over Detroit's Matthew Stafford
– who had a better statistical season – simply because everybody knows Manning's still the better quarterback.
4. Matthew Stafford, Detroit
At the tender age of 23, Stafford is at least three years younger than any other quarterback in this group, but he displayed a lot of precociousness this season while lifting the Lions to the postseason and ending one of the league's longest playoff droughts. Stafford lit it up most of the season and came on strong at the end of it, throwing 14 TD passes with only two interceptions over the Lions' final four games to push Detroit into the postseason for the first time since 1999. Stafford had a league-high 1,919 yards passing over the season's final five games, helping him finish with video-game passing numbers that included 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns through the air. He is one of just four NFL quarterbacks to throw for 5,000 yards in a season, with three of the others also doing it in 2011 (New England's Tom Brady
joining Brees and Stafford). Stafford threw 663 passes this season, more than any NFL quarterback, which helped his numbers and also displayed Detroit's over-reliance on the pass. That could be a factor in the playoffs, because Stafford will need a run game to help keep the heat off, or else he and the Lions will go into full shootout mode, which they had to do several times this season. Stafford, however, has proven capable keeping pace in those kind of circumstances, and his 97.2 passer rating ranked fifth in the NFL. But he also can be rattled and can stand up to only so much constant pressure, like was evidenced in San Francisco's 25-19 victory at Detroit in Week 6. The 49ers came after Stafford relentlessly in that game, and by the end of it, Stafford was winging soft underthrown passes into the turf and looking like a beaten quarterback who just wanted to get the game over with.
5. Matt Ryan, Atlanta
There is a temptation to rate Ryan ahead of Stafford, just because he's done this a little longer and a little better over a more sustained period of time. Ryan had a tremendous Pro Bowl season last year while leading the Falcons to the NFC's best record and No. 1 playoff seed, and he backed it up this season with another outstanding campaign that saw the four-year veteran throw for career highs of 4,177 yards and 29 touchdowns passing. Ryan may have the best set of top-three targets in the NFC field in receivers Roddy White
and Julio Jones
and tight end Tony Gonzalez
, and the diverse threats they present an offense helps Ryan and keeps opposing defenses on their heels. But Ryan still has yet to prove he can come through in big games against big-time quarterback completion. With the Falcons holding home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, Ryan was decidedly outplayed by Rodgers in last year's divisional round, when Ryan threw two picks and took five sacks. He also was no match for Brees in two regular-season encounters this season. And big-time quarterbacks are all Ryan will face in this year's playoffs, beginning Sunday against Manning.
6. Alex Smith, San Francisco
That is, unless Ryan can lead the Falcons past the Giants for the first playoff victory of his career, and Stafford somehow leads Detroit to a huge upset over Brees in New Orleans. That would leave the fourth-seeded Falcons coming to San Francisco to play the 49ers in the divisional round. And that scenario would pit Ryan against Smith, who clearly is the one name in this field that has not established himself as a big-time QB in the NFL. But this postseason could be Smith's platform to do it, because winning is ultimately the highest standard by which NFL quarterbacks are measured. Smith has fewer wins as a starter this season than just one quarterback, Rodgers, and he has as many wins as Brees and Brady. Those are the biggest of the big-time quarterbacks. So Smith must be doing something right, even if he doesn't have the wow-inspiring numbers of Rodgers, Brees and Brady, the top three QBs in the NFL passer rankings this year who collectively combined for 15,354 yards and 130 touchdowns passing. But Smith has at least one number those QBs can't match – his five interceptions were the fewest of any NFL starter, and Smith's poised direction of San Francisco's offense and ability to protect the football helped the Niners tie the NFL record for fewest turnovers in a season with 10. Smith also was efficient throwing the football, completing 61.3 percent of his passes and finishing with a career-best 90.7 passer rating, which ranked ninth in the NFL. But that still was below the other five NFC playoff QBs, who all ranked in the top eight. And that, along with several other factors, leaves San Francisco's playoff upstart ranked behind the others as the NFC's second season begins.