Quarterbacks Define NFC Playoff Field

Aaron Rodgers isn't the only superstar passer in the NFC playoffs, a fact that could derail the Packers off of their Super Bowl path. The gauntlet will begin next week, regardless of whether the Packers play the Giants (Eli Manning), Falcons (Matt Ryan) or Lions (Matthew Stafford).

In NFL history, there have been five passing seasons of more than 5,000 yards.

Two of them are in the NFL playoffs with New Orleans' Drew Brees and Detroit's Matthew Stafford. Aaron Rodgers, who is the front-runner to be named NFL MVP, might have reached 5,000 yards had he not been calling the plays rather than running them against the Lions.

Those three are the headliners in what could be the greatest field of starting quarterbacks in NFC playoff history.

"I think you have to add Eli (Manning) into that and Matt Ryan had an exceptional year and Alex (Smith) probably played his best year in seven as well, so this is the trend of the NFL," Rodgers said on Thursday. "You have to have a quarterback playing well to go deep in the playoffs."

Manning, Brees and Rodgers not only have won Super Bowls, but they've been the MVP of Super Bowls in three of the last four years.

Brees set the single-season record for passing yardage this season, with Stafford fifth and Manning sixth. Rodgers set the single-season record for passer rating. Smith led the NFL in interception percentage. Ryan posted career highs for passing yards and rating.

The power-packed quarterback play could be what derails the 15-1 Packers from repeating as Super Bowl champions. In terms of net passing yards (yards minus sacks), the Packers allowed 396 yards to Brees and the Saints, a combined 675 yards in two games against Stafford and the Lions and 347 yards to Manning and the Giants. The Packers, however, held Ryan and the Falcons to 156 yards. In the five games against the four quarterbacks, the Packers allowed 13 touchdowns but had eight interceptions.

Here's how the conference's six starters stacking up against each other with Saturday's playoff openers looming, with analysis provided by Niners Digest's Craig Massei.

1. 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 be considered a clear No. 1 among this extraordinary field. But he can't be considered anything less, either. Not after setting a 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 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 touchdowns. As difficult as it may be to fathom, that yardage total – the 19th-best single-season total in NFL history – ranks only fourth among 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.

2. 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 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 league records this seasons in producing one of the greatest seasons ever by a quarterback. All Brees did was set NFL records 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.

3. Eli Manning, New York

Manning carried a New York team lacking a running game and a reliable defense to the NFC East title and playoff berth. 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 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 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 quarterback over Stafford – who had a better statistical season – simply because he's proven he can win big games.

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 touchdowns 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 and Brees were the others). Stafford threw 663 passes this season, more than any NFL quarterback, which helped his numbers and displayed Detroit's injury-related reliance on the pass. Injuries to flashy Jahvid Best and powerful Mikel Leshoure 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 he helped lead the Lions to a record four victories from deficits of at least 13 points. But he 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 on offense help Ryan keep opposing defenses on their heels. But Ryan has not proven he can come through in big games against big-time quarterback completion. With the Falcons holding homefield advantage throughout the playoffs last year, Ryan was decidedly outplayed by Rodgers in the divisional round, when Ryan threw two interceptions — including a crippling pick-six at the end of the first half — 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

Smith clearly is the one name in this field that has not established himself as a big-time quarterback 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 quarterback in the NFL passer rankings this year who collectively combined for 15,354 yards and 130 passing touchdowns. But Smith has at least one number those quarterbacks 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 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 quarterbacks, 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.

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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