The key to predicting the rest of the playoffs lies with the signal callers
Only Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, and Colin Kaepernick remain in the NFL playoffs.
Who will emerge victorious?
The obvious choice is Tom Brady, who with 17 postseason wins passed Joe Montana and became the all-time leader at QB. He’s led the Patriots to 5 Super Bowls and won 3 of them. The others are grossly inexperienced in comparison. Flacco has been to 2 AFC Championship games and no Super Bowls. Ryan has been to no NFC Championship games. Kaepernick has yet to start for an entire NFL season.
Brady can thank John Fox’s ultraconservative play calling for knocking his biggest AFC threat, Peyton Manning, out of the playoffs. The Broncos were the #1 seed and winners of 11 straight entering the playoffs. Their most recent loss was against the Patriots in week 5, which Denver was certainly eager to avenge.
Now we’ll get a different rematch.
The Patriots and Ravens met last year in the AFC Championship game, when the Patriots won 23-20 to advance to the Super Bowl. The Ravens drove the field, and Flacco placed a pass in Lee Evans’ breadbasket with 30 seconds remaining in the game.
Evans dropped the ball. Billy Cundiff missed a field goal. The Patriots advanced off of the Ravens’ miscues.
Keep in mind, none of those late game miscues were Flacco’s fault. Many critics claim that Flacco wilts under the pressure of big games. He earned that reputation as a rookie and second year quarterback, when he threw more interceptions than touchdowns in the postseason.
Has Flacco exorcised his postseason demons?
At first glance, the answer is yes. His playoff stats over the past three years feature a TD:INT ratio of 12:2. As mentioned earlier, he led the Ravens to what easily could have been a Super Bowl season. His overall record in the postseason is 7-4. He is a capable quarterback with the ability to win a Super Bowl. If Trent Dilfer could do it, why not Joe Flacco?
Flacco’s statistics belie a more troubling trend, however. From 2010-2012, his completion percentage dropped from 64.1% to 57.1% to 52.6%. His yards per attempt rose from 6.1 to 7.65 to 10.75 during those years. That means one thing: Flacco now lives (and dies) by the long ball. Flacco has one of the strongest arms in the NFL, and his recent pairing with speedster Torrey Smith has opened up new possibilities for the Ravens’ passing game. This shift could be interpreted as Flacco moving from a game manager to a game winner. It also means that Flacco depends on large chunks of yardage, which are unpredictable and unsustainable in the NFL.
Let’s reevaluate Flacco from this new lens. Flacco’s pass to Lee Evans in the 2012 Championship Game was from the 14 yard line, so we won’t include that in his boom or bust style of quarterbacking. How about the Broncos game from this weekend though?
Flacco’s completion percentage was a shade under 53 against Denver. Chad Henne completed 53.9% of his passes in Jacksonville this year to come in as the 32nd best QB in the regular season. So 52.9% is not great.
Flacco did pass for 331 yards and 3 TDs. However, if you take out two Torrey Smith touchdowns against aged great Champ Bailey, then his stat line is a meager 240 yards with 1 TD. If you then eliminate his last minute pass to Jacoby Jones, his stat line is a paltry 170 yards with no TDs. So all of Flacco’s scoring and about half of his yardage came on 3 plays.
In other words, Flacco lives by the long ball. And it would not be hard to die by it, either.
It’s not fair to discount plays that happened. You could also point out that Flacco might have completed a few other long balls for even more scoring plays – other opportunities were definitely there on Saturday. Flacco has a big arm, and he has shown that he can win playoff games. Flacco receives an unfair amount of criticism, and I hold myself to my previous logic: if Dilfer could do it, why not Flacco?
The only problem? If John Fox had been more aggressive, it’s highly likely that Flacco would have been waiting for next season again. The Broncos should have iced the game before Flacco threw the improbable 70 yard touchdown. Belichick and Brady showed the Texans that they have what it takes to close out games. Belichick wasn’t even watching when Vereen caught a 33 yard pass to put New England up 38-13.
Brady has the big game experience and will put the Ravens away. That leaves only the NFC in our winning quarterback quandary.
Matt Ryan was drafted the same year as Joe Flacco, but lacked any playoff success until this season. Sunday’s victory over the Seahawks took Matty Ice to 1-3 in the postseason. After his career at Boston College, it is difficult to question Ryan’s abilities in big games. Every one of his losses in the playoffs was to the eventual NFC Champions, two of whom also won the Super Bowl.
Is it Ryan’s turn this year? He finally broke 200 yards in a playoff game, and was methodical under pressure. He calmly led his team to a field goal with only 31 seconds to play against the Seahawks. He is armed with Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, and multiple talented running backs. Many pundits are claiming this season shows Ryan’s ascension to elite status.
It also seems fortunate that Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are not standing in Ryan’s way again this year. Rodgers has a League MVP and Super Bowl MVP to his name, and he made the Packers a popular Super Bowl pick for this year. Colin Kaepernick had something to say about that though.
Kaepernick made his first playoff start against Green Bay and showed the nation why Jim Harbaugh elevated him above Alex Smith. Kaepernick set the all-time QB record for rushing yards in a playoff game with 181. Perhaps the even more impressive part was Kaepernick’s passing. He and Jay Cutler are the only quarterbacks in history to have 2 passing and 2 rushing touchdowns in a playoff game. He didn’t just do it with his feet; the young quarterback was surprisingly accurate.
Kaepernick’s season completion percentage was 62.4% – good for a first year starter (higher than Flacco’s and Ryan’s in 2008). His percentage of 54.8 against a talented Packer secondary was very impressive as well. True, it is only slightly higher than Flacco’s percentage, but the tape shows some very accurate throws (especially the second TD to Michael Crabtree). I say all of that while completely understating his ability as a double threat – 181 yards! He outperformed Michael Vick in his first postseason start. In the words of Packers GM Ted Thompson: “unbelievable.”
All of that spells trouble for an Atlanta team that struggled with Russell Wilson. The Atlanta secondary looked completely lost at times, and I expect Kaepernick to exploit that. The 49ers will roll to the Super Bowl, pitting two of the most successful franchises ever (8 total Super Bowl championships) against each other.
Who will emerge the final victor?
The second year pro who took over for the injured starter. If you don’t believe it can happen, check the history books. Tom Brady will be on the receiving end of his own medicine.
San Francisco 31 – New England 28.