12:21 AM CST, January 9, 2014
RENTON, Wash. — One side has five Super Bowl rings, six most-valuable-player awards, 35 Pro Bowls and 62 postseason starts.
On the other, the boundless promise of what might be.
There are eight remaining quarterbacks in the NFL playoffs, and they fall neatly into two categories. It's the decorated superstars, each with at least 10 years' experience — Denver's Peyton Manning, New England's Tom Brady, New Orleans' Drew Brees and San Diego's Philip Rivers — and the skyrocketing next generation, each with three seasons or fewer and a combined eight playoff games — Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, Carolina's Cam Newton, San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick and Seattle's Russell Wilson.
There are contrasting styles and different situations among the quarterbacks, but the players also share a common thread.
"To be a really good quarterback you have to be clutch," Wilson said Wednesday. "You watch these quarterbacks the past few weeks, and these guys have been clutch."
Clutch, as in Rivers' guiding the Chargers to four consecutive December victories to sneak into the playoffs, then toppling heavily favored Cincinnati on the road in a wild-card game.
Clutch, as in Manning's setting NFL records with 5,477 yards passing and 55 touchdowns, two years after everyone — including Manning — thought his career might be over because of neck problems.
Clutch, as in Luck's digging his team out of a four-touchdown hole in a first-round game against Kansas City, at one point scooping up a ball that had been jarred loose at the goal line and, instead of falling to the ground to cover it up, leaping forward Superman-style for a touchdown.
"I saw that and thought, 'I wouldn't even have thought to do that,'" said retired quarterback Rich Gannon, a former NFL MVP. "I would have just jumped on it, whereas he just picked it up, jumped over a guy and leaned forward. Luck will lull you to sleep, because he has speed and strength and power if he wants to run."
That illustrates another line separating the two foursomes of remaining quarterbacks. With the occasional exception of Brees, the older ones are reluctant to tuck the ball and run, whereas the next generation will frequently make plays with their feet.
"There are coaches who have always felt that if you're going to be good, and you're going to win a big game, your quarterback has to run three or four times for a first down on third down," Hall of Fame coach John Madden said.
"Now that old-timer group, or whatever you call them, none of them are going to run three or four times for a first down. But the other group is going to. Brees, Brady, Manning … they're going to win it by throwing the ball. The other guys are going to win it by throwing it, and somewhere during the game getting a big run to keep drives going."
A look at the elite eight remaining quarterbacks:
The knack: Clear space for a fifth MVP award because Manning has had one of the greatest seasons in NFL history. His league records — 5,477 yards passing, 55 touchdown passes and five Broncos with at least 10 touchdowns.
The knock: Manning dominates the record books and has a Super Bowl ring, although his critics say he should have more. Despite his gaudy regular-season records, his teams are 9-11 in the playoffs with eight one-and-dones.
The knack: The Patriots lose their top five returning pass catchers, and voila, they're back in the playoffs. That's Brady. He directed five game-winning drives this season — including thrilling comebacks against New Orleans, Denver and Cleveland — and is reliably clutch in the playoffs, with a 17-7 postseason record.
The knock: It's like pointing out a door ding on a Ferrari, but Brady hasn't won a Super Bowl in nine years. Still, his three rings are three more than most NFL quarterbacks will ever own.
The knack: After three frustratingly inconsistent seasons, Rivers has been phenomenal. He had 32 touchdowns and 11 interceptions this season and guided the Chargers to huge upset victories on the road against Philadelphia, Kansas City, Denver and Cincinnati.
The knock: There were some missed opportunities this season — losses to Washington and Miami come to mind — but otherwise there haven't been a lot of knocks on Rivers. Still, winning twice at Denver in a month is a tall order.
The knack: Brees has a Super Bowl ring, a 6-4 record in the playoffs, and has thrown for 5,000-plus yards in each of the last three seasons. As quarterback-coach combinations go, it's tough to beat the offensive know-how of Brees and Coach Sean Payton.
The knock: Although they were 8-0 at home this season, the Saints were 3-5 on the road. They were able to win at Philadelphia, but Saturday return to Seattle, where they lost, 34-7, on Dec. 2.
The knack: In addition to last weekend's miraculous finish against Kansas City, Luck has 10 comebacks in the fourth quarter or overtime. His 22 victories in his first two seasons are the second-most by any quarterback in his first two seasons since 1970; Wilson has 24.
The knock: It's not all Luck, but the Colts routinely fell behind this season, and had ugly losses to Arizona and St. Louis. Luck is typically outstanding, but occasionally hangs on to the ball a bit too long when trying to make a play.
The knack: Newton is finishing games this season, a marked improvement from last fall, when he failed to slam the door on several occasions. In their first two seasons with Newton at quarterback, the Panthers were 2-12 in games decided by seven points or fewer.
The knock: The biggest drawback to Newton is his lack of postseason experience. This is his first playoff game. He had a rare meltdown game — most notably four interceptions in a loss to Detroit — but was picked only three times in the final six games.
The knack: A playmaker and motivator, Wilson is one of only four players in NFL history to pass for at least 20 touchdowns in each of his first two seasons, along with Dan Marino, Manning and Andy Dalton. His career passer rating of 100.6 ranks first in team history.
The knock: The Seahawks have cooled on offense in recent weeks, leaning more on their top-ranked scoring defense. The offensive emphasis this week has been on improving in the red zone and on third down.
The knack: Kaepernick is in some lofty 49ers company. With 3,197 yards passing, and 524 rushing, he joins Steve Young as the only San Francisco quarterback with more than 3,000 yards passing and 500 rushing in a season. Kaepernick's postseason passer rating of 93.9 is second in team history to Joe Montana's 98.2.
The knock: Although he struggled to find his groove earlier this season, Kaepernick got considerably more comfortable when receiver Michael Crabtree returned. Interceptions haven't been a problem this season — Kaepernick had eight — but he gave the 49ers a scare in the first-round game at Green Bay, when one of his passes was picked off and two more were dropped by Packers.
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