“Tom Brady” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Keith Allison
As the 2016 NFL season reaches its conclusion, we’re left with four of the league’s best quarterbacks set to do battle over the course of two Championship games and, ultimately, Super Bowl LI. The quality quartet of quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger, have all proven their future Hall of Fame status throughout their respective careers, and the four experienced signal callers have all once again been key to their teams reaching this stage of the postseason. Following a fascinating regular campaign, the opening couple of rounds of the playoffs have thrown up a number of surprises as we enter the real business end of proceedings.
While all three of the four quarterbacks are still in contention to get their hands on the Vince Lombardi trophy, Matt Ryan is preparing to compete in his first ever Championship game. But while Rodgers, Brady and Roethlisberger might have experience on their side, the Atlanta man is playing as well as any quarterback until this point in the season, and the race to lift the Super Bowl crown still looks an extremely open one. The bookmakers and experts might be leaning one way as we enter the final few weeks of the postseason, but you only have to look at the past 12 months to see that anything can happen in the playoffs.
While last year’s Super Bowl winners, the Denver Broncos, were thankful to their defense rather than their quarterback, an ageing Peyton Manning, all the signs are pointing towards this season’s winners being an offensive-led team. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the four quarterbacks looking to lead their teams over the final couple of hurdles and to Super Bowl glory in Houston on February 5.
Tom Brady (New England Patriots)
At 39, Tom Brady is defying his advancing years and still playing some of the best football of his career. One of the greatest quarterbacks in a generation, those waiting for Brady to slow down don’t look any closer to witnessing the veteran begin to show his age. The Patriots stalwart has shown he knows what it takes to reach the season finale, starting six Super Bowls during his career. The fact he is two victories away from being able to adorn all five fingers on his magical right hand in Super Bowl winner’s rings shows he definitely knows how to win on the biggest stage of all. Playing in a New England team that have looked almost unplayable at times this year, many feel Brady already has one hand on the Vince Lombardi trophy, although the Steelers will certainly have something to say about that.
Having missed the opening four games of the regular season due to his “Deflategate” suspension, Brady silenced his critics in the best possible way when he made his long-awaited return to action against the Cleveland Browns in October, completing 28 of his 40 attempted passes for 406 yards and three touchdowns as the Patriots ran out 33-13 winners. It was a similar story the following week as a Brady-inspired New England team ran over the Bengals. From there, even the fiercest Brady critic could argue the quarterback’s form wasn’t absolutely incredible. While Brady’s achievements in the game will ensure his name goes down in history, with a contract until the end of the 2019 season, the three-time Super Bowl MVP could theoretically win another three championships before he retires.
Brady’s level of performance didn’t drop following his return, ending the regular season with an 11-1 record. Following such a disappointing start to the year, Brady seemed even more determined than ever to make sure he ended the 2016 season by leading the Patriots to a fifth Super Bowl title. But before thoughts of victory speeches and bus parades, Brady knows he’ll need to be at his best in their upcoming AFC Championship clash against a Pittsburgh Steelers. As well as boasting their own footballing genius in Ben Roethlisberger, and a defense that definitely won’t just turn up simply to lie down and let the Patriots do what they want, anything less than a peak Brady performance could see New England’s season end at the final hurdle for a second season running.
Ben Roesthlisberger (Pittsburgh Steelers)
A knee injury might have bothered Big Ben at times this year, but the 34-year old has looked back to full fitness in recent weeks – and just at the right time for the Steelers. In his 14 regular season games, Roesthlisberger was again one of the league’s stand-out quarterbacks, earning his fifth Pro Bowl selection. After an impressive victory over the Miami Dolphins in their Wild Card game many who bet on the NFL saw coming, Pittsburgh had to come from behind against a strong Kansas City outfit to book their place in the AFC Championship clash against the Patriots. While he might not have been at his best against the Chiefs, Roesthlisberger will be essential to the Steelers chances of beating many people’s favourites to win this season’s Super Bowl.
“Ben Roethlisberger” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Keith Allison
Coming up against one of the four quarterbacks to have ever won three or more Super Bowls in Tom Brady, Big Ben could become the fifth member of that elite group if he can go all the way this season. At 34-years old, it was no real surprise to see Pittsburgh hand their quarterback a new five-year contract last season. Never one of the most mobile players in his position, Roesthlisberger might not have the same physical attributes of the likes of Cam Newton. But what he lacks in fleet of foot is made up in his quick thinking and ability to find space where there seemingly is none, and Pittsburgh’s success since the quarterback made his debut in 2004 certainly hasn’t been coincidental.
With two Super Bowl championships to his name, Roesthlisberger will long be remembered as one of this generation’s best quarterbacks, although a third title would do his legacy no harm. For a long time, though, the Pittsburgh man has been overshadowed by the likes of Peyton Manning and Brady. That said, closing in on his fourth appearance at the Super Bowl, Roesthlisberger has a strong argument to suggest he should be remembered amongst those greats when he does walk away from the sport. For the next few years, though, the Steelers veteran will be purely focused on adding at least another Super Bowl ring to his collection.
Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay Packers)
Six long years since he guided the Green Bay Packers to Super Bowl glory, Aaron Rodgers has almost singlehandedly dragged his team to the Conference Championship Game for the third time in his career. Rodgers might not have started the season especially well, failing to stop the Packers from slumping to 4-6 record by Round 11, but he’s certainly ending it in intimidating form, playing a key role as the franchise went on a six-game winning run to end the regular season. Having come so close to failing to reach the postseason, Rodgers has done everything in his power to make sure Green Bay now make the most of their chance.
From his overall game management to his now trademark “Hail Mary” passes, the Packers quarterback has been in incredible form during the second half of the regular season and into the playoffs. While he was allowed to run rampage against the New York Giants in the Wild Card game, Rodgers came through a tougher test in the thrilling 34-31 win over the Dallas Cowboys in Divisional Playoff. Coming up against an Atlanta Falcons defense that hasn’t looked the most solid in the league this year, Rodgers’ biggest performance of the season could be yet to come. The 33-year old knows what it’s like to lose at this stage and that pain will only add fuel to the fire of Green Bay signal caller as he prepares for the biggest game of the season.
“James Starks, Aaron Rodgers” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Keith Allison
It’s hard to count the number of occasions Rodgers has popped up to save the day for the Packers, and that was no more evident than in the amazing game against the Cowboys in the last round. Having raced to a 21-3 lead, Green Bay found themselves being trounced by Dallas throughout the rest of the game, tied on 31 points with 35 seconds left off the fourth quarter. Up steps Rodgers, throwing a perfect pass to tight end Jared Cook to secure the Packers passage into the Conference Championship Game. With the Falcons now standing between Rodgers and the chance at winning a second Super Bowl, the six-time Pro Bowler knows this could be his best chance in a long time of repeating his 2010 success.
Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons)
Unlike the three other quarterbacks on this list, Atlanta’s Ryan will be playing in his first ever Conference Championship Game when he lines up against the Green Bay Packers. But while yet doesn’t have the Super Bowl winners rings that Brady, Roesthlisberger and Rodgers have, Ryan has definitely done enough to find himself among such illustrious names heading into the final couple of weeks of the season. While the Falcons have had to work hard to get themselves into the Conference Finals, without Ryan it’s hard to see how Atlanta would have made it this far, highlighted by the quarterback being named the NFL’s MVP after throwing a career-high 4,944 yards during the regular season.
At 31 and his ninth season as a starting quarterback in the NFL, Ryan enjoyed a real breakthrough year in 2016, recording career-highs in touchdowns and yards, as well as a career low in interceptions. While those stats will have pleased the former first round pick, his performance in the 36-20 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Divisional Playoffs will have really solidified this season for a player who had entered the postseason with a pretty salty 1-4 record in the playoffs. Having gone seven points behind in the first quarter against the Seahawks, the Falcons turned the game on its head in the second period to run out comfortable winners, with Ryan throwing 338 yards and three touchdowns in his first postseason victory since 2012.
“Atlanta Falcons” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Keith Allison
After a shocking start to the season, Atlanta managed to negotiate their way around some tricky spells before managing to finish top of the NFC South. Unlike Green Bay, however, the Falcons didn’t have to come through a Wild Card game on their way to this point of the playoffs. For Ryan, having that extra week break will only benefit him after his seventh straight season of starting all 16 regular season games. He might not have the same level of experience as his opposite number when he lines up against Aaron Rodgers, but based on this year’s form, Ryan will be rightly confident that this is the season he finally gets the opportunity to play in a Super Bowl – something that has eluded him during his career so far.
Who will come out on top?
So which quarterback will come out on top when all is said and done? Well, while the Patriots are being tipped by many, from pundits to bookmakers, the way Ryan and his Falcons team have been playing this season has convinced some that this could finally be Atlanta’s year. In Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roesthlisberger, though, Green Bay and Pittsburgh have quarterbacks who are more than capable of upsetting the apple cart.
One thing we do know, though, is that this year’s Super Bowl will feature two of the best quarterbacks currently playing the game, and we really could be in for a classic.