The top four teams in the NFL are the last ones standing come Championship Weekend, and while there’s a pile of intriguing matchups to keep an eye this Sunday, it’s really all about the quarterbacks.
The AFC and NFC title games feature the top three 2015 MVP candidates and Peyton Manning, a five-time MVP himself. It doesn’t get much better.
In one game we’ll see a battle of polar opposites: A seasoned veteran looking for his first real taste of playoff success up against a dynamic, young playmaker on what could be the first of many post-season runs.
The other game? Brady vs. Manning 17. That showdown needs no explanation.
How do these quarterbacks stack up against each other heading into the penultimate day of the NFL season? That sounds like the perfect subject for the latest NFL Playoff Power Rankings.
(Remember: As each round of the playoffs approaches, we're re-ranking the remaining post-season teams vying for the Vince Lombardi Trophy differently. Last week's rankings have no effect on the rankings below.)
1) Tom Brady
After struggling along with his New England Patriots in four of the final six regular-season games, the winningest quarterback in NFL playoff history got back on track in New England’s mostly convincing divisional win over the clock management–challenged Kansas City Chiefs. With Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman both in the lineup for the first time since Nov. 15 and the offensive line playing much better, Brady made a usually stout Chiefs’ pass defence look pretty average. Oh, and he added his sixth playoff rushing TD.
What Brady did in last weekend’s divisional clash is even more impressive given how little the Patriots ran the football—they gained just 38 yards on 14 carries against the Chiefs. Yes, the Broncos boast the league’s best defence and it is a distinct possibility that unit could wreak havoc on Brady, but they’ve fuelled No. 12’s fire over the last couple of days and angry Tom Brady can be mighty scary.
2) Cam Newton
The likely MVP didn’t play much of a role in the Carolina Panthers' way-closer-than-it-should’ve-been victory over the Seahawks on Sunday, throwing for 161 yards (Newton's third-lowest total this season) and a score along with just three rushing yards (his lowest total this season), and the Panthers offence did nothing but punt in the second half.
Despite all that, Newton is the most dangerous weapon in the NFL, as is evident from the astounding 45 total touchdowns he accumulated over the course of the regular season. The former No. 1–overall pick is a game-changer, and his potential is what puts him in the second spot on this list.
If he doesn’t step up against the Cardinals, however, Newton and his team won’t be going to Super Bowl 50.
3) Carson Palmer
Palmer had his worst game of the season against Green Bay last weekend. Straight up.
Statistically, yes, he had worse outings in the regular season. But looking for his first post-season win in the wake of an MVP-type campaign, Palmer was all over the place in Sunday’s thrilling overtime win over the Packers. He looked rattled and almost threw the game away on multiple occasions, including a shockingly uncharacteristic interception in the end zone at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
Palmer does deserve a bit of a break, though—we all have bad days. In fact, Arizona wouldn’t be close to where they are now without the 36-year-old under centre. Much like Newton, though, if Palmer doesn’t get it together against the vicious defensive front of the Panthers, it could get ugly fast (just ask the Seahawks).
4) Peyton Manning
It’s surreal to place one of the best quarterbacks of all time at the bottom of these rankings, but this is right where Manning belongs.
The future Hall of Famer look all right in Denver’s win over the Steelers last weekend, completing 21 of 37 passes despite the fact that his wide receivers dropped nine of his throws. So the outlook isn’t all bad for Manning heading into the 17th clash with his arch-rival.
But there’s no question the all-time passing leader is a shell of his former self, and that’s no dig at Manning—he’s 39! The Broncos can no longer depend on his arm to make plays, which is why it’s essential Denver establish the run game Sunday against the Patriots. The Broncos can’t depend on Manning to earn the W, and so he ranks last here.