Jerry Sullivan: Come playoff time, it’s all about the quarterback - The Buffalo News
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Jerry Sullivan: Come playoff time, it’s all about the quarterback

This past weekend, Buffalo sports lovers resumed their familiar January ritual: Watching the NFL playoffs unfold through the lens of a desperate and long-suffering Bills fan.

Really, what self-respecting fan wasn’t taken back 21 years and a day, to Jan. 3, 1993, when the Colts were mounting their comeback against the Chiefs on Saturday? How could you miss the eerie parallels?

The Colts fell behind, 38-10, soon after Andrew Luck threw an interception on the first play of the second half. Indy seemed finished. But people said the same thing about the Bills when Bubba McDowell picked off Frank Reich’s pass and ran it back for a TD just 1:41 into the second half of the Comeback, giving Houston a 35-3 lead.

I wonder if Darryl Talley was smiling in front of his TV set at that point, saying “The Colts have them just where they want them!”

Maybe the same thing happened this time. A team with a huge lead scored quickly in the third period and grew overconfident. Like the Oilers of old, perhaps the Chiefs lost just enough of their edge to make the second-greatest comeback in National Football League playoff history possible.

Luck took full advantage, as Reich did a generation before. Luck lifted his teammates, insisting they could prevail in a seemingly hopeless situation. Luck threw four TDs, same as Frank, and willed the Colts to a 45-44 victory on their home field.

And as Luck fashioned a miracle for the new millennium, I could hear Buffalo fans chanting another common refrain: How come the Bills can’t find a quarterback like this, a kid with the arm, mobility and guts to carry a team through tough times?

That’s the other reality of a compelling wild-card weekend. I’m sorry if this gets redundant, but it’s all about the quarterback. Yes, it helps to run the ball effectively and play good defense, especially in the cold. But you need a good QB to win.

Check out next weekend’s divisional round matchups. Then tell me it’s not about the quarterback.

Four of the top seven QBs in career passer rating will be represented in the divisional round: 2. Denver’s Peyton Manning (97.2); 4. San Diego’s Philip Rivers (96.0); 6. New England’s Tom Brady (95.7); and 7. New Orleans’ Drew Brees (95.3). (Aaron Rodgers is No. 1).

Some people sneer at passer ratings, but that seems like a good reflection of greatness to me. The NFL and its all-powerful TV moguls have to be salivating at the thought of those four veterans competing for a spot in the conference finals.

They also have to be thrilled by the balance of young and old among the QBs still contending for a Super Bowl. Manning, Brady, Brees and Rivers are all 31 or older. They represent the old guard, the pocket passers who run mainly out of necessity.

The other four quarterbacks are young guys who represent the modern shift toward the mobile QB. Carolina’s Cam Newton, San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Indy’s Luck are gifted dual threats who can beat you with their arm and their legs.

Oh, and all four are rising products of the 2011 (Newton, Kaepernick) and 2012 (Luck, Wilson) drafts. That’s great for the league and, presumably, for TV ratings.

Ratings were very good last weekend (so much for the idea that the violence and concussion issues would hurt the NFL’s standing). Imagine how good the ratings will be next weekend. Last year, remember, there were a record number of points scored in the divisional round games.

The quarterback matchups should spike interest even higher: Luck and Tom Brady will square off at Gillette Stadium in prime time on Saturday. Can Luck, propelled by the historic win over K.C., carry the Colts to an upset over the Patriots? It didn’t go so well a year ago in Foxborough, when the Pats drilled the Colts, 59-24, in Luck’s rookie season.

Saturday’s early game has the Saints in Seattle, where the loudest fans in the sport will try to rattle Brees, who was ineffective in a 34-7 loss to the Seahawks last month.

They say Brees can’t get it done on the road. But in his last two road playoff losses, he was 39-for-60 for 404 yards and two TDs (at Seattle in 2011) and 40-for-63 for 462 yards and 4 TDs (at San Fran in 2012).

The first game Sunday features San Francisco at Carolina in a matchup of Kaepernick and Newton, two extraordinary athletes taken in the 2011 draft. Newton came of age as a leader this season. Kaepernick struggled at times this season, but he made the difference down the stretch in the bitter cold against the Packers in the wild-card round.

Finally, the Broncos host the surprising Chargers, who ride a five-game winning streak and a resurgent Rivers into the divisional round. It’s a clash of quarterbacks whose career playoff achievements haven’t measured up to their gaudy regular-season statistics.

Manning threw an NFL-record 55 TD passes in the regular season, leading the Broncos to a record 606 points. The pressure will be on Manning to do what he failed to accomplish on his way to being named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year in 2013 – win a playoff game.

Fans can only hope this week’s games are as entertaining as the wild-card games. Think of the potential conference championship matchups: We could get Manning vs. Brady; or Luck-Brady; Newton vs. Wilson; maybe Brees-Newton or Kaepernick-Wilson in a conference final between rivals from the same NFC division.

It’ll be a weekend when NFL passing greats attempt to add to their legends, and when the rising young elite look to prove themselves and construct legends of their own. Whatever the case, it should be a treat for fans who of quarterback play.

Bills fans, meanwhile, can only sigh and lament the fact that their team still hasn’t found a worthy successor to Jim Kelly – despite failing to reach the playoffs a league-high 14 years in a row.

So you sit and watch the playoffs go by, observing the top quarterbacks in action, and trying to convince yourself that EJ Manuel will be in their company some day soon.


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