It has been amusing the past few days as I’ve sorted through comments and emails from readers who’ve declared, “See! See! I told you the Falcons were lucky and Matt Ryan is just average.”
My position is that 13-3 teams aren’t lucky. Teams that win games at the end deserve to.
We all have this perception about what a 13-3 team is, and anybody north of 40 will tell you that 13-3 teams 20 years ago generally were a lot better than 13-3 teams today.
Today, every team is flawed – right down to the 14-2 New England Patriots, who have not won a playoff game in the last three seasons.
When the Falcons were toasted by Green Bay, I wrote that they’re at the point where they should be judged by the playoffs, not the regular season. Coach Mike Smith echoed that sentiment.
Similarly, Ryan will be judged by how he fares in postseasons. Thus far, he has made major mistakes in two playoff games that contributed to losses to Green Bay and Arizona.
But here’s the mistake some are making: They’re making assumptions about Ryan’s future. We have no idea what Ryan will become. The best thing I can point to is the four remaining quarterbacks in the playoffs. Outside of all being former first-round draft picks, they couldn’t be less alike. Consider.
Jay Cutler, Chicago (fifth season)
What people thought before this season: knucklehead.
While Cutler always was considered to have immense talent, his arrogance and aloof nature turned people off even back at Vanderbilt. He was erratic at Denver, where he played for Mike Shanahan, who at the time was one of the NFL’s best quarterback and offensive coaches. (Unfortunately, Shanahan has since gone crazy.) Cutler outlasted Shanahan (who was fired), but not by long, as new coach Josh McDaniels orchestrated his trade to Chicago. In his first season with the Bears, Cutler went 7-9 with a career-high 26 interceptioins.
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay (sixth season, third as starter)
What people thought before this season: Can’t win the big one.
Rodgers waited behind Brett Favre until his fourth season before getting the starting job, and he has gotten better in each of his three seasons. Given the way he shredded the Falcons last week, he belongs in the best-quarterback-in-NFL conversation with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. But the Packers missed the playoffs in his first year as a starter and lost at Arizona last season. But in this postseason he has won two road playoff games, far outplaying Ryan and Michael Vick. A new legacy is born.
Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh (seventh season)
What people thought before this season: degenerate.
The biggest reason some fans won’t pull for the Steelers over the obnoxious Jets this week is Roethlisberger. He already has won two Super Bowls (proven) but he morphed from arrogant as a rookie to borderline degenerate off the field, punctuated by his actions in Milledgeville. He was fortunate to escape jail time. Home fans turned on him. Trade whispers ensued. Few projected he would have a strong season but he has. Now he’s one home win away from going to his third Super Bowl.
Mark Sanchez, New York (2nd season)
What people thought before this season: Actually, same as now, but not two years ago.
Some, including his own coach at USC, Pete Carroll, believed Sanchez left college too early. He went only 8-7 as a rookie starter — the Jets won a game without him when he was sat down for an injury — but then he won two playoff games. There’s a tendency to overrate and underrate any team or athlete in New York. But here’s the only number you need to know. When the Jets play at Pittsburgh Sunday, Sanchez will already be playing in his sixth – sixth! – playoff game in two years. He is 4-1 – and every game has been on the road.
By Jeff Schultz