The top seeds sometimes flop. (Last season, the Falcons and New England were the No. 1 seeds in the playoffs for the NFC and AFC, respectively and each lost their first game.)
The wild cards don’t always fail. (Green Bay was an NFC wild card last season and won four games on the road, including the Super Bowl. Since 1970, 10 wild card teams have reached the Super Bowl and six have won it all.)
So there is hope, Falcons’ fans.
But NFL playoff success almost always starts with coaches and quarterbacks. The Super Bowl winner doesn’t always come from the perceived best duo of the group but it’s as good a gauge as there is.
So with that, here’s how I rank the 12 coach-quarterback duos in the field. Noteworthy: The first five on the list all have won Super Bowls.
1. Green Bay (Mike McCarthy-Aaron Rodgers): The Packers are beat up and showed their flaws down the stretch. But let’s start with this: Every team has flaws. McCarthy and Rodgers are as good as it gets. They coach and play with a chip on their shoulder. Green Bay can win another Super Bowl because of them.
2. New Orleans (Sean Payton-Drew Brees): Both seem to have the Saints driven after getting bounced by Seattle in the first round of the playoffs last year. Brees also is playing as well now as any quarterback we’ve ever seen (25 touchdowns, three interceptions in the last seven games).
3. New England (Bill Belichick-Tom Brady): Brady just completed another great season (39 touchdowns, 12 interceptions) and Belichick somehow squeezed a 13-3 season out of a team with one of the worst defenses in the league. Also, they know how to win playoff games.
4. Pittsburgh (Mike Tomlin-Ben Roethlisberger): I might have them slotted No. 2 if Roethlisberger’s ankle wasn’t the size of a melon. Tomlin is a master motivator and Roethlisberger – his off-field baggage notwithstanding – knows how to win games. But the quarterback’s health is an issue.
5. N.Y.Giants (Tom Coughlin-Eli Manning): People dump on the Giants a lot – this is a team that lost to the Redskins a few weeks ago – but they’re a scary bunch in the postseason. I’ve lost track of how many times Coughlin was supposed to be fired but it must mean something that the Giants didn’t fold. Also, Manning doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves for being a great quarterback, given the weak cast surrounding him – and because he’s the lesser Manning.
6. Baltimore (John Harbaugh-Joe Flacco): Flacco is coming off arguably his worst season. His passer rating of 80.9 was just ahead of his rookie year (80.3), and his yards-per-attempt was less this year than in 2008 (6.7 compared to 6.9). But he has won playoff games three straight years (4-3 overall). Harbaugh has kept the Ravens winning despite a defense not nearly as dominant as it used to be.
7. Falcons (Mike Smith-Matt Ryan): The two have had tremendous regular season success in four years but that hasn’t carried over in the postseason. The only consolation is that they lost in 2008 to Arizona (which went to the Super Bowl) and in 2010 to Green Bay (which won it). Ryan has committed major mistakes in his two postseason games.
8. Detroit (Jim Schwartz-Matt Stafford): Nobody will question Stafford’s talent or, at this point, his toughness (he has endured a lot of injuries). But he’ll be making his postseason debut, and going against Brees won’t be easy. Schwartz usually has the Lions playing hard. But there are some character issues on that team, as evidenced by a cheap-shotting defense, and Schwartz is the chief enabler. And what does it say that Matt Flynn just threw six touchdown passes against them?
9. San Francisco (Jim Harbaugh-Alex Smith): Harbaugh has done a tremendous job in his first season changing the culture in the 49ers locker room and turning them in to a tough and resilient team. There’s no reason to think he won’t have playoff success at some point. I just don’t believe that’s going to happen with Smith at quarterback. The 49ers’ offensive liabilities will catch up with them in the playoffs.
10. Cincinnati (Marvin Lewis-Andy Dalton): The Bengals have been a great story. Credit to Lewis for turning around a team that has been such a punchline in recent seasons and for making the playoffs in the first season without Carson Palmer.
11. Denver (John Fox-Tim Tebow): Fox won’t win coach of the year honors from anybody but he should because getting this roster to the playoffs is as good a job as he’s ever done. I don’t feel up to starting another Tebow blogging bonfire today. But suffice to say, defenses are starting to figure him out. After winning six straight starts, he lost his last three, throwing four interceptions, only one touchdown and completing 41 percent of his passes (30 for 73).
12. Houston (Gary Kubiak-T.J. Yates): Maybe you think the Texas should be ranked higher. But they clearly weren’t the same team down the stretch, losing three straight after a one-point win over the Bengals and an improbable 17-10 win over the Falcons. Yates, the No. 3 quarterback (after injuries to Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart), has been great under the circumstances, but even he has a sore shoulder now.
So there are my rankings. Do you agree with where I have Smith and Ryan, or would you put them higher? Or lower?
By Jeff Schultz