With few exceptions, Super Bowls are won by teams with a great quarterback and a great head coach. Or in the case of the Baltimore Ravens in 2001, a defense so great that it can overcome Trent Dilfer.
Results by Matt Ryan and the Mike Smith-coached Falcons this season suggest Atlanta is in a pretty good spot to go to the Super Bowl for only the second time in franchise history, and possibly win it. Ryan is having the best season of his career. Smith has kept his team focused and ascending over the past four weeks (exception: the Carolina game) and upgraded his staff with coordinators Mike Nolan (defense) and Dirk Koetter (offense).
What Ryan and Smith both lack is a playoff resume. Here are my rankings of the potential 15 quarterback-coach combinations in the playoff field (10 teams that have clinched, five that are in the hunt):
1. Tom Brady-Bill Belichick (New England): It has been eight seasons since the Patriots have won a Super Bowl. But with a game on the line, Brady and Belichick (three Super Bowls won, two lost) still rank above any other duo. The Patriots are the league’s highest-scoring team (35.3) and probably still the most feared team, despite a very average defense.
2. Aaron Rodgers-Mike McCarthy (Green Bay): The only quarterback with more touchdown passes than Rodgers (35) is Drew Brees (39). The difference: Rodgers has eight interceptions, Brees 18. The Packers were probably the best team in the league last season, but killed themselves with four turnovers in the playoffs against New York.
3. (Not in) Eli Manning-Tom Coughlin (N.Y. Giants): The Giants likely will miss the playoffs, which should comfort everybody else. For as many regular season problems as they’ve had, Manning and Coughlin have won eight of their last nine postseason games, including two Super Bowls.
4. Peyton Manning-John Fox (Denver): Fox made it to a Super Bowl in his second season with Carolina. Manning lost his first three playoff games but won seven of his next 10, including a Super Bowl. Personally, I think Denver is a little overrated because of a soft schedule (helped by the AFC West), but Manning and Fox aren’t going to be an easy out.
5. Joe Flacco-John Harbaugh (Baltimore): The defense isn’t as strong as past Baltimore teams. But the Ravens have never been one-and-done in four postseasons with Flacco and Harbaugh. Flacco has seven touchdown passes and two interceptions in his last four playoff games.
6. Matt Ryan-Mike Smith (Falcons): They’re 0-3 in the playoffs and had better performances as quarterback/head coach rookies in 2008 than the last two years. Lost to two Super Bowl winners (Green Bay and New York) and one finalist (Arizona) is some consolation. But the last two years the team didn’t look prepared for the moment.
7. Matt Schaub-Gary Kubiak (Houston): Schaub has never taken a playoff snap. Kubiak coached in his first postseason last year, impressively winning a game with a rookie backup quarterback (T.J. Yates). The Texans are similar to the Falcons: a playoff unknown.
8. Colin Kaepernick-Jim Harbaugh (San Francisco): Harbaugh is a great coach, making it to the NFC title game in his first postseason (losing to the Giants in overtime). But switching to a rookie, Kaepernick, in midseason from Alex Smith was a big risk, even if Kaepernick has a bigger upside.
9. (Not in) Tony Romo-Jason Garrett (Dallas): Tony Romo is talented and tough, but he still makes too many mistakes in big moments and he’s only 1-4 in the playoffs. Jason Garrett might just be keeping the job warm for Sean Payton.
10. (Not in) Robert Griffin III-Mike Shanahan (Washington): Shanahan won two Super Bowls in Denver, he’s one of the best offensive/quarterback coaches in history and he’s done a nice job with RGIII. But Griffin probably is too banged up to expect a long playoff run (if the Redskins get in).
11. Andy Dalton-Marvin Lewis (Cincinnati): Marvin Lewis has been in Cincinnati for a long time (10 years) for a guy who’s never won a playoff game.
12. Andrew Luck-Chuck Pagano (Indianapolis): Luck (taking over for Manning) and Pagano (coming back from leukemia) makes for the best story of the playoffs. The Colts could be a dangerous team in the playoffs.
13. Russell Wilson-Pete Carroll (Seattle): Two guys who have far exceeded expectations. But sorry. I’m not buying in. The Seahawks (3-5 on road) will be a one-and-done wild card.
14. (Not in) Jay Cutler-Lovie Smith (Chicago): Cutler has the talent, just not always the head or leadership to go with it.
15. (Not in) Christian Ponder-Leslie Frazier (Minnesota): If we were ranking running games (Adrian Peterson), the Vikings would be a lot higher.
By Jeff Schultz