Quick: name the best quarterback matchup from any Super Bowl within the past 20 years. Maybe you're thinking of Aikman v. Kelly; perhaps your mind wandered to Elway v. Favre; Brady v. Warner, like a fine wine, has aged well with time; even Brees v. Manning from this past February might rate.
If we're talking solely about quarterback rating - that complex formula that maxes out at 158.3 and is used to gauge quarterback play - there have actually been two equally compelling quarterback matchups over the past two decades that rate above all of those previously mentioned duels. In 1991, Washington's Mark Rypien, the second-rated passer in the league, beat Buffalo and third-rated signal-caller Jim Kelly in Super Bowl XXVI. 11 years later, Tampa Bay, led by third-rated QB Brad Johnson, defeated second-rated Rich Gannon's Oakland squad.
Believe it or not, based purely on combined quarterback rating, those were the two best quarterback duels we've seen in the past two decades' worth of Super Bowls.
In that same time frame, a few more facts present themselves:
- Only three times in the past 20 years has a team with a quarterback rated outside of the Top 10 in the league won a Super Bowl. Two of those have come within the past three years. In 2000, Baltimore won with future ESPN analyst extraordinaire Trent Dilfer at the helm. New York beat New England behind the up-and-down arm of Eli Manning in 2007, and a year later, Ben Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh came on late to defeat Arizona.
- Only once in the past 20 years have two teams with quarterbacks rated outside of the Top 10 made the Super Bowl. Again, we're talking about the 2000 season, when Baltimore and Dilfer defeated New York and Kerry Collins. That was not the most entertaining of matchups to casual observers, if you recall.
- Super Bowl quarterbacks rated outside of the Top 10 that year are 3-7 in the big game. First and foremost, that means that 75% of Super Bowl quarterbacks in the past two decades were rated in the Top 10 in the league. Discounting the unique matchup in 2000, non-Top 10 quarterbacks are 2-7 against their elite foes.
- 12 of the past 20 Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks were rated in the Top 5 in the league.
What does all of that mean?
The simple adage behind NFL successes - "If you have a quarterback, you can do anything; if you don't have a quarterback, you can do nothing" (paraphrased) - isn't wholly accurate. It's not completely necessary for a team to have a league-renowned, perennially elite quarterback to have a special season, particularly in a modern, highly impatient era of professional football. Your chances skyrocket, however, if your average-to-good quarterback has an elite season. Brad Johnson and Mark Rypien won't be remembered as among the all-time greats, but elite seasons from both, combined with a little luck and a little more help, yielded serious hardware.
That brings us to the upcoming 2010 NFL season, and the 32 quarterbacks that are projected to suit up for their respective teams. There are plenty of outstanding signal-callers in this league, but are there any that, given specific circumstances, can one-year-wonder their team to the promised land? Rather than pump out a run-of-the-mill ranking of the NFL's current signal-callers, we're tailoring this ranking specifically to the 2010 season and its various circumstances.
1. Philip Rivers, Chargers. Yes, the potential holdouts of star receiver and stud left tackle could seriously hinder his status as the No. 1 QB on this list. Rivers, however, is already a dominant player, and he'll face a cupcake schedule in 2010. Expect big numbers regardless of the Jackson and McNeill situations; Rivers is that good.
2. Aaron Rodgers, Packers. He's had two consecutive outstanding seasons since taking over for that other guy Green Bay used to employ. He's grown organically alongside homegrown skill position talent, and shouldn't have any trouble exploiting a pretty average schedule.
4. Brett Favre, Vikings. Assuming he plays - does anyone really doubt that at this point? - Favre will still be in a cushy situation with outstanding talent, plenty of offensive freedom, and a relatively easy schedule.
5. Drew Brees, Saints. The defending Super Bowl MVP will put up big numbers, as usual, but is competing in an improved NFC South, and gets Baltimore and Pittsburgh as well. Tough schedule, but he'll persevere.
6. Tom Brady, Patriots. New England always has a relatively difficult schedule, and Brady's coming off a pedestrian (for him) season. Expecting huge 2007-level numbers is probably ill advised, but Brady's still one of the league's best, regardless of circumstance.
7. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers. Yes, he's suspended. When he returns, he'll re-assume his place as one of the league's truly elite signal-callers. The guy just makes plays, and he makes more of them the bigger the game gets.
8. Matt Ryan, Falcons. Entering his third season, Ryan's reached that "break-out-year" point. He's got talent around him; now's the time to produce. Has a very up-and-down schedule to look forward to.
9. Tony Romo, Cowboys. Dallas had the league's second-best offense in 2009, rating just behind Brees and the Saints. The Cowboys will be better in 2010, but their schedule is fairly treacherous. Of anyone outside the Top 5, Romo has the best shot of cracking that illustrious group.
10. Matt Schaub, Texans. Coming off an excellent 2009 season, the Texans might finally be ready to cash in on the "next big thing" status they've carried for the past three offseasons. Schaub has plenty of weapons in an offense perfectly suited for his skill set.
11. Donovan McNabb, Redskins. He'll need to adjust to a new coach behind a still-terrible line, but McNabb is still a good player. Aside from six brutal divisional games, McNabb won't have too much trouble with the rest of the schedule.
12. Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks. He's a veteran quarterback that will be playing a very, very soft schedule. He was once one of the league's most underrated players; he should have a very solid 2010 season.
13. Joe Flacco, Ravens. That division he plays in is tough, and he'll have tough matchups all year long. Like Ryan, he's reached the "break-out year" point, and he's never had as many offensive weapons as he'll have in 2010.
14. Eli Manning, Giants. One of the toughest quarterbacks to read in the league, Peyton's bro will flash brilliance one week, and resemble a punter-turned-signal-caller the next. With a full year alongside his young receivers under his belt, Manning should rebound nicely.
15. Alex Smith, 49ers. Came out of nowhere in 2009 to put up some surprise performances in leading San Francisco to a 5-3 record over the second half of the season. His 18-TD season showed promise, and he's certainly got a lot of talent around him. Will also benefit from a breezy schedule.
16. Chad Henne, Dolphins. He'll face some of the league's toughest defenses, but also draws some of the league's worst. Miami has a strong running game, a solid line and one of the game's elite receivers for Henne to grow with.
17. Jason Campbell, Raiders. He's always rated efficiently, might actually be in a better situation than he was in a year ago, and will benefit from, again, an easy schedule. You heard it here first: the Raiders could be very serious contenders for an AFC Wild Card slot.
18. Carson Palmer, Bengals. Once regarded as one of the league's absolute best, Palmer was incredibly pedestrian in 2009 while quarterbacking a surprise division champion. It's imperative that Cincinnati improves its passing attack; if they do, they'll be serious AFC contenders once again.
19. Mark Sanchez, Jets. The hotshot rookie was direct hit or laughable miss during the regular season, but had a dynamite post-season run as he finally found his rhythm. He won't have to do much for the Jets to be playoff contenders; if he continues to play the way he did last January, New York is a legitimate Super Bowl favorite.
20. Vince Young, Titans. Sorry, Titans fans, but Vince Young - though he brings unique talents and a winning mentality to the field - won't rate amongst the league's best passers any time soon. That's just not his game.