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Tom Brady vs. Ben Roethlisberger matchup is proof you need an elite QB to win the AFC

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No matter who wins Sunday, a familiar quarterback is going to the Super Bowl.

NFL: AFC Divisional-Houston Texans at New England Patriots Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a parity problem in the AFC. As the last 16 years have shown, unless you have a quarterback named Brady, Manning, or Roethlisberger, you probably aren’t getting to the Super Bowl.

The AFC once again will be sending a familiar passer to Super Bowl LI. Either Ben Roethlisberger or Tom Brady has been the conference’s representative behind center for nine of the last 15 Super Bowls. It’ll soon be 10 out of 16 when the Steelers and Patriots face off for the AFC Championship.

That 60 percent rate stands as proof as to just how important quarterback play is in the AFC. Add four-time MVP Peyton Manning to the mix, and those three veteran signal callers show up in 87 percent (13/15) of the conference’s big game lineups. Only Rich Gannon and Joe Flacco, two solid quarterbacks in their own right, have been able to break the triumvirate's streak of playing in the season’s final game.

The trio of likely Hall of Famers has been solid in the Super Bowl. Together, Brady, Manning, and Roethlisberger have carried the AFC to an 8-5 record. In all, the conference has won 60 percent of the league’s championships since the Patriots quarterback made his first title game appearance.

That kind of consistency fails to translate to the NFC. Eli Manning, Russell Wilson, and Kurt Warner each made a pair of appearances, but a deeper look reveals some passers who won’t sniff a Hall of Fame ballot. Kerry Collins is in there, along with Matt Hasselback, and Jake Delhomme. Brad Johnson has a Super Bowl ring. Squint hard enough and you can still see the ghost of Rex Grossman in the Lombardi Trophy, futilely throwing into triple coverage.

Super Bowl Quarterbacks in last 16 years

Season AFC team QB All-Pro? NFC team QB All-Pro?
Season AFC team QB All-Pro? NFC team QB All-Pro?
2001 Patriots Tom Brady Y Rams Kurt Warner Y
2002 Raiders Rich Gannon Y Buccaneers Brad Johnson N
2003 Patriots Brady Y Panthers Jake Delhomme N
2004 Patriots Brady Y Eagles Donovan McNabb N
2005 Steelers Ben Roethlisberger N Seahawks Matt Hasselbeck N
2006 Colts Peyton Manning Y Bears Rex Grossman N
2007 Patriots Brady Y Giants Eli Manning N
2008 Steelers Roethlisberger N Cardinals Warner Y
2009 Colts Manning Y Saints Drew Brees Y
2010 Steelers Roethlisberger N Packers Aaron Rodgers Y
2011 Patriots Brady Y Giants Manning N
2012 Ravens Joe Flacco N 49ers Colin Kaepernick N
2013 Broncos Manning Y Seahawks Russell Wilson N
2014 Patriots Brady Y Seahawks Wilson N
2015 Broncos Manning Y Panthers Cam Newton Y
2016 Patriots/Steelers Brady/Roethlisberger Y/N Falcons/Packers Matt Ryan/Rodgers Y/Y

While All-Pro quarterbacks have taken the Super Bowl reins for the AFC 12 of a possible 16 times since 2002, only seven NFC reps have been able to claim the same. Over that span, the weakest AFC passer was either Flacco or a diminished, 39-year-old Manning last winter.

2017 will either add a new member to the NFC’s two-time list or induct a new passer into the fraternity. Aaron Rodgers strapped on Green Bay’s first title belt since 1997 in his first Super Bowl appearance; Sunday’s conference championship game will give him the opportunity to tie Manning as the NFC’s most successful quarterback of the millennium. Standing across the sideline from him is Matt Ryan, 2016’s probable MVP.

Ryan and Rodgers have 21 years of pro experience between them, so it’s not exactly like the NFC is pumping out a young and exciting new prospect. But the conference’s propensity to cycle through teams and quarterbacks means an array of fresh Super Bowl matchups the AFC can’t match.

As a result, lauded quarterbacks like Derek Carr, Philip Rivers, Alex Smith, Andy Dalton, and Andrew Luck have had to wait their turn while a trio of veterans soaked up the spotlight. Manning’s retirement was supposed to mark the rise of a new era on the Broncos’ side of the NFL.

Instead, this Sunday’s AFC Championship has proven to be more of the same.