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The playoffs have a way of bringing out the pedigree in NFL quarterbacks. Simply take a look at the fingers of Tom Brady and Eli Manning to recognize it.
Brady has three Super Bowl rings, with another taken away by Manning and the Giants in 2008. Both have their teams on course for a reprise of that memorable title game.
Standing in their way are two inconsistent QBs seeking to fill out their own championship resumes: Joe Flacco of Baltimore and Alex Smith of San Francisco.
Based on their histories and the way they have performed this season, Brady and Manning overmatch Flacco and Smith. When things have gotten tight for New England or New York, the quarterback often has provided the winning edge.
“The team revolves around him,” Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez said of Brady. “When he comes to play, which he mostly does every game, then we’re going to be on fire, and when he’s ready, we’re all ready.”
Ditto for Manning. Even when the Giants hit a four-game slide that jeopardized making the playoffs, he stood out.
“He’s just been great,” said receiver Victor Cruz, who had a breakout season with Manning throwing to him. “He understands the defense, he understands what we can see on every single down and every single coverage and he’s just making the right reads and really hitting people when the time is right.”
The time certainly is right. For a decade, it’s been Brady time once New Year’s Day hits. In early 2008, it also was Manning time.
It is again.
Brady was as good as ever in the romp past outmanned Denver. His six TD passes tied Steve Young and Daryle Lamonica for the NFL record. His five in one half were the most ever.
Sure, he’s got superb targets in All-Pros Wes Welker at wideout and Rob Gronkowski at tight end, plus Hernandez and Deion Branch, who is something of a security blanket for Brady. He also makes them outstanding with his precise passes, leadership and competitiveness.
It rubs off.
“We never look at the individual. We all try and do our job,” defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. “If (Brady) plays well, everyone else plays well. When he has an off day, we try to rally around him as a team to help Tom and the offense. We aren’t going to get 20-30 points all the time.”
Thirty certainly could be difficult against Baltimore’s staunch defense. But 20 might be enough if Flacco doesn’t come through.
Something of a surprise first-round draft choice in 2008 out of Delaware, he’s helped the Ravens make the playoffs in all four of his NFL seasons. In great part, Flacco has been along for the ride as opposed to driving the vehicle the way Brady does.
He also doesn’t have nearly the talent to throw to, with the exception of running back Ray Rice, who led the NFL with 2,068 total yards. His offensive line is spotty.
For Baltimore to reach its first Super Bowl since 2001 — oh, yeah, the QB then was Trent Dilfer, and Flacco is a far better player than Dilfer was — some of Brady has to rub off on Flacco.
Smith finally has become comfortable in San Francisco thanks to new coach Jim Harbaugh’s guidance and confidence in the seven-year veteran. The 49ers are efficient on offense with a strong running game behind Frank Gore, and a tight end, Vernon Davis, who displayed all his skills in a sensational playoff debut against New Orleans.
To expect Smith to trade throws with Saints star Drew Brees was unthinkable, yet there he was, making clutch pass after clutch pass in the late stages of Saturday’s thrilling win. If he’s capable of a similar performance against the Giants, it would enhance San Francisco’s chances immeasurably.
“He deserves all this,” Gore said of Smith’s revival. “He’s had some tough times. But I always believed he could play at this level. We have the right people leading us. And he’s got the right people leading him.”
Leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl means beating Manning and the Giants. The Niners did it in November when Smith made just enough key plays. That’s been his style this season, a style Manning once adhered to.
Now, Manning is as much a playmaker as his older brother, Peyton, has been. Or as Brady is.
Indeed, another title will give him the championship lead in his family, adding yet another shiny achievement to Eli’s resume. But he’d still be behind Brady.
For now, Smith and Flacco can only wonder if they have what it takes to grab the ring.