No one receives more credit or blame for NFL success or failure than the starting quarterback and the head coach. They are the de facto leaders. They are the faces of the team. And they are inevitably linked to the team’s legacy.
Of the eight teams still playing, three feature Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, and three feature Super Bowl-winning coaches. Not surprisingly, the only two teams that feature both prized possessions – New England and Indianapolis – double as the two most popular picks to win it all this year.
Forget about the mantra that defense wins championships. Soak up the glitz and glamour surrounding the coaches and quarterbacks. They’ll point you in the right direction this postseason. Just remember two simple rules. (Of course, there are always exceptions. Yes, I’m talking to you, Trent Dilfer.)
Rule #1: It takes a star quarterback to win the big one.
Excluding Ben Roethlisberger, who at 25 years old hasn’t played long enough for a career assessment, only two of the past 10 Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks were not either surefire Hall of Famers or multiple MVP winners.
In the Super Bowl era, Doug Williams and Jim Plunkett are the only two quarterbacks to have won a Super Bowl without making the Pro Bowl at any point in their career. And even they went home with Super Bowl MVP honors.
Rule #2: Experience counts for coaches.
In the Super Bowl era, only six coaches have won the Super Bowl during their first trip to the playoffs. A quick glance at the table below shows that two men on that list are on in the Hall of Fame, Bill Walsh and Gibbs. And Seifert won in 1989 after taking over a 49ers team that had already won three Super Bowls with Walsh. The bottom line: it’s rare that a coach makes a Super Bowl run without having won in the playoffs before.
Applying the rules to the divisional round matchups
(Home team in CAPS)
Jacksonville vs. NEW ENGLAND
There’s no question the New England Patriots have more than a 16-0 record on their side. In Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the Patriots have a QB/coach combination that has teamed for three Super Bowl victories since 2002.
On the opposing sideline, the Jaguars feature a QB (David Garrard) that made his first postseason start and a coach (Jack Del Rio) that won for the first time in the postseason last week in Pittsburgh. The Jaguars won in Pittsburgh in December and January, but that doesn’t mean they can travel to Foxboro and topple the Pats.
After throwing three interceptions all season long, Garrard tossed two picks against Pittsburgh. Garrard cannot afford to turn the ball over at all against a New England team with the most potent scoring offense in NFL history. The problem for Garrard is that even if he goes mistake free, “not messing up” will not be enough to beat the Patriots. He’ll need a career day to keep pace with Brady, Moss and company.
The pick: New England 38, Jacksonville 21
San Diego vs. INDIANAPOLIS
The defending champion Colts have the same combination of Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy that proved golden last February. They also have the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, Bob Sanders, which could spell trouble for Chargers QB Philip Rivers, who lost and performed badly last season in the divisional round.
Rivers and Norv Turner are the shakiest QB/coach duo still standing. After getting shutout in the first half last week against Tennessee, the Chargers battled back to win their first playoff game in more than a decade. But it wasn’t pretty. Tight end Antonio Gates hurt his toe and running sensation LaDainian Tomlinson amassed just 42 yards on 21 carries.
On paper, the Colts and Chargers seem to match up evenly. And their week 10 contest actually ended 23-21 in favor of the Chargers, thanks to 6 interceptions of Peyton Manning and a missed field goal by Adam Vinatieri. But when you mention Manning and Dungy vs. Rivers and Turner in a do-or-die game, there’s only one possible outcome.
The pick: Indianapolis 35, San Diego 20
Seattle vs. GREEN BAY
Over in the NFC, the Seahawks and Packers will meet in the playoffs for the first time since 2004, when Matt Hasselbeck’s infamous words, “We’ll take the ball and we’re gonna score!” backfired as he threw a pick-6 in overtime, giving the Packers a 33-27 win on wild card weekend.
Green Bay has Super Bowl-winning quarterback Brett Favre, who hasn’t tasted a playoff since that Haselbeck game. Meanwhile Seattle, who lost in the divisional round last year against Chicago, has Super Bowl-winning coach Mike Holmgren.
Holmgren was the Packers coach when Favre and the Packers won Super Bowl XXXI. Does that make their relative experience a draw? Given the choice, take the QB over the coach, especially when that QB holds nearly every passing record imaginable. Favre, a 3-time MVP, had his best year in nearly a decade. It’s hard to imagine him being one and done in the playoffs.
The pick: Green Bay 24, Seattle 23
Finally, there’s the Cowboys and the Giants. Quarterbacks Tony Romo and Eli Manning have started a combined four games in the postseason. Romo’s postseason debut ended in disaster last season when he botched the hold on a would-be game winning field goal and was then tackled just short of the first down marker and end zone, in a 21-20 loss to Seattle. He bounced back with a monster 2007 season, but all of his regular season success will be forgotten if he comes up short against the Giants.
Last week, Manning got his first playoff win in three tries. But beating the Cowboys will be a much tougher task. He’s 3-4 versus the Cowboys in his career. A win this week would silence some critics, but he’ll have to play another mistake-free game as he did last week against Tampa Bay.
The coaching matchup pits Dallas’ Wade Phillips against Tom Coughlin of the Giants. Phillips has never won a postseason game as a head coach, going a combined 0-3 with Denver and Buffalo. Including last week, Coughlin is 5-6 in his postseason career. Neither record strikes fear into the hearts of opponents but count on Phillips to channel Bill Parcells, the architect of this Cowboys team, for a big win.
The pick: Dallas 24, New York 10
For more information, visit MattHubert.com.