Who is best in the big games?
By Jeff Merron
Page 2 staff

Watching Tom Brady Sunday afternoon in the snow in New England, we couldn't help but wonder, even as the D dominated -- are we watching the early days of one of the greatest postseason quarterbacks ever?

It's too early to tell -- after all, Brady has played in only five playoff games. But then again, he's shown great leadership under tough conditions, and he owns a 5-0 postseason record, including that Super Bowl MVP trophy. As a passer, he's done a great job, completing 103 of 175 passes (59 percent) for 1,010 yards, three TDs, and only two INTs.

We'll see. But let's take a look at who he's stacked up against -- the greatest playoff quarterbacks of the Super Bowl era.

Roger Staubach
Staubach was known for his dramatic rallies as Dallas QB.

10. Roger Staubach, Cowboys (18 games, 12-6 record)
You won't find Staubach among the leaders in the playoff record books, but, bottom line, he was a winner, with a 12-6 playoff record and two Super Bowl victories (VI and XII) in four Super Bowl starts (he didn't play in SB V, though he was on the sidelines). He was named the MVP in Super Bowl VI, and played a great game in Super Bowl XII, completing 17 of 25 passes for one TD, without being intercepted.

Captain Comeback could also be spectacular. With the Cowboys trailing the 49ers in a 1972 division playoff game, he came off the bench to lead the Boys to 17 points in the fourth quarter and a 30-28 win. In a 1973 divisional win over the Rams, Staubach hit Drew Pearson for an 83-yard TD that sealed the victory. And finally, the unforgettable "Hail Mary," when he threw a 50-yard bomb which Pearson snagged with 24 seconds left to give the Cowboys a 17-14 win over Minnesota in the 1975 divisional round.

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9. Joe Theismann, Redskins (8 games, 6-2 record)
Some of the great playoff QBs were not prolific -- Theismann, for example, only played in eight postseason games, over a short span of three seasons (1982-84). But he made the most of his few opportunities. In the postseason, he led the Redskins to six wins in those eight games, including the Super Bowl XVII win.

That game was typical Theismann: he spent much of his afternoon handing off to John Riggins, who rushed 38 times and was the game's MVP. But when Theismann did pass, he was good -- completing 15 of 23 passes for 143 yards and 2 TDs.

In short, Theismann played the field general and made few mistakes. He 'Skins averaged 8.45 yards on his pass attempts, a playoff record, and his QB rating of 91.4 is one of the highest in postseason history.

Brett Favre
Favre has been a playoff fixture nearly ever season since 1993.

8. Brett Favre, Packers (19 games, 11-8 record)
This year, Favre propelled himself into third place on the all-time passing yards list in the playoffs, throwing for a combined 499 yards to surpass Dan Marino. He now holds the record for most consecutive playoff games with a TD pass (15 and counting), is second all time with 33 TD passes (again, passing Marino in this year). Through it all, he's been consistent: he's thrown for almost 4,700 yards, and most games you'll find him in the 250-300 yard range. He's only had one truly bad game, in 2001 against the Rams, when he threw six INTs in a 45-17 loss.

He also led the Pack to a win over the Pats in Super Bowl XXXI, completing 14 of 27 passes for 246 yards and two TDs with no INTs. He also ran for a TD.

7. Steve Young, 49ers (14 starts, 8-6 record)
When Young finally came out from under Joe Montana's shadow, he proved he could produce come payoff time. Three times, he passed for 300+ yards, including a spectacular performance in the 1994 Super Bowl, when he threw for 325 yards and a playoff record six TDs. He was the obvious choice for Super Bowl MVP.

Vintage Young playoff moment: With three seconds left in the 1998 NFC wild-card game against Green Bay, he finds Terrell Owens amidst a pack of Packers on the game's final play for a 25-yard TD and a 30-27 Niners win.

Overall, he completed 292 of 471 passes for 3,326 yards and 20 TDs and 13 INTs. He was also great on the ground, running 96 times for 585 yards and eight TDs.

6. Jim Plunkett, Raiders (10 games, 8-2 record)
Plunkett doesn't have the gaudy numbers that some other great playoff QBs have posted, but he has this: two Super Bowl rings, and an 8-2 postseason record. Hard to argue with winning.

Plunkett threw 272 times, completing 162 for 2,293 yards and 10 TDs. His average of 8.43 yards per passing attempt is second best of all time in the playoffs.

In 1980, old man Plunkett had an incredible run, taking over the Raiders' offense in the sixth game of the regular season, then leading the wild-card team to the Super Bowl XV title. Plunkett, the Super Bowl MVP, completed 13 of 21 passes for 261 yards and 3 TDs, including an 80-yard completion to Kenny King, then the longest scoring play in SB history.

John Elway
Elway reached the Super Bowl for the first time when he led "The Drive" in the '86 AFC championship.

5. John Elway, Broncos (22 games, 14-8 record)
Elway had a great run during the end of his career, but also had some truly terrible games in the postseason. In a winning effort against New England in 1986, he completed only 13 of 32 passes; in the 1987 Super Bowl he was 14 for 38 and was picked off three times; in the 1989 Super Bowl, he was 10 for 26 for only 108 yards, and was intercepted twice.

But Elway was nonetheless one of the greatest playoff QBs. He played in 22 postseason games, and ended his career with a 14-8 record -- and a nifty seven-game winning streak, including those two Super Bowl titles. Overall, he's near the top of the playoff record book in a bunch of categories: 651 pass attempts (third); 355 passes completed (third); 4,964 yards passing (second). In the end, Elway had too many clutch wins (ask Browns fans) and the Super Bowl titles earn him acclaim as a great playoff performer.

4. Troy Aikman, Cowboys (16 games, 11-5 record)
Aikman led the Cowboys to Super Bowl wins three times -- in 1992, 1993 and 1995. In his 16 playoff games, he completed 320 of 502 passing attempts for 3,849 yards and 24 TDs.

With Aikman at the helm, the Cowboys went 11-5 in the playoffs between 1991 and 1999, including 11-1 over a four-year stretch. Four times he passed for 300+ yards. Aikman was named MVP of Super Bowl XXVII, as he led a 52-17 drubbing of the Bills by completing 22 of 30 passes for 273 yards and 4 TDs.

When Aikman retired, ESPN.com's Mark Malone offered up high praise: "To a certain extent," wrote Malone, "quarterbacks are subjected to the offensive systems they run. And even though the Cowboys focused more on running the ball and playing good defense during their championship years, I doubt they would have won any Super Bowls without Aikman."

3. Terry Bradshaw, Steelers (19 games, 14-5 record)
The 1970s Steelers weren't exactly pass happy, but the fact is that Bradshaw led, won, and proved remarkably effective in the big games. To begin: Bradshaw led the Steelers to four Super Bowl wins. And he was at his best during those games -- three of his seven career 300-yard games came in the playoffs (two in the Super Bowl). Bradshaw was Super Bowl MVP in 1978 and 1979.

In his 19 playoff games, Bradshaw completed 261 passes for 3,833 yards, averaging 8.41 yards per attempt, the third-highest average in playoff history. He threw 30 TD passes. In short, he was remarkably efficient, making the most of his passing attempts -- for example, completing 14 of 18 for 264 yards and 3 TDs in a 40-14 first-round win over the Colts in 1976.

Even at his worst in the postseason, Bradshaw came through. He was picked off by the Rams three times in Super Bowl XIV, but produced with big plays to Lynn Swann and John Stallworth when it counted, rallying the Steelers from behind twice.

Bart Starr
Starr's QB sneak won the famous Ice Bowl playoff game.

2. Bart Starr, Packers (10 games, 9-1 record)
Starr's our crossover man, playing both before and at the start of the Super Bowl era. Overall, he led the Packers to nine wins in 10 postseason games, including the Ice Bowl -- when he was simply great, managing to complete 14 of 24 for 191 yards and two TDs, while the opposing QB, Don Meredith, could manage only 10 completions for 59 yards.

Starr was 5-0 in the Super Bowl era, winnings Super Bowls I and II. He has, by far, the best playoff postseason QB rating in history -- 104.8 -- and had only three passes intercepted in his 213 attempts. He completed 61 percent of his postseason passes and threw for 15 TDs.

Starr threw the first TD pass in Super Bowl history, connecting with Max McGee for a 37-yard score midway through the first period of the Packers-Chiefs matchup. The Packers won, and Starr, who completed 16 of 23 passes for 250 yards and two TDs, got the MVP award. In SB II, Starr was less spectacular -- 13 of 24 for 202 yards and 1 TD -- but he didn't throw an interception and again was named MVP.

After the Packers had defeated the Cowboys, 34-27, for the 1966 NFL Championship, his backup, Zeke Bratkowski, said, "Wasn't Starr fantastic?" New York Times columnist Arthur Daley answered, rhetorically, "Fantastic seems to be a mild and restrained adjective in the light of the evidence."

Joe Montana
Montana is the only player to win three Super Bowl MVP trophies.

1. Joe Montana, 49ers and Chiefs (23 games, 16-7 record)
Who else? Montana led the 49ers to Super Bowl wins in 1981, 1984, 1988, and 1989, and compiled a lifetime 16-7 record in the playoffs. Three times he was the Super Bowl MVP and in those four SB wins, he threw 11 TDs with no INTs. Montana holds a slew of individual playoff passing records -- most passes attempted (734), most completed (460), most yards gained (5,772). He also recorded a record six 300-yard playoff games, and threw 45 TD passes, far ahead of anyone else. To top it off, he ran 64 times for 310 yards and two TDs.

Montana has Super Bowl and playoff highlights galore -- think "The Catch" and the kind of cool that says, "Isn't that John Candy over there" in the huddle at the start of the game-winning drive against the Bengals. He simply didn't make many mistakes. Come playoff time, Montana was the essence of clutch -- his skills and leadership came to the fore.

"Joe has Unitas' ability to keep control of both himself and the huddle," said Bill Walsh prior to the 1989 Super Bowl. "When most quarterbacks are hurried and try to think of everything, they can't think. Joe can. He can think along with you and he can think for himself."

Also receiving votes:
Kurt Warner, Rams
Ken Stabler, Raiders
Ken Anderson, Bengals



Jeff Merron Archive

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Neel: Super Bowl from A to Z

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The List: Greatest NFL playoff games

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