Brady. Rodgers. Roethlisberger. Ryan. As fun as it is to make jokes about Connor Cook's and Brock Osweiler's names flashing across the marquee for a playoff game, there's something cool about having four of the absolute best quarterbacks in football suiting up for the conference championships this Sunday. It's tough to make it to the conference championships without one interloper in the mix. Last year, the odd man out was the ghost of Peyton Manning, and he ended up winning the whole thing.
This year, barring injury, we know a great quarterback at the height of his powers will be hoisting the Lombardi trophy in Houston on Feb. 5. We have to look back only 12 months to know that's not guaranteed on an annual basis, but how rare is it for the "final four" quarterbacks in an NFL season to be this good? Is it possible that we're looking at the best closing foursome in recent playoff history?
There are a few ways to measure quarterback quality, and those various methods give us different answers to that question. Let's run through them.
Obviously, these four passers are among the league leaders in just about every category. One of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan is likely to win the AP's MVP award this season, while Ben Roethlisberger isn't far off from their 2016 standard. Roethlisberger comes in as the 10th-best passer in the league by opponent-adjusted Total QBR, while Ryan, Brady and Rodgers each rank in the top four. The only top-four passer missing is Dak Prescott, who was knocked out by Rodgers last Sunday.
We only have QBR going back through 2006, though, so it won't be very useful in comparing today's passers to those of old. Let's instead work with another helpful single-number metric that serves as a better version of passer rating: adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A), which weights interceptions and passing touchdowns appropriately based on their estimated empirical value while also incorporating sacks and sack yardage.
The league as a whole averaged 6.2 adjusted net yards per attempt this season. As you might suspect, our four passers were way ahead of the curve. Roethlisberger averaged 7.0 ANY/A. Rodgers was just ahead of him at 7.2, with his numbers spiking during the second half. Brady and Ryan were in another world, though: Brady averaged 8.8 ANY/A, while Ryan was just over 9.0. Among QBs with 20 passes per game or more, the 9.0 ANY/A mark is third in league history behind Peyton Manning's 2004 season (9.8) and Rodgers' 2011 campaign (9.4). Pretty good company.
Combining their statistics into one super-passer, our 2016 crop averaged 8.3 ANY/A, which is the best mark since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970. That's impressive, but it's not necessarily surprising, given that quarterbacks are more productive today than ever before. Teams averaged 5.0 ANY/A or less without fail between 1970 and 1988, then between 5.0 and 5.9 ANY/A every year short one between 1989 and 2013, but they've risen over 6.0 ANY/A as a league in each of the past three seasons.
The next way to measure quality, then, would be to adjust our measure of quarterback play for the quality of the opposition. Simple enough: Our final four averages 8.3 ANY/A, and the league average is 6.2, leaving our stars (after rounding) 33.3 percent above league average. That's better than a lot of recent seasons and the best season-adjusted performance since 2005, but it's only 24th in the Super Bowl era. The vast majority of pre-1990 seasons topped this, in part because bad quarterbacks in that era were horrific in a way that the worst quarterbacks of today simply aren't allowed to be. The worst ANY/A in 1980 among players with 100 passes or more, to pick a year, belonged to Mike Phipps, who threw two touchdowns against nine picks in six starts for the Bears.
Let's try it another way. Among passers who have started a minimum of seven games, Ryan ranks first in ANY/A this year. Brady ranks second. Rodgers ranks sixth, and Roethlisberger rounds out the group at ninth. Those spots add up to 18. Is that the lowest number we can come up with for a conference championship foursome?
The answer is no, but it's pretty close. I'm comfortable using this to get a sense of who might serve as competition for the best season-ending quarterback combos of all time. The 2016 season is tied for the fifth-best stretch of all time by this admittedly tortured metric. Here's who else is in the running:
1992 (18): Jim Kelly, Bills; Dan Marino, Dolphins; Troy Aikman, Cowboys; Steve Young, 49ers
Not bad, right? Four no-doubt Hall of Famers, all of whom were between 26 and 32 and in the prime of their respective careers. Somewhat surprisingly, they weren't especially great in the conference championships that year. Kelly and Marino each threw one touchdown against two picks in Miami, while Young threw two picks of his own during San Francisco's 30-20 loss to Dallas. Only Aikman -- who went 24-of-32 for 322 yards with two touchdowns and no picks -- lived up to the hype.
1970 (18): Daryle Lamonica, Raiders; Johnny Unitas, Colts; Craig Morton, Cowboys; John Brodie, 49ers
Lamonica actually left the conference championship game after four pass attempts with a pulled thigh muscle and was replaced by Hall of Famer George Blanda, who was 43 and serving primarily as Oakland's punter. He threw three picks, with Unitas outdoing him on an 11-for-30 day, albeit one that saw him average 22.3 yards per completion. The 37-year-old Unitas finished the year 11th in ANY/A, while the other three passers were among the top four. Brodie and Morton were one and two, respectively, but it was a career year for Brodie, who won league MVP. Morton was effective but lost his job the following year to Roger Staubach, with whom he would trade off for the next several years. The 2016 class is better.
1993 (17): Joe Montana, Chiefs; Jim Kelly, Bills; Steve Young, 49ers; Troy Aikman, Cowboys
This is the same group as 1992, of course, just replacing Marino (who tore his Achilles in October) with Montana. Montana was on the downside of his career and threw only 298 passes, but he was efficient enough to finish fourth in ANY/A. He threw one pick and went just 9-of-23 against the Bills before giving way to Dave Krieg, while Kelly avoided takeaways on a day where Thurman Thomas ran for 186 yards. Aikman suffered a concussion in the NFC Championship Game and was replaced by Bernie Kosar, but he left them up 28-7 after an excellent first half.
1981 (14): Ken Anderson, Bengals; Dan Fouts, Chargers; Danny White, Cowboys; Joe Montana, 49ers
Montana was probably the weakest link in this group, given that this was his third year in the league and his first as a full-time starter. He actually threw three picks in the NFC Championship Game, but made up for it with a moderately famous touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. Anderson was the MVP in this, a career season, and Fouts is in the Hall of Fame, but our 2016 class is clearly better now than this group was at the time, even if nobody finished any lower than sixth in ANY/A.
1995 (13): Brett Favre, Packers; Troy Aikman, Cowboys; Jim Harbaugh, Colts; Neil O'Donnell, Steelers
Not quite as exciting, huh? The NFC matchup pitted the top two passers in the league in what ended up as a thrilling 38-27 Cowboys victory, which saw the Packers up 27-24 entering the fourth quarter before the Cowboys scored two touchdowns, with Favre mixing in a key interception at midfield to set up the game winner. Emmitt Smith ran the ball 35 times for 150 yards for the Cowboys, a carry total that has been topped only twice in a playoff game since. O'Donnell was the game manager expected to avoid mistakes and hold leads for Pittsburgh, while Harbaugh had an incredible career year he never really came close to matching before or after. They don't match up with 2016's group.
1998 (11): John Elway, Broncos; Vinny Testaverde, Jets; Chris Chandler, Falcons; Randall Cunningham, Vikings
I'm as surprised as you are, but the quarterbacks of 1998 were incredible. They held the raw ANY/A record for 18 years until the 2016 foursome just beat it, and they each finished among the top five in ANY/A during this bizarre season. Elway was 38 and blessed with a dominant running game, requiring him to throw a mere 356 passes. Chandler averaged 9.6 yards per attempt, chucking it downfield in between Jamal Anderson carries and never again topped even 8 yards per pass. Testaverde set his passer rating record by nearly 13 points at 101.6; he would tear his Achilles in Week 1 the following year, lead the league in interceptions the following campaign, and then do the same thing four years later in Dallas at age 41. Cunningham led the league in ANY/A and was an absolute monster throwing to Cris Carter and the debuting Randy Moss, but it was his first season as a starter since the end of the 1994 campaign. It's fair to say, even given the ANY/A gap, that the 2016 group carried more weight.
Other measures also suggest that the class of 2016 would rate among the best of all time. These seven quarterbacks have combined for four MVP awards, with Brady and Rodgers having garnered two each. Assuming one of Brady, Rodgers or Ryan win the award this year, these four passers will have a combined five MVP trophies before they hit the field on Super Bowl Sunday. That's topped by only four other seasons: 1997 (six awards), 2009 and 2013 (seven awards), and last year, which sent eight MVP awards to the final four with Peyton Manning, Brady, Cam Newton and Carson Palmer. The presence of Brady, Roethlisberger and Rodgers adds seven Super Bowl wins to the mix, more than any final foursome in league history.
As always, with things like this, it's a matter of preference. Because it's still unclear whether Ryan will be a Hall of Famer in the long run, and the 1993 season featured a limited Montana, I would go with the four surefire Hall of Famers from the 1992 playoffs. Once in 24 years might not be the best ever, but it sure seems pretty remarkable to me.