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Big Ben ranks highest among remaining playoff passers

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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If it's a quarterback's league -- and it is -- then the playoffs must belong to the quarterbacks, too.

I know, the game's best and brightest -- Tom Brady and Peyton Manning -- are gone, but that can happen. And it can happen when you play the New York Jets, a club that this season knocked off Brady, Manning and Ben Roethlisberger -- quarterbacks responsible for six of the past nine Super Bowl victories.

But the Jets aren't my concern; their quarterback is. In fact, so are all quarterbacks in this weekend's conference championship games, and here's what I want to know: Which of them do you trust? You heard me. Which quarterbacks have the advantage now, and why?

One knock against Green Bay's highly talented Aaron Rodgers is his lack of playoff experience. (AP)  
One knock against Green Bay's highly talented Aaron Rodgers is his lack of playoff experience. (AP)  
I want an answer in descending order, starting with your safest pick, and if you're ready to play so am I -- with my choices as follows:

1. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

What's to like: He's been here before, and he won here before. Roethlisberger is 9-2 in the playoffs, and that includes two Super Bowl victories. So the stage will not overwhelm him. He doesn't produce the prodigious numbers that, say, a Drew Brees, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning might, but nobody -- and I mean nobody -- is better at extending plays. There are few better in the clutch, too, and I offer last weekend's defeat of Baltimore as evidence. Twice he was faced with third-and-long situations on the game-winning drive -- including a third-and-19 -- and both times he converted. Surprising? Not really. More like typical. I'll even reference the 22-17 loss to the New York Jets last month, a game where Roethlisberger drove his team 82 yards before he ran out of time at the New York 10. But it's not just the big plays that stand out. It's Roethlisberger's improved accuracy. Once upon a time you could force him into critical mistakes. Not now. He has zero interceptions in his last five starts and just one in his last eight.

What's not to like: His only two playoff losses are at home, and he's 1-1 in conference championship games there. He takes too many sacks, though the 32 this season were his fewest since 2005, and he lost to the Jets last month in a game where he was forced to throw more times (44) than in all but one start.

Bottom line: Roethlisberger is a Hall of Famer waiting to happen. Forget his passer rating or ratio of touchdowns to interceptions or passing yards. Pay attention to wins and losses. The guy is 80-31 as a starter. More important, he's 9-2 in the playoffs and 3-1 in Super Bowls and conference championship games. He was also the youngest (23) winning Super Bowl quarterback in NFL history. I don't think I need to draw you a picture. He knows how to win big games, and Sunday's game qualifies as a big game.

2. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

What's to like: The guy is incandescent. He has 10 touchdown passes in his first three playoff games and was close to perfect vs. Atlanta. Rodgers has so much ability that Fox analyst Troy Aikman said that if he were a GM starting a new franchise, Rodgers would be the first quarterback he'd choose. He must have forgotten Brady was on the board. Anyway, that's the respect and admiration Rodgers has across the league -- a tribute to the smarts of GM Ted Thompson and the Packers for sticking with Rodgers when Brett Favre lobbied to return. Rodgers carried the Packers most of this season, and he carried them well -- going 10-5 and improving his accuracy as the season wore on. You can look it up. Over his last 10 starts he has 22 touchdown passes, two interceptions and seven games with a passer rating of 114.5 or higher. He also has a career record of 2-1 in the playoffs, with a passer rating of 129.42, and he's 4-2 vs. Chicago -- including 3-1 the past two seasons. So he not only knows how to win; he knows how to beat the Bears. But it's those playoffs numbers that jump out at you. Rodgers is the first quarterback in league history to produce passer ratings of 120 or better in each of his first three playoff starts, and his overall playoff rating is numero uno among quarterbacks with 50 or more attempts. I already told you about his 10 playoff touchdowns. What I didn't tell you is that there's only one interception and an average of 323 yards passing per game. Forget the thermal underwear. I suggest you pack your asbestos jerseys, Chicago.

What's not to like: He's only been a starter for three seasons and only been a starter in the playoffs for two. That doesn't mean he can't handle the pressure. He can. And he has. Rodgers didn't lose that playoff opener to Arizona last season. The Packers defense did. In three starts he and the Packers have put up 114 points -- an average of 38 per game -- but if you want to knock him there's this: He lost in Chicago earlier this season, and he could only produce one touchdown against the Bears in a must-win season finale at Lambeau Field. Plus, he suffered two concussions, which means Green Bay better handle that Bears' front four.

Bottom line: He's hot, hot, hot, and his team looks better with each week. But we haven't seen Rodgers in a conference championship game before, so this is unchartered water. Of course, we hadn't seen him in a divisional playoff game before, either, and look what he did to Atlanta. There's a warning that comes attached to that game, and it's aimed directly at the Bears: Rodgers lost at the Georgia Dome this season, just as he lost in Chicago, and he dropped both by identical 20-17 scores. Don't say you weren't warned, Bears fans.

3. Mark Sanchez, New York Jets

What's to like: Not only is he 4-1 in the playoffs; he's 4-1 on the road. Plus, he's been in this spot before, losing to Indianapolis a year ago in the conference championship game. Sanchez wasn't the weak link then; the Jets' secondary was, which is why the club went out and acquired Antonio Cromartie and rookie Kyle Wilson. In only his second year as a starter, Sanchez just knocked off -- in succession -- Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. So what's another quarterback with Super Bowl rings? I love this guy's confidence, his ability to throw on the run and his ability to win playoff games on the road. Nothing fazes him. Nothing overwhelms him. And virtually nobody beats him in January. Sanchez knocked off the Steelers here last month, so he knows what it's like to stare down the Terrible Towels, a hostile environment, Dick LeBeau's linebackers and the Steelers' blitz packages. I don't know what there is about him, but I've rarely seen a young quarterback so comfortable and poised on the road, with Sanchez winning 13 of his last 16 starts there.

What's not to like: He's still developing, which means he's susceptible to mistakes. He wasn't all that effective in the first half vs. Indianapolis, and he wasn't all that effective in the first quarter vs. New England. But cut him some slack: Sanchez has three complete seasons as a starter, dating back to USC. I agree, there's not a lot of consistency there. But there's also not a long résumé, either. The guy may be young and learning, but he just outplayed the best quarterback in the business. This time, however, he may be on his own. The Steelers are tough to run on, especially in the playoffs when they haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 15 straight starts. Sanchez may have to carry the offense, and good luck.

Bottom line: Mark Sanchez is getting scary confident, and that was evident in the fourth quarter of the New England win. I don't know that many quarterbacks make the throws he made or keep their poise as he did. He's excitable, but he's on a roll, and upsetting the Patriots -- in New England, no less -- should make him more determined than he was this time last season. I mean, after slaying New England what's so big about beating Pittsburgh?

4. Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears

What's to like: He has the hot hand, with 13 touchdowns, two interceptions and a rating of 104.2 or better in five of his last seven starts. Plus, he not only authored his first playoff victory; he played so well that teammate Greg Olsen gushed, "I don't know that you're going to get any better performance out of a quarterback." I don't, either. He ran for touchdowns. He threw for touchdowns. He made smart decisions. In short, he was the Jay Cutler he was supposed to be when Chicago sold the farm to acquire the guy. Cutler seems to have found himself in Mike Martz's offense, and he enters Sunday's game knowing he can beat Green Bay at Soldier Field -- basically because he did it earlier this season.

What's not to like: You're never sure which guy is going to show up, and while Cutler has been hot lately he hasn't been hot vs. Green Bay and defensive coordinator Dom Capers. So he beat the Packers in Chicago. He's 1-3 vs. Capers' Green Bay defense, with four touchdowns, nine interceptions, a 56 percent completion rate and a passer rating of 57.49. Furthermore, he's in his second playoff game, period, and his first conference championship game ever -- so you're uncertain what to expect from him, especially in the face of a Green Bay defense that sacked him six times the last time these two met. Oh, yeah, and while we're on the subject ... Cutler had no touchdowns, two interceptions and produced one measly field goal that afternoon. Don't tell me that game isn't significant because it is. With the win, Chicago could have kept the Packers out of the playoffs.

Bottom line: Cutler has exceeded expectations, but he still can lapse into the quarterback who trusts his arm too much, throws fatal interceptions and commits brutal mistakes. He has more raw talent than the three others here but he can be mechanically flawed, stubborn, lazy and downright inaccurate. Plus, he doesn't have the playoff experience the others do. So he's a mystery. Give him credit: He won his first playoff game and was nothing short of sensational in victory. But I don't know that we learned a whole lot about him or the Bears because their opponent was extraordinarily dreadful. Cutler is a work in progress, and a more accurate barometer of who and what he is awaits him -- and us -- this weekend.

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