Of all the narratives that have been spun through this waning NFL season, the influx of youth at the quarterback position has been the most continually compelling. This season, five rookie QBs started basically the entire season, and several more saw significant action by season’s end. Second-year quarterbacks such as Jake Locker and Colin Kaepernick were also given their first tastes of starting responsibility, joining a whole slew of sophomores who had been starting since their own rookie seasons.
The historically-high tally of young guys in pro sports’ most important position has roots all over the place: two fairly strong draft classes; the pendulum-swing in favor of the passing game and college-style hurry-up offenses; and the increasingly win-or-GTFO culture of the league itself, to name a few. As we enter the divisional round of the playoffs and the season ramps toward its climax, the youthful exuberance storyline might seem to have run its course. Two rookies (Indy’s Luck and Washington’s Griffin) and two sophomores (Cincy’s Dalton and Minnesota’s Ponder) bit the dust in the wild card round. Of the five rookie starting quarterbacks this season, only one (Seattle’s Wilson) gets to keep playing. Besides Wilson, the remaining playoff QBs average over eight years in the league. Step aside, boys; it’s time for the men to play football.
Hold your horses, there, buddy. I like the youth narrative. I’m going to ride it until it drops.
Ravens at Broncos, 1:30 pm Saturday
Here we have a fifth-year guy (respectable tenure, likely franchise man, hitting his peak) against a fifteenth-year guy on a new team and coming off a season-long hiatus for a major neck reconstruction. Will the speed and athleticism of youth carry the day here? Well, probably not. First, Joe Flacco isn’t much of a scrambler, so that theoretical athleticism amounts to a hill of beans. Second, the over-the-hill guy happens to be the smartest man in the game, a first-ballot fox who’s been breaking passing records since Flacco was in junior high. In their head-to-head series, Flacco has never bested Manning. Any disciple of Manning, of course, knows that he never does his best work after a first-round bye. Both of his trips to the Super Bowl came out of wild card spots, and some of the bitterest defeats of his career came after high seedings and plenty of rest. That might be all that Flacco has in his corner.
Of course, the teams are made up of more than just the quarterbacks. With a marginally-effective Ray Lewis back as the mental and emotional leader of the defense, the Ravens look much more complete than they did three weeks ago during their mini-implosion. However, the Broncos are simply a much more complete team, quietly featuring the third-best passing defense in the league (and the best to make it to the postseason). Peyton will make some mistakes, the game will be closer than it should (that nine-point spread is a little intimidating), but the Broncos will pull it out.
Packers at 49ers, 5:00 pm Saturday
This is the most classic youth-versus-experience game on the slate. Colin Kaepernick is a second-year QB out of a second-rate school, who was unceremoniously tossed the keys to a good team halfway through the season. Aaron Rodgers is the reigning MVP who, despite suffering a bit of a statistical regression this year, is still widely regarded as the best QB in the league. Kap plays a mobile style (415 rush yards and 5TDs in his limited exposure) while Rodgers is more of an old-school pocket guy (259 rush yards and 2TDs in a full season). This will be fun to watch.
If I have to call this one, I’ll call it in favor of balance. San Francisco’s leading rusher has nearly three times as many yards on the season as Green Bay’s. The Packers rely heavily on the pass game (and, indeed, are better at it), but the Niners have the fourth-best passing defense in the league. Stopping the run? Forget about it. The Packers will have a much tougher time bottling up a beast like Frank Gore than the Niners will have stopping Alex “No Scores on 135 Carries” Green. I was tempted to choose the playoff savoir-faire of a former Super Bowl MVP, but the defensive numbers are just too daunting. San Francisco takes it.
Seahawks at Falcons, 10:00 am Sunday
A rookie quarterback takes a traditional hard-luck franchise on the road to meet a number-one seed piloted by a man with a nickname about how good he is under pressure. Which part of this sounds fair? Well, let’s start with the Falcons’ QB. Matt “Matty Ice” Ryan may be clutch in big regular-season moments, but mumbles of the word “curse” have started to sprout around his winless postseason resume. Sure, in his five seasons he’s lost three playoff games to three eventual Super Bowl champions, but when you guide a team to a 13-3 regular season record, you’re expected to make some noise in January. Oddsmakers have noticed the trend, too, and are nervously favoring the Falcons by 2.5. Not much of a vote of confidence, that. That’s all fine, though. Ryan is having a great season and is sure to bust some big plays in this game.
What about Seattle’s signal-caller? Wilson’s a third-round pick “playing with house money” in an already-overachieving season. He can hurt you with his arm or his legs, but no one would blame the well-spoken young man if he tripped up on the big stage and left Seahawks fans to scheme about next year. He’ll have some big plays, too.
What will be the difference-maker, then? If you read the last two picks, you won’t be surprised when I say: defense. Seattle sports top-ten numbers in both rush and pass defense. Atlanta is bottom-ten in both. The difference is particularly stark on the pass side, where Seattle is ranked sixth and Atlanta 23rd. Seattle has a stable of solid defensive backs, each of them eager to pounce on any slight mistake that Ryan might make. This will probably be the closest game of the weekend, coming down to the final drive or two, but I predict that the Seahawks will eke out a victory and earn a rare NFC West showdown in the NFC Championship game.
Texans at Patriots, 1:30 pm Sunday
A rematch of one of the worst (and least-expected) beatdowns of the regular season, this game has a similar youth-versus-experience feeling to the Broncos-Ravens game from the previous day. Matt Schaub is a solid quarterback but only has one playoff win to his name. Tom Brady has been to five Super Bowls and won three of them.
On this one, I’m picking against defense. The Texans hold significant advantages on the defensive side, but the Patriots’ offense played out of their minds in the first matchup between these two teams. I can’t see enough changes the Texans could realistically make to even make it close. The Texans will be tired, on the road, in Boston, in January. I hope I’m wrong, but I’d bet the Patriots even at -9.
Each of these divisional playoff games has its own little thread of the youth-versus-experience narrative woven through it. If my predictions are correct, those threads might very well take a break next week, but come back in full force on February 3 in New Orleans.