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Tom Brady meditates on the stars
1:07 | NFL
Tom Brady meditates on the stars
Friday January 15th, 2016

Eight teams remain alive in the quest to win Super Bowl 50, and they may offer the most accomplished group of quarterbacks we’ve ever seen in the divisional round.

Just take a look at these accolades: Between the eight players, we’ve got four No. 1 draft picks, two Heisman Trophy winners, nine AP MVP awards, nine Super Bowl championships and 15 Super Bowl appearances.

Over the next few weeks, NFL fans will be treated to a slate of games with a legendary group of players, and their legacies will forever be altered based on the results of these games.

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I know QB wins (or #QBwinz, as they’re lovingly known in certain circles) is a flawed stat that’s often derided. We all know the quarterback gets too much credit for wins and too much blame for losses in an 11-on-11 game with defense and special teams.

But let’s face it: We also know quarterback legacies are often judged on wins and Super Bowls.

A Super Bowl is a wonderful thing for a quarterback, but it holds different meaning for different players at various stages of their career. So here are the eight quarterbacks still alive this season, ranked in order of how much winning Super Bowl 50 would enhance their legacy.

8. Aaron Rodgers

It’s a little hard to believe I have Rodgers last on this list, because obviously a second Super Bowl title would be an enormous boost for his reputation and legacy.  But that speaks to how impactful a Super Bowl can be, that I think his seven playoff counterparts have even more to gain from a title.

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Maybe Rodgers is a victim of his own expectations, since a second championship felt like his birthright after he collected his first ring after the 2010 season and then won an MVP award in 2011. Rodgers was quickly anointed the successor to the Brady-Manning-Brees trifecta and has remained in that stratosphere despite four more seasons going by without a return to the big game.

Winning a second Super Bowl for Green Bay would give Rodgers one more than Brett Favre, which would forever define the way history looks back on Favre’s retirement/unretirement saga that led to Rodgers taking over the reins.

That said, Rodgers still has plenty of prime left to continue collecting trophies, and I still think he belongs last on this list.

 

7. Russell Wilson

Like Rodgers, Wilson is chasing his second career Super Bowl victory. In Wilson’s case, it would be a redemption story after coming so close last season, only to throw the most costly interception in Super Bowl history.

I think a win this season would do a little more for Wilson than Rodgers for a few reasons.

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First, another Super Bowl appearance would continue a run of three straight, a feat only accomplished by Bob Griese with the ‘70s Dolphins and Jim Kelly with the ‘90s Bills. Having that run bookended by two titles would be an incredible accomplishment, even if Wilson never gets back to the Super Bowl stage.

Second, I don’t think Wilson gets as much credit for his first ring as Rodgers does for his. Fair or not, many people point to the smothering defense and Marshawn Lynch as more vital reasons for the Seahawks’ success. This year Wilson took enormous strides as a quarterback, and he’d earn much more credit from the public this time around.

Just as Rodgers will forever be compared to Favre, Wilson seems destined to forever be linked with the amazing class of rookie QBs that took the league by storm in 2012. If Wilson wins three conference titles and two Super Bowls, Andrew Luck and RG3 (not to mention Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden and Brock Osweiler, who were also drafted ahead of him) have a lot of work to do to catch up.

6. Alex Smith

The first Super Bowl win is the most important. At the end of the day, there’s a club of quarterbacks who have won the thing, and you’re either in it or you’re not. A Chiefs title would offer a very satisfying redemption for Alex Smith.

Smith has had a fascinating career, and you’re probably familiar with the details. The 49ers drafted him No. 1 in 2005 (ahead of Rodgers). He famously played for seven different offensive coordinators in his seven seasons with San Francisco. He finally turned himself into a good quarterback under Jim Harbaugh, only to be replaced by Colin Kaepernick with the 49ers on the doorstep of the Super Bowl.

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Smith spent most of his career as a punchline, but he has been an underrated, upper-level QB in his three seasons in Kansas City.

One Super Bowl would completely rewrite the perception of him. He’ll never be remembered like some of the other shoo-in Hall of Famers on this list, but if he wins a Super Bowl, you can never take that away from him. And as the MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas has written, he’d have earned it.

If Smith wins a Super Bowl, he’d be remembered in Trent Dilfer-Brad Johnson territory, instead of merely as the QB picked ahead of Rodgers. Joe Flacco would have to move over and make space for five years of “Is Alex Smith elite?” debates. But that has a much friendlier ring to it than “Is Alex Smith a bust?”

5. Carson Palmer

Carson Palmer entered the league as the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft with a Heisman trophy in tow. He has had a fine NFL career, but there is one major hole in his resume. As of this writing, Palmer still hasn’t even won a single career playoff game.

His best opportunities were infamously robbed from him by injuries. He tore his ACL on his first pass of the 2005 wild-card game for Cincinnati against Pittsburgh. Then he re-tore his ACL last year in a win that pushed the Cardinals’ record to 8–1.

Palmer is back healthy and playing as well as ever. He’s 18th on the all-time passing yardage list with more than 40,000 yards, but his career has been outclassed by many of his contemporaries. And he does have a black hole in the middle of his career, when he forced his way out of Cincinnati and struggled in Oakland before landing in Arizona.

Kurt Warner—a borderline Hall of Fame candidate and, coincidentally, the only QB to take the Cardinals to the Super Bowl—is an interesting comp. Warner also had two peaks with a big hole in the middle of his career. The difference is that Warner’s first peak with the Rams included two MVPs, two Super Bowl appearances and one title.

Palmer turned 36 last month and is still well behind Warner’s accomplishments, but if he wins a Super Bowl this year, comparisons to players of Warner’s caliber gain merit.

Three games are all that separate Palmer from having a tremendously satisfying career, or being forever looked upon as an all-time what-if.

4. Ben Roethlisberger

This would be Big Ben’s third Super Bowl win and fourth appearance. A week ago I would have had him much lower on the list, but sometimes fate and circumstances have a way of finding you. If Roethlisberger leads the Steelers to a win in Super Bowl 50, he’ll be remembered for what he did in the wild-card game in spraining his AC joint and tearing ligaments in his throwing shoulder.

People love an injury comeback story. Though football’s culture is changing, praising guys for playing through injuries will never fully go away. A Super Bowl win would give Roethlisberger a story like Kirk Gibson, Willis Reed and others across sports lore. Particularly if he looks the way he did on that final drive in Cincinnati, when he was seemingly unable to throw the ball more than five yards past the line of scrimmage.

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If so, this would be an all-time athletic feat. Keep in mind that Kirk Gibson’s famous home run off Dennis Eckersley was his only at-bat in the 1988 World Series, and that Willis Reed only scored four points when he unexpectedly suited up for Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. That’s not to downplay their accomplishments, but to point out that if Roethlisberger can return to the wild-card game and then quarterback the Steelers to three more playoff wins, it will be the stuff of legend. This could be the signature run in a career that has already showcased a history of not just playing through pain but gutting out wins.

It may seem unlikely, and it’s certainly far away, but the injury would make this more than just another ring. Roethlisberger’s third Super Bowl would tie him with Troy Aikman and add to an already Hall of Fame-worthy résumé.

3. Tom Brady

Right now Brady has four Super Bowl rings, tying him with Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for the record. Winning a fifth alone would be unprecedented.

Something tells me this one would be especially meaningful to Brady and Pats fans after all that’s transpired over the last year. Patriots fans are sick of hearing about Deflategate, and I hate feeling compelled to mention it here, but it’s undoubtedly a key part of the 2015 Patriots’ story.

For the season that began with Brady’s four-game suspension being overturned on appeal to end with him holding his record fifth Lombardi Trophy would never be forgotten.

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Many people have questioned the Patriots’ tactics over the years, from fans to opponents and rivals to the media. Last year’s Super Bowl added more fuel to the fire for Patriots haters, many of whom reveled in the fact that the team hadn’t won a title since Spygate and then claimed they couldn’t have won without Deflategate.

Brady’s legacy as one of the best quarterbacks of all-time is safe. But for him to come right back and win a second straight title, completely free of controversy, in the year of his vindication, despite considerable injuries all season at skill positions and along the offensive line, would be yet another crowning achievement in a career that’s had plenty of them.

 

2. Peyton Manning

Peyton Manning’s career shouldn’t need a boost, but in the eyes of many there’s still something missing. He is the greatest regular season quarterback ever, the greatest statistical quarterback ever and various other arbitrary titles you could invent for him.

But Manning’s playoff failures are well-known. Many people hold it against him that he’s only won one Super Bowl, even though the men whose records he’s broken (Favre and Marino) have one and zero.

Manning could have walked away from the game a unanimous pantheon-type player after his lost year in 2011. Instead, he decided to rehab after four neck surgeries and keep playing.

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His decision to play for Denver needs no validation, but it has already been validated by virtue of another MVP award, an AFC title and both the single-season and career yards and touchdown records. His second chapter after leaving Indianapolis has been so far above expectation for a 36-to-39-year-old that it seems unfair his time in Denver has also further tarnished his playoff reputation.

And yet there it is: Records of 13–3, 13–3 and 12–4 in his first three Broncos seasons, paired with two more one-and-dones and the Super Bowl debacle against Seattle in the middle.

If Manning can come back from the neck surgeries, the injuries this year and his temporary benching in favor of Brock Osweiler to somehow win a second Super Bowl, it would silence many of his critics. After all, more people talk about John Elway’s two Super Bowl wins at the end than his three losses that preceded them.

Manning would become the first quarterback ever to win a Super Bowl with two different franchises, and it would easily be the highlight of his time in Denver, even though his fourth has been by far his worst season in orange.

His potentially final season would also be remembered for something positive, instead of being overshadowed by interceptions, his benching and the allegations of HGH use by an Al-Jazeera report (which he forcefully denied).

And, of course, a second Super Bowl for Peyton would tie his little brother Eli’s output, which otherwise remains as a key point of derision many detractors enjoy using against him.

Perhaps most importantly, a Super Bowl could allow Manning to walk out on top, just like Elway did, changing the narrative of his entire career and its conclusion.

And yet, after writing all that, I still put Peyton Manning second because…

1. Cam Newton

Newton was the story of the regular season, leading the Panthers to a 14–0 start, finishing with a 15–1 record and probably locking up the MVP award. A Super Bowl win would be the ultimate punctuation mark at the end of a truly transcendent season.

Many of the most famous quarterback seasons in history ended short of the big prize—Brady in 2007, Manning in 2004 and Marino in 1984, for example. For Newton to put together the season he did and cap it off with a Super Bowl would give his season an extra shine. It would also make him the biggest star in the league, and he could spend his prime as a Super Bowl champion instead of being forced to answer questions every year about whether or not he can ever pull it off.

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Newton has been attacked by many opponents, on and off the field. Early on, they questioned his ability as a player, a passer and a leader. Many people seem to think a Super Bowl champion QB would never carry himself with Newton’s swagger, point like he does after first downs or dance like he does after touchdowns. A Super Bowl win would squash that viewpoint, erasing that knock against not just Newton but future quarterbacks who want to be like him.

However you feel about his antics, many critics also think his style of play is not sustainable for long-term health or a good game plan to win a Super Bowl. His rare combination of skills as a passer, runner and hit-absorber, paired with a Super Bowl victory, would offer him a unique legacy as a groundbreaking talent.

Newton is a special player, having what may someday be looked upon as a career year, or merely the start of a truly terrifying prime. Five of his divisional round counterparts already have their first ring, and the other two can’t possibly approach his career ceiling.

For those reasons, his legacy has the most to gain with a win in Super Bowl 50.

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