Their teams will only go as far as their quarterbacks take them. They are "The Man" and they are the most important players in the game, especially in the postseason.
So what quarterback will emerge as the star of this postseason, as Aaron Rodgers did a year ago? Will it be one that has already claimed a Super Bowl title, as Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger have? Or will it be a newbie, such as an Alex Smith, Matt Ryan, Matt Stafford, Joe Flacco or Tim Tebow? This year's playoff field even includes a rookie, Andy Dalton, and a reserve pressed into action, Houston's T.J. Yates, a No. 3 man who has opened some eyes.
The following is a review of the quarterbacks in this year's postseason. They are ranked according to their teams' seeds.
1. Aaron Rodgers (Packers)—He was the league's top-rated passer from beginning to end. For most of the season, he was on the record touchdowns pace Tom Brady set in 2007. Rodgers finished the regular season nearly 12 ratings points ahead of the league's second-ranked passer, Brees. His 4,643 yards passing and 45 touchdown passes were limited by several blowout wins in which Rodgers didn't finish those games, and by having clinched the NFC's No. 1 seed with one game to play, which Rodgers didn't play.
2. Alex Smith (49ers)—Smith has enjoyed a resurrection-type year under a new head coach, Jim Harbaugh. On an offense built to run the ball (No. 8), Smith has been a model of efficiency, finishing with a 90.7 passer rating. His passing yardage, 3,150, doesn't approach the totals of the league's star passers, but his five interceptions are the fewest in the league. He's a game-manager type of quarterback for a team with a strong running game and defense.
3. Drew Brees (Saints)—His 5,476 yards passing is an NFL record and his 46 touchdown passes are one more than Rodgers' 45 and four shy of Brady's all-time record, 50. Brees is red-hot heading into the postseason.
4. Eli Manning (Giants)—He's taken his game to a higher, more dependable level this season. Manning finished just under 5,000 yards passing and his 92.9 passer rating left him at No. 7 in the league. Most importantly, Manning made big plays and led big drives down the stretch. He's a hot quarterback heading into the postseason.
5. Matt Ryan (Falcons)—Ryan and the Falcons got off to a slow start, but he sizzled down the stretch, finishing with 4,177 yards passing, 29 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a 92.2 passer rating. He's right behind Manning in the ratings and Ryan has at his side the league's No. 3 rusher, Michael Turner, and No. 2 receptions leader, Roddy White. The Falcons take a hot offense into the postseason.
6. Matt Stafford (Lions)—Only the Saints offense is hotter. Stafford turned a corner in his third pro season, moving into the top five quarterbacks with a 97.2 passer rating. He finished the season with a 520-yard game against the Packers that put him over the 5,000-yard mark. He also threw for 41 touchdowns. His favorite receiver, Calvin Johnson, led the NFC in touchdown receptions with 16.
1. Tom Brady (Patriots)—He's long been the symbol of excellence at the position, and Brady was on his game, again, in 2011. He finished third behind Brees and Rodgers with a 105.6 passer rating and he finished the season with a rush against Buffalo. Brady to Wes Welker is the league's No. 1 pass-catch combination and it's the main reason the Patriots are the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
2. Joe Flacco (Ravens)—Is this the year for Flacco? He's flirted with postseason success and he's poised to take his game to a higher level this time around. A few bad outings dropped Flacco's passer rating to the middle of the pack, but he was good when he had to be good in 2011 and the Ravens are a more confident team because of it.
3. T.J. Yates (Texans)—Few gave the Texans a chance to advance in the postseason after they lost their Nos. 1 and 2 quarterbacks, Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart, but Yates, a rookie from North Carolina, has given the Texans reason to believe they can win. He's armed with the league's No. 2 running game, behind the league's No. 2 defense, and Yates' toughness is emboldening the Texans; Yates says he'll play this weekend, despite a separated left shoulder.
4. Tim Tebow (Broncos)—He's this season's "Cinderella Man." His stats tell a story different from his won-lost record, though Tebow fell on hard times on both counts down the stretch. Tebow is the passer who is a runner and his style is different enough and his story fresh enough to make him a must-watch player in the postseason.
5. Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers)— Roethlisberger reinjured his ankle in the final game of the regular season and he lost his No. 1 rusher, Rashard Mendenhall, and possibly star center Maurkice Pouncey, but Roethlisberger has often been at his best when he's hurt and the odds are against him. He took the Steelers to the Super Bowl last year on a foot injury that required that he wear an oversized shoe with a metal plate in it.
6. Andy Dalton (Bengals)—Dalton challenged Cam Newton for top rookie quarterback honors most of the season. Dalton's numbers began to fall off late in the season, but his 20 touchdown passes put him in the 80-and-up passer-rating club. The postseason will allow Dalton to showcase the weapons he has on offense and which he and the Bengals will take into what appears to be a bright future.