Mark Maske (c) 2015, The Washington Post. The quarterbacks who will play in Sunday’s NFL playoff games are highly accomplished, at least in terms of regular season play.
Tony Romo of Dallas was among the league’s most valuable players this season. Detroit’s Matthew Stafford is one of only five quarterbacks in the sport’s history to have had a 5,000-yard passing season. Andrew Luck has made the quarterbacking transition from Peyton Manning to him in Indianapolis go about as seamlessly as imaginable. Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton has a once-downtrodden franchise in the postseason for a fourth straight year.
When it comes to the playoffs, however, they are a group of wanna-be’s. They will take a combined postseason record of 2-9 into Sunday’s Bengals-Colts and Lions-Cowboys matchups. Two will improve their playoff records Sunday. But which two?
Few NFL quarterbacks have received more criticism for a lack of big-game success than Romo. He has a 1-3 career postseason record. But he has had a superb season that has put him in the MVP conversation, and the Cowboys won the NFC East title on the heels of three straight years in which they lost their season finale with the division crown at stake on each occasion.
“I’m confident as we go into the [postseason] tournament that we’re going to have as good of quarterback play as any other team in the NFL,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said after his team beat the Colts in Arlington, Texas, in the second-to-last game of the regular season to clinch the division title. “I think Romo is there. I’m going to say it one more time: Somehow, some way, he needs to have a Super Bowl by his name. He’s that good.”
Romo has been as good as just about anyone this season. He was the league’s highest-rated passer during the regular season. Romo connected on 69.9 percent of his passes this season while throwing 34 touchdown passes with only nine interceptions. He was particularly effective down the stretch, with 12 touchdown passes and only one interception in the Cowboys’ four December games.
A season that began with major questions about Romo’s surgically repaired back and the Dallas defense has seen the Cowboys become one of the sport’s most surprising success stories. Now the 34-year-old quarterback attempts to extend that run of prosperity into the postseason with the assistance of one of the best teams around him that he has had. Tailback DeMarco Murray led the NFL in rushing, running behind a young and talented offensive line. Wide receiver Dez Bryant led the league with 16 touchdown catches.
“I think we’re all judged off wins and losses,” Romo said after the Indianapolis game. “In that regard, this would be near the top. Specifically I’m a better player. There’s no question that I’m much better now than I’ve ever been, for a multitude of reasons. Obviously, saying all that, football is the ultimate team sport.”
Stafford, who played quarterback at Highland Park High School, did not have his finest season. He was only the league’s 21st-rated passer, and he had a dozen interceptions to go with his 22 touchdown passes. He did rank ninth in the NFL in passing yards with 4,257. But the Detroit offense sputtered at times and wide receiver Calvin Johnson had to deal with an ankle injury.
Even so, Stafford and the Lions are in the playoffs for the first time since the 2011 season, when Stafford threw for 5,038 yards to join Dan Marino, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Manning as the NFL’s only 5,000-yard passers. The Lions lost an opening-round NFC postseason game that season at New Orleans, and Stafford seeks his first playoff triumph Sunday.
The Lions lost at Green Bay last Sunday with the NFC North crown at stake. But they received a boost during the week when hearing officer Ted Cottrell overturned the league’s one-game suspension of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh for stepping on the leg of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers during the game. Detroit’s defensive prowess and offensive potential make them a dangerous first-round foe for the Cowboys, who were only 4-4 at home during the regular season.
Dalton, like Stafford, seeks his first career postseason victory. He is 0-3 in the playoffs. Clearly more is expected after the Bengals signed Dalton in the summer to a six-year contract extension worth as much as $115 million.
Dalton, who played for Texas Christian University, had 17 interceptions along with 19 touchdown passes during the regular season and was only the NFL’s 25th-rated passer. Yet the Bengals are in the postseason for the fourth time in Dalton’s four seasons as their quarterback, a notable accomplishment for a franchise that reached the playoffs twice in the 20 years prior to Dalton’s arrival. Now he and the Bengals can go about the task of trying to get a postseason win.
Luck secured his first playoff victory last season. But he’s still only 1-2 in the postseason, and playoff success is among the dwindling number of things left on his to-do list as he ascends toward NFL quarterbacking royalty. Luck, in his third pro season, led the league this year with 40 touchdown passes and ranked third in passing yards with 4,761.
The Colts wrapped up the AFC South early and Luck had early exits in each of their final two regular season games. He threw two interceptions and had only 109 passing yards in the 42-7 defeat at Dallas, exiting that game in the third quarter, but rebounded to pass for 160 yards and two touchdowns in a far sharper performance in a victory at Tennessee last weekend to conclude the regular season.
“There are high expectations, especially on the offensive side of the ball, to go out and score every drive, to get points and to move the ball,” Luck said after the Dallas game. “When we don’t, it’s disappointing. . .. We’ll improve and we’ll get back on track. I firmly believe it.”