Ask the Carolina Panthers. Jake Delhomme celebrated his 34th birthday on Saturday with the crappiest game in modern NFL playoff history — five interceptions, a fumble and a quarterback rating of 39.5. Delhomme doomed the Panthers to a 33-13, home field loss to the Arizona Cardinals, who until Saturday were most closely associated with the phrase, "worst playoff team ever." One of Delhomme's interceptions was tipped twice — not his fault — but the other four were all him, mostly attempts to force the ball into double coverage. The Fox announcing team (Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston and Tony Siragusa), like most such quasi-NFL employees, proved allergic to using the word "choke" in their coverage, but if ever there was ever an athletic performance that cried out for that kind of candor, this one was it.
The New York Giants/Philadelphia Eagles game on Sunday turned on quarterback play, too. The Giants lost 23-11 and are not going to repeat as Super Bowl champions in large measure because Eli Manning was erratic and turnover prone, flummoxed by famously windy Giants Stadium. If this sounds familiar, it should: It's been the knock on Manning since he was drafted by the Chargers in 2004 and immediately traded to the Giants.
His career since practically defines mediocrity — except for one nine-game stretch. From the final regular season game versus New England last season, through four playoff games culminating in a Super Bowl win, and continuing on into the first four games of this year, Manning was as hot as any quarterback in the country (including his brother Peyton, who practically defines the position).
But take out those first four games this year, and Manning's quarterback rating for 2008 was precisely where it was the previous three years — in the 70s. The 70s are where the Kyle Ortons, JaMarcus Russells and Dan Orlovskys of the world hang out. Manning's ratings for the last six games of '08, including Sunday's playoff game against the Eagles: 88, 73, 44, 95, 76 and 41, for an average of 70.
The contrast between Manning and Rush Limbaugh's favorite quarterback, Donovan F. McNabb, was particularly brutal. Manning threw into the wind in the first and fourth quarters, and his floating, knuckling heaves netted the Giants a total of one field goal in eight drives. Facing the same conditions in the second and third quarters, McNabb's tight spirals and under-control passing led the Eagles to a touchdown and two field goals in six drives, three of which lasted 10 or more plays.
Manning is what he is: a journeyman with one magical stretch that he and Giants fans will treasure for the rest of their lives. Hey, we should all be so lucky. It's hard to imagine the Giants making the decision to continue to build their team around him, though.
Whatever Manning is, he is no Ben Roethlisberger. Coming back from a concussion suffered against Cleveland in the last week of the regular season, Roethlisberger took over the Pittsburgh/San Diego playoff game in the second quarter and by the time he let his foot up off the neck of the Chargers, the Steelers were a sure thing for the AFC championship game.
Big Ben took the Steelers through the snow and down the field in eight plays to end the first half — the key play was a 41-yard pass to Heinz Ward – and then all the way down the field again in 13 plays to start the second half, going five for six for 54 yards.
The Chargers finally got the ball again, but got off only one play because of a Phillip Rivers interception.
Roethlisberger led two more drives in the quarter — the Chargers muffed a punt after the first one stalled — that burned off the rest of the quarter, thus creating one of the more amazing stats in NFL history: The Chargers ran one play in the third quarter, for zero total yards.
A quick Steelers touchdown at the start of the fourth quarter — the key play was an interference call on a Roethlisberger bomb — put the game out of reach 28-10 and Pittsburgh coasted home, winning 35-24.
Rivers was good for the Chargers, as he almost always is. He threw for over 300 yards and put up 24 points, the most the Steelers' exceptional defense has allowed all season. But when the game was being decided, he wasn't on the field. Big Ben was, as he always seems to be. His career record as a starter in Pittsburgh is now 57-22.
One of the four weekend divisional games actually didn't turn on quarterback play — the 13-10 win by the Baltimore Ravens over the Tennessee Titans. Joe Flacco didn't blow the game for the Ravens, which was pretty much all that was asked of him in the Baltimore game plan. Kerry Collins of the Titans got a chance to throw 42 times and led the Titans on four scoring drives, which is way better than par against a voracious Ravens defense, but two of those four drives were destroyed by fumbles deep in Baltimore territory.
Flacco is the first rookie quarterback to win two playoff games in one year, but against the Titans, he had one 48-yard TD pass to Derrick Mason and was otherwise a non-factor in the game. It doesn't bode well for Baltimore's chances next Sunday against Pittsburgh. As good as Tennessee's defense is, Pittsburgh's is simply on another level. They held Rivers and the Chargers — as good an offense as there is in the league — to 10 points until the game was out of hand. It's almost impossible to imagine Baltimore scoring against the Steelers.