New breed of gunslingers in NFL playoffs - - No One Gets You Closer

New breed of gunslingers in NFL playoffs


Brady, Peyton are out, but Rivers-Roethlisberger QB matchup could thrill
Rich Cimini, contributor

We were starting to get spoiled. For five straight Januarys, the divisional playoffs included Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, our version of Montana and Unitas. (Pardon the reach across generations.) In three of those tournaments, the years we really got lucky, they played against each other, twice for the AFC championship.

Not this January, though. Brady is home, tending to a wounded knee. Manning is home, too, the place where no champion wants to be, tending to wounded pride. So, yes, some of the magic is gone from the NFL postseason, but now along come Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, and you start to think that maybe - just maybe - they can satisfy our craving for a great quarterback duel.

Because that's what we want, of course. Even though football is built on the principles of teamwork and team everything, nothing excites America like an old-fashioned quarterback battle, a couple of armed gunslingers facing off at high noon. We get that from Rivers and Roethlisberger, because they're young and talented and so different in their styles, but so much alike in the only respect that matters: They win.

Roethlisberger is 51-20 as a starter, plus 5-2 in the postseason - and that includes one Super Bowl championship. Rivers is 33-15 and 3-2, still looking for his first title. On Sunday, they will meet for the first time in the postseason, Roethlisberger's Steelers against Rivers' Chargers in an AFC divisional game in Pittsburgh.

This could be the start of a beautiful rivalry, considering they represent two-thirds of the famous QB Class of '04. The other guy happens to be the reigning Super Bowl MVP, the Giants' Eli Manning, and already there is reason to believe this class could eclipse the celebrated Class of '83. Manning and Roethlisberger have one Super Bowl ring apiece, equaling the combined career total of the Boys from '83 - both owned by John Elway. Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, et al, didn't win any.

It's really remarkable considering that Manning (No. 1 overall), Rivers (No. 4) and Roethlisberger (No. 11) were drafted so close to each other. Lofty draft pedigree doesn't equate to success, and if you don't believe that, check out these busts and disappointments from recent drafts.

In 2006, Vince Young, Matt Leinart and Jay Cutler were selected in the top 11, and the only one who can call himself a starter is Cutler.

In 2002, David Carr and Joey Harrington were picked first and third, respectively. Swing and a miss - and a bigger miss.

In 1999, Donovan McNabb was joined by Tim Couch, Akili Smith and Daunte Culpepper in the top 11 - aka The Three Stooges.

You get the picture. The draft is an inexact science, but Manning, Rivers and Roethlisberger have made their general managers look smart.

Rivers doesn't get as much publicity as his classmates, but he's the best pure passer of the three. He threw a team-record 34 touchdowns, captured the NFL passing title and yet he was left off the Pro Bowl team - a ridiculous omission. (Brett Favre, who got the nod over Rivers - must have been the AARP vote - should concede his spot to the Chargers' team leader.)

Though he didn't draw any MVP consideration, Rivers carried the Chargers down the stretch, saving them from the abyss. They went from 4-8 to 8-8, with Rivers rallying them from an 18-point, fourth-quarter deficit in Week 15 against the Chiefs. He's a fiery leader, the heart of the team.

"Philip has been terrific," Chargers coach Norv Turner said.

Courageously, Rivers played with a serious knee injury in last year's AFC title game, convincing his teammates - heck the entire league - of his toughness. He won major points for that performance, albeit in defeat, and now he's back, trying to close the deal against Big Ben.

Roethlisberger, too, has inspired his team. He has taken more hits than a sparring partner, including a concussion in the season finale, but he keeps bouncing back. It has been a tough year, maybe his toughest. He hasn't enjoyed his usual support, as the Steelers' once-vaunted running game has lost its way and the offensive line has decayed.

But the man keeps winning. He beat Rivers in the regular season, 11-10, hardly a classic. Come Sunday afternoon, that game from November will be forgotten. Reputations are made in the postseason, and so are rivalries. Roethlisberger-Rivers isn't Brady-Manning just yet, but give it time. We could be looking at the beginning of something that will be around for awhile.

© 2009 NBC

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