BALTIMORE — Who are these guys anyway?
They come from colleges like Northern Iowa, Delaware, and Southern Mississippi. Most of them have been kicked around more than a Pop Warner football.
Yet, they're the quarterbacks of the top eight teams in the NFL, and all are scrambling to make it to the Feb. 3 Super Bowl in New Orleans.
With the exception of Donovan McNabb, who was selected in the first round by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1999, none of them was expected to make an impact in the NFL coming out of college.
The reason: QBs are among the most difficult players to assess for talent. It's hard enough to measure vision down the field, almost impossible to measure guts.
Take Kurt Warner. He was never drafted out of Northern Iowa University. His arm isn't that strong. He's not particularly big or fast. Today, however, he is the best quarterback in the NFL, and his St. Louis Rams are favorites to win the Super Bowl.
Besides their mostly obscure backgrounds, this year's playoff QBs have another thing in common: They all need a strong team around them to win. Warner needs running back Marshall Faulk; Pittsburgh's Kordell Stewart needs his top wide receiver Hines Ward. And so on. That's why football is the quintessential team sport.
"There isn't a quarterback you point a finger at and say, 'This guy's it - he's their offense,' " says Jim Miller, the virtually unheard-of Chicago Bears quarterback. "You need all 11 guys."
With that in mind, here's a look at this week's playoff games, and the players who'll make them tick:
Oakland Raiders at New England Patriots (Saturday, 8 p.m. EST, CBS)
In the Raiders' win over the New York Jets last week, quarterback Rich Gannon and Jerry Rice were the déjà vu combination. Rice caught nine passes for 183 yards and a touchdown - and in the process regained the form that made him the greatest receiver ever to play the game. But the Raiders will need more than Rice to beat the Patriots in the cold of Foxboro Stadium. They'll need to run the ball well and stop the solid New England ground attack.
The Pats, meanwhile, will not beat themselves. They're well coached by Brian Belichick, and they run a complex defense that is confounding to opponents, especially those that rely on the run. Tom Brady, their quarterback, has no playoff experience, but he's already handled the pressure of a mini-quarterback controversy this season after winning the job over veteran Drew Bledsoe. New England will be tough to beat at home.
Philadelphia Eagles at Chicago Bears (Saturday, 4:30 p.m. EST, Fox)
The Bears have the home-field advantage and are the favorites, but the Eagles come into the game with more playoff experience. The most intriguing matchup here is the Eagles' star QB McNabb and the Bears' super linebacker, Brian Urlacher, who no doubt will be shadowing McNabb. Ultimately, the two may cancel each other out.
In all likelihood, it will be a low-scoring game. The Bears have the second-best rushing defense in the league, while the Eagles specialize in stopping the pass. Don't expect Chicago QB Miller to be throwing the deep ball. His No. 1 objective will be not committing turnovers and winning field position - how well he succeeds at it could determine the winner.
Green Bay Packers at St. Louis Rams (Sunday, 4 p.m. EST, Fox)
This is the marquee matchup, featuring the two best quarterbacks in the league, Warner and Brett Favre. It's hard to count out Favre, but it's even harder to imagine anyone stopping the Rams' offense, the best in the NFL. If Warner doesn't bite you, running back Faulk will.
Furthermore, the Rams have an advantage playing at home on the carpet. It's makes them seem even faster than on a grass field, and it keeps the uniforms of the Packers, who thrive playing outside in bad weather, clean. In all, the Pack needs a superhuman defensive effort to win.
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. EST, CBS)
There's bitter blood between these two similar teams. Both play vicious defense. Both like to pound the ball up the middle. Both like to talk trash. They split two games during the regular season and seem to have been on a collision course since Day 1. On paper, Pittsburgh is better. It has a higher-ranked defense (No. 1 compared to the Ravens' No. 2) and a strong offense led by a black-and-blue ground attack - whether or not recently reactivated running back Jerome Bettis is healthy. But it's hard to go against the defending NFL champs, the Ravens, who seem to be regaining their form of a year ago.