The year of the quarterback came without Peyton Manning suiting up for a single game. Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Matthew Stafford all had unbelievable seasons statistically. They could light it up in a moment's notice, but maybe with the exception of Stafford, we already knew what they were capable of. In other words, it's not like they grew beyond reasonable expectations.
In the NFC, both Brees and Rodgers saw their teams eliminated last week by the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants, respectively. The 49ers and the Giants will now square off this Sunday for the NFC Championship. While both teams have stellar players on the defensive side of the ball, each team has seen tremendous growth from their starting quarterback.
The improvements made by Eli Manning this season have been remarkable. He threw for nearly 1,000 yards more than his previous career high, and his quarterback rating was about 10 points higher than his career average. More importantly, I have taken an appreciation to the "moxy" displayed by Manning this season. While I think fans have unfairly criticized him in the past for being the "dumb" brother, I did understand what they were referring to. I didn't think it was possible, but Eli has done a lot to put him much closer to the same regard I hold for Peyton.
On the other side, you have Alex Smith. He was the first overall pick in the 2005 draft, one year after Manning was the first overall pick in the 2004 draft. Prior to this season, Smith had six years or irrelevancy with the 49ers. Amidst all of the hype the 49ers would receive every year, their offense failed to deliver. Somehow, through every coaching change, Smith remained with the team. When new head coach Jim Harbaugh took over the team this year, he worked wonders with the offense by having a good deal of creativity mixed in with turnover-free football. He crafted gameplans that revolved around Smith's strengths. Smith didn't have "wowing" stats during the regular seasons, but I also have an appreciation for a team that wins behind a quarterback with a lot more touchdowns (19) than interceptions (5). In last week's playoff game, Smith arguably had one of the best games of his career, most notably for two late touchdown drives that he helped engineer; one that had him on the winning side of a shootout with Brees. Remarkable.
This week, these two teams go head-to-head to advance to the Super Bowl against either New England or Baltimore. The 49ers have been a much more consistent team than the Giants this year, but Manning and company have a lot more playoff experience on their side and just shut down the Falcons' and Packers' offense in back-to-back weeks. Who will come out victorious? I honestly can't make my decision in this one until Sunday, but don't let that stop you from voting in our poll below.
The 49ers did win a regular season game against the Giants, in San Francisco, in a tight 27-20 affair.