Each of the last three seasons the Super Bowl champion was led by an elite quarterback. Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Eli Manning each finished among the top seven in the NFL in QB Rating and touchdown passes thrown. They all won the Super Bowl MVP award, and all came from big traditional breeding grounds. Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick, the starters in this year’s ultimate game, have taken a less conventional route.
When Brees led New Orleans to a championship it seemed like a long time coming. He was the first pick of the NFL draft's second round in 2001 by San Diego. At Purdue he set Big 10 records for career passing yards, touchdowns, total yards, and completions. He led the Boilermakers to their first Rose Bowl in more than 30 yards. With the Chargers he went to the Pro Bowl twice. After being united with coach Sean Payton, he shattered the Saints record book for outstanding play in virtually all quarterbacking categories. Winning the Super Bowl seemed like the next logical step in his career.
Rodgers threw for more than 4,400 yards in two seasons at Pleasant Valley High School. After throwing 26 touchdowns his freshman season at Butte Community College he transferred to Cal. With the Golden Bears he went 17-4 as a starter. The Packers selected Rodgers in the first round of the NFL draft and then he sat for three seasons behind Brett Favre. Given a chance to start in 2008, Rodgers passed for more than 4,000 yards, and 28 touchdowns, earning a six year contract extension. In 2009 Rodgers began a streak of four straight seasons with passer ratings over 100, and earned his first of three Pro Bowl selections. Having improved in each of his years as a starter, year number three he won the Super Bowl.
The younger brother of Peyton Manning, Eli was the number one pick in the draft out of Ole Miss. With the Rebels Manning tried or broke 45 school single game, season, or career records. He passed for over 10,000 yards, 81 touchdowns, and won various awards naming him the best quarterback in the nation. Drafted by San Diego he was traded to the Giants where he played fairly average football for two years. Even in his first of two Super Bowl victories his season numbers were good but not great. However, starting in 2009 Manning put together three straight years of 4,000 yards through the air and a completion percentage of 60-percent or greater. When he won the Super Bowl last year, it was a near 5,000 yard passing season that included 30 touchdowns for a second straight campaign.
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It is easy to understand how Joe Flacco has led the Ravens to the Super Bowl. It just could not have been expected. After failing to earn a starting spot over Tyler Palko at Pittsburgh, Flacco transferred to Delaware. With the Blue Hens he went 5-6 his first season before a good second year put him on NFL draft boards. After Baltimore selected him in the first round he started what has been a difficult-to-understand trend. Mediocre regular seasons followed be great playoffs. This year during the regular season Flacco ranked in the middle third of NFL starting QB's in passer rating, completion percentage, and touchdowns thrown. This is the same story as previous years.
However, Flacco's six road playoff wins are the most in the history of the league. His 8-4 playoff record is pretty remarkable for a player who has never made the Pro Bowl. While you could not have predicted it based on another average regular season, in the playoffs nobody has been better than Flacco. Since the regular season ended Flacco leads the NFL in touchdowns, yardage, and QB Rating. He has the best QB Rating in the postseason and has not thrown an interception.
Kaepernick's road to New Orleans is even more unlikely. He was a top baseball product in high school, and accepted his only football scholarship offer at the University of Nevada. After red-shirting his first season, he took over as the starting quarterback six games into the 2007 season. Each year at Nevada he improved his completion percentage while running coach Chris Ault's “pistol” offense. His 4,000 yards rushing were just as much a part of his success as 10,000 passing yards. He capped his career as the MVP of the Humanitarian Bowl.
After the 49ers drafted him in the second round, he played behind Alex Smith in 2011. In limited work Kaepernick was intercepted five times. This year he was Smith's backup, occasionally getting a chance to run a wildcat play, until November 12. Smith was injured that day against St. Louis and Kaepernick came in and played ok in a 24-24 tie. November 17 he started against Chicago, threw two touchdowns and crushed the Bears 32-7. It has been his team ever since. Two weeks ago against Green Bay he rushed for an NFL quarterback record 181 yards as San Francisco beat Green Bay in the divisional playoff 45-31. He accounted for four scores and nearly 450 yards in the win. His dual-threat ability helped earn the 49ers a bye, and now a Super Bowl berth.
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Flacco takes on Kaepernick for the title. That would have been hard to predict five years ago, at the start of this season, and at the beginning of the playoffs. They are the top two QB's in the league based on QB Rating in the postseason. Whoever plays better will probably hoist the Lombardi trophy.