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Superman wears #12 in Indianapolis now.

Superman wears #12 in Indianapolis now.

The NFL playoffs began in very entertaining fashion in Indianapolis. The Chiefs lost Jamaal Charles on the first drive of the game to a concussion, but stormed out to a 38-10 lead. Then the Colts pulled off the second greatest comeback in NFL history, eventually winning 45-44. The much-maligned Alex Smith had the game of his life, finishing 30 of 46 for 378 yards, with 4 touchdowns and no interceptions while also rushing for 57 yards.

Of course, Andrew Luck had an incredible game, too, even if it wasn’t necessarily as efficient. Luck went 29/45 for 443 yards and 4 touchdowns to counter his 3 interceptions, rushed for 45 yards, and recovered a Donald Brown fumble and ran it in for the touchdown.

Which made me wonder: where does this game rank among the greatest quarterback battles? To make life simpler, I’m only going to look at passing statistics, although obviously both players added some value on the ground. Smith averaged 9.23 Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, defined as (Passing Yards + 20*TD – 45*INT – Sack Yards) divided by (Pass Attempts + Sacks). The NFL average in 2013 was 5.87 ANY/A, which means Smith produced 3.36 ANY/A over average. And, since he had 48 pass attempts (including sacks), that means Smith provided 161 yards over average.

Luck’s averages were hurt by the three interceptions, but he still produced 8.23 ANY/A and therefore 2.41 ANY/A over average. That means, over his 46 dropbacks, he produced 111 yards of value over average. So where does that mean this game ranks among all playoff games since 1970? My initial thought was to simply add the two value over average numbers, but that ended up producing a list dominated by great games by one quarterback. To counter this, I decided to only look at games where both quarterbacks were above average and to instead take the Harmonic Mean of their values. This wound up producing a pretty good list, and it places Luck/Smith at #9.

Here’s how to read the table below. The highest-ranked game was in 2009, where Arizona traveled to Green Bay. This was in the Wildcard round, and the “W” is linked to the PFR boxscore of that game. Aaron Rodgers was 28 of 42 for 423 yards with 4 touchdowns and 1 interception, and was sacked 5 times for 19 yards. He produced a value of 174 yards over average. That was pretty good, but the home QB, Kurt Warner, was even better. He went 29/33 for 379 yards and 5 touchdowns with no picks, and was sacked just one time for four yards. He produced 283 yards of value over average, and the two quarterbacks produced a harmonic mean of 215. The table below shows the top 501 playoff quarterback battles:

Rk
Year
Road
Home
Rd
Road QB
Road QB Stats
RVal
Home QB
Home QB Stats
HVal
HMn
12009ARIGNBWAaron Rodgers28/42; 423; 4/1 (5-19)174Kurt Warner29/33; 379; 5/0 (1-4)283215
21999STLMINDJeff George29/50; 423; 4/1 (4-35)143Kurt Warner27/33; 391; 5/1 (2-17)248182
31981MIASDGDDan Fouts33/53; 433; 3/1 (2-18)156Don Strock29/43; 403; 4/1 (3-26)184169
42011NORDETWMatthew Stafford28/43; 380; 3/2 (0-0)96Drew Brees33/44; 466; 3/0 (2-7)248139
52003NWECARSJake Delhomme16/33; 323; 3/0 (4-28)162Tom Brady32/48; 354; 3/1 (0-0)119138
62001OAKNYJWVinny Testaverde26/40; 268; 3/0 (1-3)112Rich Gannon23/29; 294; 2/0 (1-7)171135
72007INDSDGDPhilip Rivers14/19; 264; 3/1 (0-0)174Peyton Manning33/48; 402; 3/2 (0-0)107133
81987DENCLECBernie Kosar26/41; 356; 3/1 (2-20)134John Elway14/26; 281; 3/1 (2-25)130132
92013KANINDWAlex Smith30/46; 378; 4/0 (2-15)161Andrew Luck29/45; 443; 4/3 (1-7)111131
102012ATLSFOCColin Kaepernick16/21; 233; 1/0 (1-9)113Matt Ryan30/42; 396; 3/1 (1-0)156131
111982PITSDGWDan Fouts27/42; 333; 3/0 (0-0)193Terry Bradshaw28/39; 325; 2/2 (0-0)89122
122008ARIPHICDonovan McNabb28/47; 375; 3/1 (2-18)93Kurt Warner21/28; 279; 4/0 (2-12)176121
131974PITBUFDJoe Ferguson11/26; 164; 2/0 (0-0)102Terry Bradshaw12/19; 203; 1/0 (0-0)149121
141993BUFRAIDJeff Hostetler14/20; 230; 1/0 (2-15)122Jim Kelly27/37; 287; 2/0 (3-7)115119
151994MIAKANWJoe Montana26/37; 314; 2/1 (0-0)110Dan Marino22/29; 257; 2/0 (1-8)128118
161989CLEBUFDJim Kelly28/54; 405; 4/2 (1-1)106Bernie Kosar20/29; 251; 3/0 (2-16)132118
172002SFONYGWKerry Collins29/43; 342; 4/1 (2-15)122Jeff Garcia27/44; 331; 3/1 (0-0)111116
182009INDNYJCMark Sanchez17/30; 257; 2/1 (0-0)83Peyton Manning26/39; 377; 3/0 (2-17)188115
191980ATLDALDDanny White25/39; 322; 3/1 (1-12)131Steve Bartkowski18/33; 320; 2/1 (4-35)100113
202003KANINDDPeyton Manning22/30; 304; 3/0 (1-12)191Trent Green18/30; 212; 1/0 (0-0)76109
211993RAIDENWJohn Elway29/47; 302; 3/1 (1-4)68Jeff Hostetler13/19; 294; 3/0 (2-3)244106
222007NWEJAXDDavid Garrard22/33; 278; 2/1 (1-8)77Tom Brady26/28; 262; 3/0 (1-4)158104
231997SFOMINDRandall Cunningham18/40; 331; 3/1 (1-10)124Steve Young21/30; 224; 1/0 (1-5)7997
242012SFOBALSJoe Flacco22/33; 287; 3/0 (2-13)126Colin Kaepernick16/28; 302; 1/1 (3-16)7796
251984MIAPITCMark Malone20/36; 312; 3/3 (0-0)57Dan Marino21/32; 421; 4/1 (0-0)29695
261989DENPITDBubby Brister19/29; 229; 1/0 (0-0)97John Elway12/20; 239; 1/1 (1-13)9194
271977DENOAKCKen Stabler17/35; 215; 2/1 (1-11)71Craig Morton10/20; 224; 2/1 (1-7)13894
281992BUFHOUWWarren Moon36/50; 371; 4/2 (4-24)73Frank Reich21/34; 289; 4/1 (3-21)12292
292010SEANORWDrew Brees39/60; 404; 2/0 (1-7)87Matt Hasselbeck22/35; 272; 4/1 (1-6)9591
301991DENHOUDWarren Moon27/36; 325; 3/1 (0-0)153John Elway19/33; 257; 1/1 (0-0)6187
311975OAKCINDKen Anderson17/27; 201; 2/0 (5-40)72Ken Stabler17/23; 199; 3/1 (1-14)10385
321996DENJAXDMark Brunell18/29; 245; 2/0 (2-5)121John Elway25/38; 226; 2/0 (1-1)6584
332004INDDENWJake Plummer24/34; 284; 2/1 (3-24)47Peyton Manning27/33; 458; 4/1 (1-4)29781
341990MIAKANWSteve DeBerg17/30; 269; 1/1 (1-5)75Dan Marino19/30; 221; 2/0 (2-8)8479
351978DALPITSTerry Bradshaw17/30; 318; 4/1 (4-27)189Roger Staubach17/30; 228; 3/1 (5-52)5079
362000NORSTLWKurt Warner24/40; 365; 3/3 (2-15)56Aaron Brooks16/29; 266; 4/1 (2-15)12578
371986DENNYGSPhil Simms22/25; 268; 3/0 (1-5)194John Elway22/37; 304; 1/1 (4-29)4978
381981SFONYGDScott Brunner16/37; 290; 3/2 (2-9)56Joe Montana20/31; 304; 2/1 (3-16)11375
392004SDGNYJWChad Pennington23/33; 279; 2/0 (2-9)113Drew Brees31/42; 319; 2/1 (2-11)5574
402004SEASTLWMarc Bulger18/32; 313; 2/1 (5-19)81Matt Hasselbeck27/43; 341; 2/1 (3-9)6874
411982CINNYJWRichard Todd20/28; 269; 1/1 (0-0)111Ken Anderson26/35; 354; 2/3 (4-20)5472
421987CLEINDDJack Trudeau21/33; 251; 2/1 (2-12)59Bernie Kosar20/31; 229; 3/1 (0-0)8871
432006NORPHIDJeff Garcia15/30; 240; 1/0 (1-8)85Drew Brees20/32; 243; 1/0 (3-16)5970
441992SFODALCTroy Aikman24/34; 322; 2/0 (4-27)149Steve Young25/35; 313; 1/2 (3-12)4570
452009INDNORSDrew Brees32/39; 288; 2/0 (1-7)95Peyton Manning31/45; 333; 1/1 (0-0)5469
461980SDGOAKCJim Plunkett14/18; 261; 2/0 (6-37)147Dan Fouts22/45; 336; 2/2 (2-13)4569
472002PITCLEWKelly Holcomb26/43; 429; 3/1 (2-20)183Tommy Maddox30/48; 367; 3/2 (3-24)4066
481987HOUSEAWDave Krieg16/38; 237; 2/0 (2-16)60Warren Moon21/32; 273; 1/1 (2-14)6361
492005SEAWASDMark Brunell22/37; 242; 1/0 (2-12)42Matt Hasselbeck16/26; 215; 1/0 (0-0)9659
501982RAICLEWPaul McDonald18/37; 281; 1/0 (6-53)43Jim Plunkett24/37; 386; 0/2 (2-16)9459

While placing Warner/Rodgers on top is very appropriate, the number two game on the list doesn’t meet the intent of this post: the Rams took a 49-17 lead in the fourth quarter before Jeff George threw three meaningless touchdowns. The third game is the Epic in Miami, which was essentially a 2013 game that took place in 1981. No arguments there.

The Lions/Saints playoff game from 2011 is next on the list: both quarterbacks dominated, although that game lacked the end-game excitement of Colts/Chiefs. The Panthers/Patriots Super Bowl comes in as the highest ranked title game, and that seems to jive with popular opinion. The two teams produced 37 points in the fourth quarter alone.

I doubt many remember the Jets/Raiders game that comes in at #6, although that was a very entertaining Wild Card game where a 39-year-old Jerry Rice proved to be uncoverable, catching 9 passes for 183 yards and one touchdown. The teams combined for 912 total yards which, at the time, was tied for the 6th most ever in a playoff game. The teams kept trading fourth quarter touchdowns, with the Jets cutting the lead to 7 with two minutes left. On third-and-11 at the Raiders 20, with 1:40 left, Charlie Garner escaped the Jets defense and rushed 80 yards for the game winner. This game probably lacked the high-end passing prowess of Luck/Smith, but neither quarterback threw an interception. The league average ANY/A was only 5.20 back then (which in itself is kind of crazy to think about), so the era adjustments vault this game ahead of Chiefs/Colts.

The 7th game on the list, Chargers/Colts in 2007, was another classic. Vincent Jackson, Chris Chambers, Darren Sproles, LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates, and Legedu Naanee all caught passes of 20+ yards for San Diego, and Craig Davis added an 18-yard catch. Peyton Manning was his typical self, and neither quarterback was sacked.  This was the game where Rivers tore his ACL and Billy Volek finished the Colts off, scoring the game-winning touchdown on a quarterback sneak.  Of course, that deprived of us a New England/Indianapolis AFC Championship Game rematch, and a gimpy Rivers was unable to do much against the Patriots the next week.

Lost in the 1987 AFC Championship Game — The Fumble — was the marvelous game had by both quarterbacks. Jon Elway averaged over 10 yards per pass attempt, helped out by an 80-yard touchdown to Mark Jackson, while Bernie Kosar threw for 356 yards and three scores. The Browns leading receiver that day? Earnest Byner.

I’d quibble with the Vikings/Rams game, but otherwise, I think this is a pretty good list of the top passing showdowns in the modern era of playoff football.

And, of course, we can also look at the worst games. I used the same method, and eliminated any game where one quarterback had an above-average game. Only one Super Bowl makes the list, but I don’t think anyone will argue with the presence of Seahawks/Steelers.2

Rk
Year
Road
Home
Rd
Road QB
Road QB Stats
Rval
Home QB
Home QB Stats
Hval
HMn
11982MIANYJCRichard Todd15/37; 103; 0/5 (4-26)-343David Woodley9/21; 87; 0/3 (4-27)-194-248
21985RAMDALDDanny White24/43; 217; 0/3 (5-35)-186Dieter Brock6/22; 50; 0/1 (1-3)-110-138
31980CLEOAKDJim Plunkett14/30; 149; 0/2 (2-17)-114Brian Sipe13/40; 183; 0/3 (2-14)-170-136
41976DALRAMDPat Haden10/21; 152; 0/3 (3-22)-103Roger Staubach15/37; 150; 0/3 (4-24)-176-130
51988CINBUFCJim Kelly14/30; 163; 1/3 (3-27)-145Boomer Esiason11/20; 94; 1/2 (3-20)-111-126
61980PHIMINDTommy Kramer19/39; 209; 1/5 (3-30)-230Ron Jaworski17/38; 190; 1/2 (2-11)-86-125
72005TAMWASWMark Brunell7/15; 41; 0/1 (2-15)-109Chris Simms25/38; 198; 0/2 (3-30)-141-123
81980PHIDALCDanny White12/31; 127; 0/1 (1-11)-84Ron Jaworski9/29; 91; 0/2 (2-14)-164-111
92009NWEBALWJoe Flacco4/10; 34; 0/1 (0-0)-67Tom Brady23/42; 154; 2/3 (3-22)-217-103
101999STLTAMCShaun King13/29; 163; 0/2 (5-37)-140Kurt Warner26/43; 258; 1/3 (0-0)-80-102
111995KANINDDJim Harbaugh12/27; 112; 1/1 (2-10)-80Steve Bono11/25; 122; 1/3 (0-0)-128-99
122006BALINDDPeyton Manning15/30; 170; 0/2 (1-9)-96Steve McNair18/29; 173; 0/2 (2-12)-96-96
132007NWESDGCPhilip Rivers19/37; 211; 0/2 (1-4)-93Tom Brady22/33; 209; 2/3 (2-11)-90-91
141999WASDETWGus Frerotte21/46; 251; 1/2 (5-38)-121Brad Johnson15/31; 174; 1/2 (1-8)-70-89
151991BUFDENCJohn Elway11/21; 121; 0/1 (3-22)-68Jim Kelly13/25; 117; 0/2 (1-8)-116-85
162006INDKANWTrent Green14/24; 107; 1/2 (4-25)-139Peyton Manning30/38; 268; 1/3 (1-5)-62-85
172008NYGPHIDDonovan McNabb22/40; 217; 1/2 (0-0)-81Eli Manning15/29; 169; 0/2 (0-0)-86-84
181997PITNWEDDrew Bledsoe23/44; 264; 0/2 (2-20)-83Kordell Stewart14/31; 134; 0/1 (2-0)-81-82
191997GNBTAMDTrent Dilfer11/36; 200; 0/2 (2-26)-112Brett Favre15/28; 190; 1/2 (4-19)-64-82
201981NYJBUFWJoe Ferguson17/34; 268; 2/4 (2-38)-90Richard Todd28/51; 377; 2/4 (5-30)-73-81
211999TAMWASDBrad Johnson20/32; 149; 0/1 (4-38)-121Shaun King15/32; 157; 1/1 (2-15)-59-79
221978RAMDALCRoger Staubach13/25; 126; 2/2 (3-17)-54Pat Haden7/19; 76; 0/3 (2-5)-148-79
231996NWEPITDMike Tomczak16/29; 110; 0/2 (2-15)-155Drew Bledsoe14/24; 164; 1/2 (2-14)-53-79
241996NWEJAXCMark Brunell20/38; 190; 0/2 (1-2)-102Drew Bledsoe20/33; 178; 0/1 (2-17)-64-79
252007PITJAXWDavid Garrard9/21; 140; 1/2 (4-36)-104Ben Roethlisberger29/42; 337; 2/3 (6-40)-63-78
262004PITNYJDChad Pennington21/33; 182; 0/1 (3-17)-83Ben Roethlisberger17/30; 181; 1/2 (1-10)-74-78
272003BALTENWSteve McNair14/23; 159; 1/3 (0-0)-76Anthony Wright20/37; 214; 1/2 (2-13)-72-74
281999TENBUFWRob Johnson10/22; 131; 0/0 (6-35)-49Steve McNair13/24; 76; 0/1 (3-21)-130-71
291997NWEMIAWDan Marino17/43; 141; 0/2 (4-21)-213Drew Bledsoe16/32; 139; 1/0 (3-19)-41-68
302005SEAPITSBen Roethlisberger9/21; 123; 0/2 (1-8)-92Matt Hasselbeck26/49; 273; 1/1 (3-14)-44-59
311991KANRAIWTodd Marinovich12/23; 140; 0/4 (2-16)-186Steve DeBerg9/14; 89; 1/1 (2-16)-35-59
321988CHIPHIDRandall Cunningham27/54; 407; 0/3 (4-28)-47Mike Tomczak10/20; 172; 1/3 (1-7)-55-51
331998DALARIWJake Plummer19/36; 213; 2/2 (0-0)-28Troy Aikman22/49; 191; 1/3 (4-27)-232-50
341984SFOCHICSteve Fuller13/22; 87; 0/1 (9-50)-163Joe Montana18/34; 233; 1/2 (3-8)-30-50
351972SFODALDCraig Morton8/21; 96; 1/2 (3-17)-92John Brodie12/22; 150; 0/2 (0-0)-34-50
362009INDBALDJoe Flacco20/35; 189; 0/2 (1-6)-110Peyton Manning30/44; 246; 2/1 (2-13)-32-49
371999JAXTENCSteve McNair14/23; 112; 1/1 (1-0)-37Mark Brunell19/38; 226; 1/2 (3-15)-71-49
382006SDGNWEDTom Brady27/51; 280; 2/3 (2-4)-104Philip Rivers14/32; 230; 0/1 (3-26)-29-46
391991WASATLDChris Miller17/32; 178; 0/4 (4-28)-217Mark Rypien14/29; 170; 0/1 (0-0)-25-45
402004NWEINDDPeyton Manning27/42; 238; 0/1 (1-8)-57Tom Brady18/27; 144; 1/0 (3-29)-34-43
412007SEAWASWTodd Collins29/50; 266; 2/2 (3-22)-98Matt Hasselbeck20/32; 229; 1/2 (1-2)-25-40
421976MINRAMCPat Haden9/22; 161; 1/2 (3-18)-29Fran Tarkenton12/27; 143; 0/1 (4-34)-62-39
431998JAXNWEWScott Zolak21/44; 190; 0/1 (2-19)-118Mark Brunell14/34; 161; 1/0 (2-13)-23-39
441996PITINDWJim Harbaugh12/32; 134; 1/1 (4-34)-109Mike Tomczak13/21; 176; 0/2 (0-0)-22-36
452009SDGNYJDMark Sanchez12/23; 100; 1/1 (1-7)-68Philip Rivers27/40; 298; 1/2 (2-15)-24-36
461973DALMINCFran Tarkenton10/21; 133; 1/1 (4-30)-19Roger Staubach10/21; 89; 0/4 (3-26)-210-35
471971DALSFOCJohn Brodie14/30; 184; 0/3 (1-6)-79Roger Staubach9/18; 103; 0/0 (6-31)-22-35
482000PHITAMWShaun King17/31; 171; 0/0 (4-22)-33Donovan McNabb24/33; 161; 2/1 (2-10)-36-35
491996CARDALDTroy Aikman18/36; 165; 1/3 (2-17)-162Kerry Collins12/22; 100; 2/1 (0-0)-18-32
502010CHIGNBCAaron Rodgers17/30; 244; 0/2 (1-8)-32Caleb Hanie13/20; 153; 1/2 (0-0)-32-32

I can’t argue with the Jets/Dolphins 1982 AFC Championship Game making the list. That was as ugly a passing matching as you’ll ever see. Miami won 14-0, and half of those points came via an A.J. Duhe interception. Of course, this game was known as the Mud Bowl, and the field conditions were horrendous. Although I’m not even sure that’s enough to excuse Richard Todd’s ugly pick six.

  1. One disclaimer: I actually ran this query after the wild card round and never re-ran it, but I’m pretty sure none of the later games in the playoffs would make the list. []
  2. Again, I didn’t re-run the numbers for the final three rounds of the playoffs, although off the top of my head, I’m not sure any game would come close to qualifying. []
{ 6 comments }
  • Nick Bradley February 10, 2014, 1:23 am

    Cool!

    But a leverage index or QBR would be better and would incorporate drama.

    Reply
  • Archer February 10, 2014, 1:26 pm

    The first game of these playoffs turned out to be the best one.
    The much-maligned Alex Smith was pretty great in all three of his playoff games to date, and I thought him beating Brees in a shootout would make the top 50. What was the VOA for both of them?

    The Road/Home columns on both tables (that is for teams, not for QB) are mixed up.

    Reply
    • Archer February 12, 2014, 10:41 pm

      Very surprised it wasn’t fixed yet.

      Reply
  • Richie February 10, 2014, 4:11 pm

    Interesting. If somebody asked me “what was the greatest QB battle in Super Bowl history”, I don’t know if I would ever think to name that Carolina-New England Super Bowl. But that rates the highest here, and it’s not close. I wouldn’t name the second game either (Bal-SF). Third is Staubach-Bradshaw, and that one I probably WOULD consider.

    Even now as I think back, there just haven’t been a lot of Super Bowls where both QB’s seemed to have strong games.

    Reply
    • Archer February 10, 2014, 5:04 pm

      These are the three highest scores for a losing team (31, 31, 29).
      Kind of shocking that until last year, the only time both teams cracked 30 was from the ’70s.
      Also the biggest comeback in a SB remains only 10 points.
      Of course the sample size is miniscule.

      Reply

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