These cannot be the four quarterbacks left vying for a Super Bowl title. One guy was last seen on a stretcher, another was benched in November, the third is just a kid and the fourth was washed up years ago.
Two weeks ago Ben Roethlisberger was carried off the field, addled by another concussion.
Seven weeks ago Donovan McNabb was benched in favor of Kevin Kolb in a three-point game.
Thirteen months ago Joe Flacco was losing to Appalachian State in something called the Football Subdivision Championship.
Fifteen months ago Kurt Warner was staying healthy by holding a clipboard and watching his heir apparent QB the Cardinals.
Sure, three of them have led teams to the Super Bowl and the fourth — a rookie — led his college team to a championship game last year. But the fact that these are the final four quarterbacks standing in this nutty NFL season is, well, nuts.
Yet here they are. In ascending order of improbability:
It’s an uplifting gesture when a player can muster the thumbs-up as he’s carted off on a stretcher, but never before has it meant, “No worries, I’ll be leading an offense that puts up 35 points in 14 days.”
When Roethlisberger was concussed by the Cleveland Browns in the regular-season finale, the Steelers’ title hopes looked like they were being carried off with him. But not only did Big Ben shake off his third concussion in the last two-and-a-half years to make it back onto the field, he was a master of efficiency on Sunday, helping the Steelers hold the ball for 36:30, including 14:43 of the third quarter.
Roethlisberger was 17-for-26 for 181 yards, a touchdown and no picks. His 98.4 passer rating was his highest mark since Week 7. He also delivered a solid block on a reverse and made a decent left-footed pooch punt.
And, of course, he won. In his four seasons not following terrifying motorcycle accidents/appendectomies he has gone 44-13, a staggering 77.2 winning percentage.
Big Ben had an up-and-down season that just two weeks ago looked like it might end with him supine on a stretcher. Now he could be less than a week away from returning to the Super Bowl.
It was over. The divorce proceedings were under way.
Andy Reid had benched McNabb at halftime with the score 10-7 at Baltimore in a Week 12 loss that dropped the Eagles to 5-5-1. The team was going nowhere. The marriage had gotten rocky. It was time for a fresh start.
But a funny thing happened before McNabb could move his stuff out and set up shop in another city next year. Kevin Kolb actually took some snaps.
Kolb’s 10-for-23, 73-yard, two-pick second half against the Ravens forced Reid into a shotgun reconciliation with his longtime QB. McNabb was clearly steamed by the dalliance — however brief — and began taking it out on his opponents.
Beginning with a surgical (121.7 QB rating) dissection of the Cardinals on Thanksgiving, McNabb has led Philly to six wins in seven games. On Sunday, trailing 11-10 and facing a 3rd-and-20 at his own 15 early in the third quarter, McNabb made one of those plays that showcased his singular combination of lower body strength, mobility and arm strength.
The Giants blitzed, but he shed both Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka before finding Jason Avant with a ridiculous throw across his body for a 21-yard gain and a first down. The drive ended with a go-ahead field goal and the Eagles never looked back.
Prior to his benching, McNabb had seven turnovers in seven quarters. In the 20 quarters that followed — as he led the Eagles into the playoffs — he had just two turnovers and 10 touchdowns (9 passing, 1 rushing).
The benching was an obvious turning point for McNabb, but his teammates point to another event: the delivery of his twins on Dec. 2. With his kids safely arrived, the hottest quarterback in the league may just deliver Philadelphia its first-ever Super Bowl title on Feb. 1.
A whole lot of college football teams have proven there’s no great shame in losing to Appalachian State. It’s just that quarterbacks who end their careers with an L against the Mountaineers don’t generally find themselves in the AFC title game the very next year.
In his senior season Flacco and his Delaware Blue Hens also lost to New Hampshire and Villanova. But on Sunday he stared down Albert Haynesworth, Kyle Vanden Bosch and the rest of the bruising Titans to lead the Ravens into the conference championship game.
That’s American Football Conference. National Football League. A long way from the Colonial Athletic Association.
Flacco had already proven his bona fides in the first round, joining Roethlisberger and Shaun King as the only rookie quarterbacks to win a playoff game. But he moved into a class by himself — the only rookie to win twice in a postseason — by delivering an ice-water third-down strike to Todd Heap with a minute left to set up the game-winning field goal against the Titans.
In the Year of the Bird (Ravens, Eagles, Cardinals), the Blue Hen-turned-Raven might be able to do something he couldn’t do against Appalachian State: end his season with a victory.
Talk about Lazarus.
Warner’s whole career has been improbable. From grocery stock clerk to Arena League to NFL MVP and Super Bowl record-setter. But this latest chapter might be the most unlikely of all.
Until his remarkable resurrection this season, Warner had not played 16 games in a season since 2001. In his final two seasons with the Rams — ’02 and ’03 — he played a total of nine games. He missed six games in his lone season with Giants and another six in his first season in Arizona. He was benched outright in 2006, only to be reinstated midway through 2007.
His injuries included numerous hand, finger and thumb injuries, a strained groin, a concussion, an MCL and an elbow injury on his non-throwing arm.
But suddenly, at age 37, he’s an iron man. And in his last 24 regular season starts he has thrown 51 touchdowns. In two playoff victories he’s thrown four more TDs and posted a 94 QB rating.
And now, for the third time in his remarkable career and first time in seven years, Warner will be playing an NFC title game at home.
And no matter what happens, a team that won nine games in the regular season will be representing the NFC in the Super Bowl. Just one more nutty aspect of this nuttiest of all seasons.