Happy trails, Eli Manning + Top 25 clutch QBs in NFL History

I realized there was something special about Eli Manning during his first fourth quarter comeback in the spotlight.

During CBS’ late afternoon window in October of the 2005 NFL season, Manning rallied the Giants from a 23-10 fourth quarter deficit, to beat the Broncos — one of the NFL’s top teams that season.

Manning’s two-yard touchdown pass to Amani Toomer with five seconds remaining gave New York a 24-23 victory. The pass was especially impressive because the Giants were out of timeouts, and Manning was backing up in the face of pressure during a somewhat-broken play, keeping his eyes on the end zone to find an improvising Toomer.

Two years later, Manning defeated perhaps the greatest team of all-time, the 18-0 2007 Patriots, en route to a Super Bowl 42 victory and MVP honors. He did it with two fourth-quarter touchdown-scoring drives, and one of the more miraculous plays of all-time in the Helmet Catch.

Eli Manning - Super Bowl 42
Eli Manning readies to throw the game-winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl 42. (Screenshot: NFL on FOX)

Four years after that, Manning’s more impressive postseason run — NFL single postseason record of 1,219 pass yards —  ended with yet another Super Bowl win over the greatest coach and player in NFL history — Bill Belichick and Tom Brady — featuring one of the great throws of all-time to Mario Manningham on the game-winning drive. Unlike the Helmet Catch, there was no luck involved in this one. A perfect throw by Manning, at the perfect time.

Manning’s composure is rivaled only by his forgetfulness. Manning’s ability to put a bad performance or drive behind him almost instantly, paved the way for several clutch performances in the unlikeliest of circumstances. His ability to forget and focus on the present (while moving forward) also made for the perfect New York quarterback.

In a city filled with tabloid-like headlines and a “what have you done for me lately?” attitude, Manning was able to shake off his critics to play 16 seasons, all with the Giants.

By the end of his career, Eli garnered $252 million though NFL contracts, the highest number in NFL history. But there were bumps along the way.

Despite his 8-4 postseason record (5-2 on the road), equipped with two of the greatest Super Bowl-winning runs in history, Eli’s four other postseason appearances resulted in disappointing one and done’s. And when Eli failed to make the postseason more than once in six seasons following his last Super Bowl win, his impressive streak of 210 consecutive games started came to an end when then Giants head coach Ben McAdoo benched him in favor of Geno Smith. After regaining his starting position in 2018, Eli was then benched again a couple of games into this season for rookie first-round pick Daniel Jones.

These were heartbreaking events for Eli, but he kept a smile on his face, refusing to criticize his team, coach, or starting quarterback when speaking to the media. Eli even helped mentor Jones, despite being in the most awkward of positions as the once-franchise quarterback — think: Drew Bledsoe.

Maybe that’s how we should remember Eli — a professional through the worst of circumstances and calm in the face of the highest adversity this game could offer. And although it’s debatable wether or not a quarterback with a career 117-117 record as a starter deserves Hall of Fame consideration, his two Super Bowl MVP awards speak for themselves.

Happy trails, Eli.

Top 25 Clutch Quarterbacks in NFL History

Eli’s retirement had me thinking of the greatest clutch quarterbacks in league history. We know Eli belongs on this list but where does he rank? See below.

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Honorable mention: Jim Plunkett, Patrick Mahomes (On his way, but too early. Would probably make this list with a win next Sunday, already.) Donovan McNabb, Matt Ryan, Steve McNair, Tim Tebow, Jake Plummer, Fran Tarkenton 

25. Steve Young

It took a few seasons for Young to “get the monkey off his back” as he and many viewed it. The Cowboys were a major thorn in his side, before Brett Favre and the Packers became one. But in between that, he beat Dallas to win a Super Bowl and Super Bowl MVP award, throwing for six touchdowns versus the overmatched Chargers. Then years later, he finally overcame Green Bay in the playoffs via a last-second touchdown pass to Terrell Owens — dubbed “The Catch II” — to beat the Packers in an NFC Wild Card matchup.

In all, Young had an above-average 8-6 mark in the postseason, and had some memorable moments in the clutch with the 49ers.

24. Jim Kelly

Despite his 0-4 Super Bowl mark, Kelly produced 29 game-winning drives as the leader of one of the greatest offenses ever during his stretch with the Bills. More so, Kelly drove the Bills into game-winning field goal range in Super Bowl 25, but Scott Norwood famously missed the kick, “wide right.” In two Super Bowls versus the Cowboys, Kelly was simply overmatched with his squad — similar to John Elway’s Super Bowl losses — and if you rule out his infamous Super Bowl record, Kelly is 9-4 in his additional postseason games. He came through several times for Buffalo.

23. Warren Moon

One might find this a bit of a surprise, but during Moon’s long career, he led his teams on 37 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime. His playmaking ability magnificently came in handy during several comeback wins.

22. Troy Aikman

Aikman was surrounded by a ton of talent in Dallas, and he’s missing the memorable game-winning drive, but his 3-0 Super Bowl mark and 11-4 postseason record can’t be ignored. Aikman was a winner, and was highly accurate in several big games, both in the regular season and postseason.

21. Jake Delhomme

Many in Carolina remember Jake Delhomme from his six-turnover meltdown during a home NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the Cardinals in 2008. But before that, Delhomme showcased why he belongs on this list.

Even including the bad loss above, Delhomme is 5-3 in the postseason. In his previous two playoff appearances, he brought his team to Super Bowl 38 — losing to Tom Brady but playing more than well enough to win — and to an NFC Championship Game in Seattle, where NFL MVP Shaun Alexander and the Seahawks overmatched the Panthers.

Delhomme was magical during his 2003 season, garnering a league-leading seven game-winning drives and five fourth quarter comebacks that season. Delhomme then posted a 106.1 passer rating during the playoffs, throwing for six touchdowns and one interception in four games. He threw the game-winning touchdown to Steve Smith to beat the vaunted Rams on the road in double overtime in the Divisional Round, won on the road in Philadelphia in the NFC Title game, and then threw for two fourth-quarter scores in Super Bowl 38, battling Brady score for score before losing on an Adam Vinatieri game-winning field goal.

The underrated stats of Delhomme’s career are his 4-1 postseason record on the road, and his honorable 2004 season, were the laughably-injured Panthers began the season 1-7, before Delhomme lead Carolina on a 6-1 record in a string of games that left them just short of the postseason.

His career may have been short lived, but Delhomme was remarkably clutch, leading 25 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime in playing just four complete seasons.

20. Nick Foles

Another shorter resume makes the list with the unflappable Nick Foles.

With a 4-2 postseason record, and only 54 games started (30-24 record), Foles is one of the list’s additions simply due to how clutch he has been when thrown into the fire.

Before his disappointing, injury-filled effort with the Jaguars in 2019, Foles twice led the Eagles on late-season runs while filling in for Carson Wentz.

Many know Foles’ 2017 season that saw him take over for Wentz, and leading the Eagles on a Super Bowl run that saw him outscore NFL MVP Tom Brady and the Patriots 41-33 in Super Bowl 52, giving Foles game MVP honors.

But it’s his next season, proving his clutch play was no fluke, that puts him at No. 20 on my list.

His 2018 campaign with Philadelphia featured a 5-2 mark that saw him lead the Eagles to three straight wins to end the regular season, before he led an ice-cold comeback drive to beat the Bears in Chicago in Wild Card round. After that, Foles looked poised to hand the Saints another devastating playoff loss (that would later come next week. The Super Bowl 52 MVP calmly drove down the field, but his perfect pass to Alshon Jeffrey (with separation) went through the receiver’s hands and into New Orleans’ Marshon Lattimore’s.

Still, Foles has proven to be a leader and big-time player to the fullest extent, even if just with one team (Eagles) , and with a smaller resume.

19. Joe Namath

What more can I say here? The “Guarantee” in Namath’s Jets’ Super Bowl 3 win set the stage for a respect (and full merger) between the AFL and NFL, and welcomed the football world to a “David beats Goliath” storyline that would come up again throughout the sport’s history — Super Bowl 36, Super Bowl 42, Super Bowl 52, etc.

Additionally, Namath posted 15 fourth quarter comebacks throughout his career. Even with a journey marred with some inconsistency, “Broadway Joe,” performed the best in the bright lights.

18. Aaron Rodgers

Rodgers was a difficult passer to place here. On the surface, Rodgers has 25 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, and two ultra-clutch Hail Mary throws during the 2015 postseason and regular season. Quite simply, Rodgers is the greatest Hail Mary thrower of all-time. There’s no debate there.

He’s also 10-8 in the playoffs with a Super Bowl 45 MVP award for his lone ring in a win over the Steelers. But the Packers legend sports a 1-3 record in NFC title games. There’s somewhat of an excuse for that, as his last two losses (2016 NFCCG to ATL, 2019 NFCCG to SF) came to vastly superior teams, and all three of those losses are on the road.

But in some postseason losses — like the 2011 NFC Divisional round blowout loss to the Giants at home after a 15-1, MVP season — he has been at fault.

I believe Rodgers is one of the greatest situationally-clutch passers I’ve ever seen, but is perhaps not the best big-game quarterback. (This is similar to Matt Ryan, but to a lesser extent with the Falcons passer.)

And because of that, Rodgers makes the list, but does not make my Top 10. Every one of my top 10 clutch quarterbacks on this list has consistently been situationally clutch, and a big-game player.

17. Joe Flacco

Like Eli, Flacco struggled to play at a consistently-elite level throughout his career, and rarely played better than he did during a few postseason runs.

Additionally, Flacco has the most road playoff wins (7) in NFL history, holds a 10-5 career playoff record, and has 26 career game-winning drives.

But Flacco’s most impressive feats include his 2-2 career playoff record on the road versus the Patriots (and could be better if not for his supporting cast letting him down), and his all-time great 2012 postseason run to Super Bowl 47 MVP. That year Flacco through for 1,140 yards, 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions in four games.

16. Ken Stabler

The Snake!

Kenny Stabler was known for his comeback ability, leading 26 game-winning drives throughout his career, while also leading the Raiders to a Super Bowl 11 victory. Several times, Stabler showcased his come-from-behind ability, but his most clutch moment was his “Ghost To The Post” throw to force double overtime in a comeback win over the Colts during the 1977 AFC Playoffs.

15. Bart Starr

Starr is one of the older quarterbacks on this list, and although he wouldn’t register as the greatest passer with others on here, the Packers great was gritty in willing several Green Bay victories in the biggest moments. Just think of his quarterback sneak in the frigid cold to beat the Cowboys in “The Ice Bowl.”

Starr finished his career with a 9-1 record in the postseason, with 15 touchdowns, three interceptions, and 104.8 passer rating in those games. And in all, Starr won five NFL championships and the league’s first two Super Bowls, in which he brought home Super Bowl MVP honors in both.

14. Brett Favre

This begins the most interesting stretch of passers on our list.

Favre is known as the prototypical gunslinger mixed with a boatload of physical toughness, shaping one of the greatest careers in NFL history. He also produced 30 fourth quarter comebacks, 43 career game-winning drives and a Super Bowl 32 victory over the Patriots.

But Favre’s gunslinger ways hurt his image in the clutch during the homestretch of his career. Favre lost his last two NFC Championship Games with the Packers (2007 vs. Giants) and Vikings (2009 vs Saints) by throwing for ghastly, late interceptions that flunked both games for his respective team at the time. That brings him down a tad.

But everyone remembers Favre filling in for Don Majkowski for a fourth quarter comeback win in his first game. There was a lot of that throughout his career, too. Even late, with plays like his game-winning touchdown pass to Greg Lewis to beat the 49ers while in Minnesota. This spot for Favre feels about right.

13. Drew Brees

With 37 fourth quarter comebacks, 53 game-winning drives and a Super Bowl 44 MVP award, Brees is among the better clutch passers to ever play.

Brees’ postseason stats are also among the most efficient of all-time, but his 8-8 record puts a bit of a dent in his resume. Yes, many of those losses weren’t his fault, and the three consecutive postseason outs that have recently occurred are just about beyond his control. But if you look closer into some of those defeats, you’ll find stuff like his costly interception in overtime versus the Rams in last year’s NFC title game, or the loss on the road to the 7-9 Seahawks in the famous “Beast Quake” game of the 2010 playoffs.

Brees’ postseason perception is way better than his .500 record, and rightly so, but like Rodgers, you expect just a little bit more from him in the postseason.

But in conclusion, Brees is certainly clutch.

12. Dan Marino

Although he is certainly to blame somewhat for not having a Super Bowl ring, it’s basically public knowledge that the Dolphins failed to put the right team around Dan Marino to win a Super Bowl or two.

To the surprise of many fair whether fans, Marino is high on the leaderboard in several clutch categories, including: fourth quarter comebacks (36), game-winning drives (51) and postseason game-winning drives (4). And he even has some top-tier clutch moments (“Fake Spike”) on his resume.

He never won his Super Bowl, but Marino had several clutch moments.

11. Peyton Manning

Largely known as the QB who “couldn’t win the big one” early on in his career, Peyton Manning changed all that with the biggest win of his career, am 18-point comeback win versus his nemesis, the Patriots, in a 2006 AFC title game win.

Manning had some duds after this moment in the clutch — Tracy Porter Interception in Super Bowl 44, Super Bowl 48 blowout loss — but he was always one of the most clutch regular season quarterbacks of all-time, who was also capable of doing so in the postseason, even if not that often.

Manning was known as one the best “two-minute drill” passers ever, and his miraculous comeback versus the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers in Tampa Bay — to exact revenge for Tony Dungy —  is still one of the league’s most memorable games.

Even if he’s lacking a few postseason moments, he still came away with two Super Bowl wins, and currently sits at second all-time with 56 career game-winning drives. Not bad.

10. Terry Bradshaw

Bradshaw was not only 4-0 in Super Bowls, he also boasts the best playoff record by winning percentage (14-5, .737) of any quarterback with at least 15 playoff starts, narrowly leading Brady at the moment.

Bradshaw is certainly not one of the best passers of all-time, but he is one of the best quarterbacks ever, and he left his mark mostly by his play on the biggest of stages in this league.

9. Ben Roethlisberger

Although he’s stumbled some in the postseason this decade, Ben Roethlisberger remains one of the best clutch quarterbacks in the game. Big Ben has a 13-8 career postseason mark (he began 10-2) with two Super Bowl wins (one via a game-winning drive in the final minute) and five playoff wins on the road.

With Roethlisberger, he shares a John Elway-like ability to break away from the rush to scramble for big gains and compete downfield throws on extended plays. That has certainly made for some exciting finishes via the big play.

Some of Roethlisberger’s most memorable plays include the famous game-winning touchdown to Santonio Homes in Super Bowl 43, and a walk-off, game-winning touchdown pass to Mike Wallace to beat Aaron Rodgers’ Packers in 2009. In all, Roethlisberger has 46 game-winning drives, with four coming in the playoffs.

8. Russell Wilson

Like Roethlisberger and Elway, Wilson makes you believe the game is never over with him at the helm due to his best-of-all-time escapability to extend plays and perfect touch on downfield throws in the clutch.

Wilson is a magician in the pocket with high-end leadership and the ability to forget recent mistakes, even during a game, which is likened to Eli Manning.

Another thing Wilson shares with the likes of Eli, Roethlisberger and Tom Brady is his ability to come through in the clutch, even to the chagrin of the flow of the game.

There have been several instances with one of those four aforementioned passers shook off earlier rust, several in-game mistakes, and the opposing team’s momentum to lead a shocking come-from-behind win.

In just eight seasons, Wilson has already built a Hall-of-Fame career to-be case, with 32 career game-wining drives (four in the postseason),nine postseason wins and a Super Bowl ring. He was THIS close to wining back-to-back Super Bowls, but succumbed to Malcolm Butler making the greatest (and most important) interception of all-time in Super Bowl 49. I attribute that play more to Butler’s awareness and playmaking skill (and a little bit of buffoonery from Seattle’s play calling), more so than to Wilson.

Simply put, Wilson is already one of the game’s best to ever do it when it comes to crunch time.

7. Kurt Warner

One of the weirder careers in NFL history began as such, as Kurt Warner’s pro football career came after he was bagging groceries at a local store in Iowa.

But after bursting onto the scene, Warner finished his career with a 9-4 postseason record, throwing for a game-winning touchdown pass in his first Super Bowl (winning Super Bowl MVP honors), while tying and taking the lead in the final two minutes of his two Super Bowl losses.

In all, Warner threw for four touchdown passes and rushed for another in the fourth quarter of three of the closest Super Bowls (34, 36, 43) of all time. Only Tom Brady (six touchdown passes) has more Super Bowl fourth quarter touchdown passes.

In total, Warner has a 102.8 passer rating and 31 touchdown passes in 13 playoff games. He’s a big-game quarterback in the highest regard.

6. Roger Staubach

“Captain Comeback” had a litany of clutch moments in a career that saw him produce and coin the famous “Hail Mary “, while also leading the Cowboys to two Super Bowl wins, helping them become known as “America’s Team.”

Despite two Super Bowl losses to the Steelers by a combined eight points, Staubach is known as one of the most clutch players of all-time in pro football, going 11-6 in the playoffs, while earning MVP honors in Super Bowl 6.

5. Eli Manning

In addition to what was mentioned above, there were several other Manning accomplishments in the clutch, including his two conference title game wins on the road — only Tom Brady (3) has more — and several regular season game-winning drives, such as the Giants 24-20 win over the Patriots in New England during the 2011 season, a precursor to their Super Bowl 46 win later that year.

Frankly, Manning was supremely inconsistent, but in the playoffs, at least for those two Super Bowl runs, he was the opposite. Any bad plays he made, he quickly forgot about to lead the Giants on several clutch scoring drives, often late, to produce several Giants playoff victories. Like Warner, Eli had a very weird career, but his play in the clutch alone (and maybe the Manning name) will probably get him into the Hall of Fame. That says enough about just how clutch Eli was. Few were better in the biggest moments than the youngest Manning brother.

4. Johnny Unitas

The original master of the two-minute drill and fourth quarter comeback, Johnny Unitas produced 38 game-winning drives from 1956-1973, with most calling him the greatest quarterback both in the clutch, and in general, of all-time when he retired.

Unitas also won three championships with the Colts, sporting a 6-2 playoff record. Unitas was the original clutch master, and many of his stats in the biggest of games hold up with today’s clutch stats.

3. John Elway

John Elway was clutch even while a sporting a 0-3 Super Bowl record, with critics saying he couldn’t win the big one. Elway finished his career with back-to-back Super Bowl wins, of course, to rid of that narrative.

The Broncos quarterback twice beat the Browns in Cleveland in close AFC Championship Game contests, with one of those games featuring the famous “The Drive,” one of the most clutch drives in NFL history.

Truth is, Elway was supremely overmatched in his three Super Bowl losses, and his clutch playoff resume otherwise — 14-7 playoff record, 6 postseason game-winning drives — tell a story of one of the best QBs ever in crunch time.

Like Roethlisberger and Wilson, Elway was sort of a dual-threat quarterback who could scramble and throw, or do both in the same play, making it hard for defenses to contain him in prevent situations, or with double-digit leads late. Elway produced several “how did he do that?” comebacks throughout his career, and is one the best ever in those situations.

2. Joe Montana

Before Tom Brady, Joe Montana was the gold standard at quarterback, both in general and in the clutch. His 4-0 Super Bowl record — three Super Bowl MVP awards — 11-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio in Super Bowls, and game-winning drive to beat the Bengals in Super Bowl 23 have immortalized Montana.

And there are several other fourth quarter comebacks, including a special comeback win over John Elway and the Broncos while Montana was a Chief, that are still talked about to this day.

Montana has 16 postseason wins (16-7 record), the second-most all-time for a quarterback, and has five fourth quarter comebacks in the playoffs. He is simply, “Joe Cool.”

1. Tom Brady

Brady was already a top three clutch quarterback of all-time before his torrid pace of crunch time antics that occurred after the infamous “On to Cincinnati” loss on Monday night versus Kansas City in 2014.

Since then, Brady produced a 10-point fourth quarter comeback to beat the defending champion Legion-of-Boom Seahawks, who double as the greatest pass defense of all time, in Super Bowl 49. And two years later, Brady completed perhaps the greatest single-game comeback in sports championship history, rallying the Patriots from a 28-3 deficit in the game’s final 18 minutes to beat the Falcons in Super Bowl 51, the first Super Bowl to go to overtime.

Brady earned Super Bowl MVP honors in both contests, giving him four such awards and six Super Bowl victories, with game-winning drives in EACH of his six Super Bowl wins. Furthermore, Brady has 30 postseason wins, by far the best of all-time, and Brady also took the lead with clutch drives in two of his Super Bowl losses (42, 52).

Additionally, Brady has the most postseason touchdown passes (73) of all time, and the most game-winning drives (58) of any QB ever, with an absurd record 13 of those drives of those coming in the playoffs.

We could have a whole other section about Brady’s clutch regular season moments, including a 24-point comeback to beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos, and a game-winning touchdown pass to Kenbrell Thompkins to beat the Saints in the final seconds (both occurring in 2013), but I think the point has been made.

The GOAT is also the GOAT in the clutch.

 

 

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