While chicks and casual fans are busy debating which Super Bowl XLV team has better hair — although, actually, this Super Bowl has pretty epic flow on both sides — we really should be focusing on the battle at the most important position on the field: quarterback.
On one side, we have Ben Roethlisberger. Not known for thinking well off the field with either of his heads — accused of inappropriately taking his dong out on multiple occasions and refusing to wear helmets on his motorcycle — his poise and decision making on the field has led to two Super Bowl rings and a list of NFL records that includes youngest QB to win a Super Bowl, first QB to start two Conference Championship games in first two seasons, and most regular season wins for a rookie QB.
On the other side, Aaron Rodgers is looking to further his young legacy in his first trip to the Super Bowl. After three seasons as the Packers’ starting QB, the 27-year-old currently holds the highest NFL career passer rating at 98.4 and lowest career pass interception rate at 2%. How’s that for a turnaround from Favre’s “I can thread that triple coverage” philosophy?
But where this showdown of pigskin slingers will stack up against the all-time best Super Bowl QB matchups is yet to be determined. In an effort to provide clarity on the situation, let’s break down the nine best (because this one might become the tenth) quarterback matchups in Super Bowl history.
Note: This breakdown is based on several factors, mainly where these quarterbacks were in their careers at the time of the game and where their numbers stacked up in that particular season. I’ve factored in hype around the team matchup and QB matchup, but while I consider myself versed in Super Bowl history (i.e. the “America’s Game” DVD set), I’m still a relatively young Bro and can’t claim to have lived through all of these moments in NFL history.
9. Super Bowl XXXIX: Tom Brady (Patriots) vs. Donovan McNabb (Eagles)
This is probably the biggest stretch on this list, mainly because McNabb and the Eagles had yet to reach a Super Bowl, but had been to three straight Conference Championship games. In his first full season as a starter, McNabb turned the Eagles around to an 11-5 record and a win in the first round of the playoffs. The following four seasons the Eagles won the NFC East and had at least 11 wins under his leadership.
The Eagles were starting to be known as a team that couldn’t win the key playoff games, but a trip to the Super Bowl in 2004 at least got them past the conference championship. They suffered a heartbreaking three-point loss to Tom Brady and the then-dominant Patriots in Jacksonville.
On the other side, Tom Brady was about as hot as any player in the league. While chicks were throwing their panties at him, he was throwing touchdowns and winning Super Bowls. Brady took over as the Patriots’ starter in 2001 when Drew Bledsoe went down with an injury in the first game of the season. In an MVP-winning performance, he would lead the Patriots all the way to their first ring. Though the Pats missed the playoffs the next season, Brady would rebound in 2003, leading the Belichick run offense to a 14-2 season on the way to claiming another Super Bowl and MVP award. The offense was unstoppable. A third trip to the Super Bowl in four seasons would cement his spot in history.
And the game didn’t disappoint as McNabb & Co. put up a valiant comeback attempt but ultimately fell short in a 24-21 loss to Brady and the Pats.
8. Super Bowl XXIII: Joe Montana (49ers) vs. Boomer Esiason (Bengals)
You couldn’t have asked for a better QB matchup in this Super Bowl, as the best from the NFC battled against the best from the AFC. Two-time Super Bowl champ Montana squared off with Esiason, who helped turn around the struggling Bengals from 4-11 the season before to a Super Bowl–caliber squad.
The Niners had won the NFC West two seasons in a row, but lost in the first round of the playoffs each season and were hungry for another shot. Their past post-season momentum shifted after blowout wins in the first two rounds of the ’88 playoffs, trouncing the Vikings 34-9 and the Bears 28-3. Montana tossed for 357 yards, two TDs, and no picks in the 20-16 victory.
NFL MVP Esiason had turned around the Bengals and led them to a 12-4 record in 1988. In the highest-rated season as a passer (97.4) of his career, he steered the Bengals past the Seahawks and Bills to earn a trip to the big game. But Montana was there waiting and spearheaded a 92-yard game-winning drive in under three minutes. Esiason would never reach those heights again and XXIII is still the last Super Bowl the Bengals have reached.
7. Super Bowl XXVII: Troy Aikman (Cowboys) vs. Jim Kelly (Bills)
Super Bowls XXVI and XXVII were the only time that two quarterbacks faced off in back-to-back Super Bowls. Aikman, the reigning Super Bowl MVP after going 22-30 for 273 and four TDs in a 52-17 smoking of the Bills, led the Cowboys to another strong season. Dallas finished the regular season at an NFC-best 12-4, and, with Aikman (despite missing a few games due to injury) and Emmitt Smith leading the offense, cruised through the playoffs and into the Super Bowl where they faced the Bills for a second straight year.
The Bills, meanwhile, had been to three consecutive Super Bowls coming into the 1993 season, suffering heartbreaking losses to the Giants in 1990 and Redskins in 1991. Jim Kelly started his NFL career out slowly, earning just 10 total wins as a starter in his first two seasons. But that changed in 1990, when the Bills started their streak of Super Bowl appearances. The Super Bowl rematch was highly anticipated as the Bills desperately wanted that first ring.
But it was not to be, as Kelly and the Bills fell to the explosive Cowboys offense. Buffalo has never made it back to the Super Bowl.