Despite Knee Injury, Brady Edges Peyton as NFL’s Best

Despite Knee Injury, Brady Edges Peyton as NFL's Best Here is the final portion of the countdown that ranks the NFL’s top 20 quarterbacks heading into the 2009 season. Check Tuesday’s post for the first half of the list.

10. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons. I can admit when I’m wrong, and I was certainly wrong about Ryan. The kid can play, and he had a tremendous rookie season with 3,440 yards, 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He led the Falcons to 11 victories and a playoff berth after one of their most dire seasons in franchise history, and Ryan’s sophomore campaign should be even better with Atlanta’s improved offense, that now includes longtime Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez.

9. Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears. His maturity level leaves plenty to be desired, but his set of skills has him primed for greatness. Cutler was part of a dynamic offense in Denver, so it’ll be a tough transition in Chicago, which is barren of any legitimate receiving threats. Cutler’s statistics have been solid during his two seasons as the Broncos' signal caller, averaging 4,012 yards, 22.5 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, but he only managed a 15-17 record — though he didn’t get much help from his defense. Once Cutler’s desire matches his talent, he’ll truly be among the game’s best.

8. Kurt Warner, Arizona Cardinals. Warner is currently the subject of one of the league’s most intriguing Hall of Fame debates. He’s a two-time league MVP and was also a Super Bowl MVP, and he can lay claim to three of the most productive statistical seasons in the last decade. If I had a vote, though, I’d leave Warner out, simply because those great seasons have been separated by six years of fairly lousy football. What he accomplished last season with the Cardinals was amazing. If he’s got one more year like that left in him, maybe I’d reconsider my stance.

7. Eli Manning, New York Giants. It’s hard to believe, but the Super Bowl MVP is heading into his sixth professional season. Manning has come a long way since spurning the San Diego Chargers prior to the 2004 draft (although the Chargers aren’t exactly complaining). Still, Manning has yet to put that perfect season together. It started out great last year — particularly on the heels of his flawless postseason performance in 2007 — but things went awry after big-play wide receiver Plaxico Burress got into a gun fight with his defenseless leg. Now, Manning has to prove he can manage the Giants’ offense without a great wideout.

6. Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers. Speaking of the 2004 draft, the Chargers got a nice parting gift in Rivers, who is coming off of a monster season in 2008. He had career highs of 4,009 yards and 34 touchdowns, and he helped lead San Diego’s late resurgence, a four-game winning streak to close out the season and earn a spot in the playoffs. Rivers has drawn criticism for being a hot head at times, but it’s amazing how much respect he’s drawn from the New England Patriots' locker room.

5. Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia Eagles. Nothing has ever been completely seamless for McNabb. First, his critics wanted him to pass more. Then, they wanted him to run more. Meanwhile, Philly fans have failed to appreciate him, and wide receiver Terrell Owens (who has made more appearances on this top-20 list than anyone) nearly destroyed McNabb’s career. But in the end, he’s got an 82-45-1 career record, and he’ll eclipse 30,000 passing yards and 200 touchdown strikes early in 2009. And in his six playoff appearances, he’s never allowed his team to bow out in the first round.

4. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints. Brees was downright nasty last year, throwing for 5,069 yards and 34 touchdowns and being named the league’s Offensive Player of the Year. The 30-year-old has had a great five-year run with three Pro Bowl selections, nearly 12 miles of passing yards and 139 touchdowns. He just hasn’t gotten it done in the playoffs yet.

3. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers. His statistics haven’t been tremendously gaudy outside of a 2007 season in which he tossed 32 touchdown passes (the five-year veteran hasn’t thrown more than 18 in any other season). But when the money is on the line, Roethlisberger is a winner with a 51-20 career regular-season record and two Super Bowl rings. During the Steelers’ final drive in Super Bowl XLIII, Roethlisberger completed five of seven passes for 84 yards and threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. Stuff of legends.

2. Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts. I’m not even sure there’s a right or wrong answer for these next two quarterbacks. Manning is a three-time MVP — last season was certainly his finest, when he single-handedly led a junior varsity team to the playoffs — and a Super Bowl champion. No, he doesn’t always thrive under pressure, but Manning is one of the best to ever play the game. The coaching overhaul in Indianapolis is sure to take a toll on him this season, though.

1. Tom Brady, New England Patriots. It was tough to rank him first right now because of the knee injury, but it came down to one simple thing: If I needed one guy to win a playoff game, there’s no one else in the league I’d want running that team. It’s not exactly a groundbreaking thought, but that’s one heck of a reputation to have.

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