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Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Playoffs raise historical stakes

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Unitas/Favre/Manning
Can either Brett Favre (center) or Peyton Manning (right) move closer to Johnny Unitas on John Clayton's list of all-time great QBs?
Peyton Manning and Brett Favre have Super Bowl rings on their minds as they get ready for their respective conference championship games, but both have other things at stake Sunday.

Each future Hall of Famer can enhance his status among the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

Where do they rank in my eyes? Johnny Unitas of the Baltimore Colts, Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers and Otto Graham of the Cleveland Browns are my top three. I still go back and forth on whether Unitas or Montana should be No. 1, but that's a debate for another time.

Currently, I have Favre at No. 5, slightly behind John Elway of the Denver Broncos and ahead of Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins. If Favre's Minnesota Vikings beat the New Orleans Saints for the NFC title and subsequently win the Super Bowl, it might be time to start thinking about giving him the No. 4 slot.

Sure, Elway's next-to-last act as a Broncos quarterback was beating Favre's Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII; Elway got his second the next season. Elway has Favre beaten 2-to-1 for Super Bowl titles. With a second Super Bowl ring, Favre could pass Elway and start drawing consideration for even a higher ranking.

Favre has many of the statistical records because of his longevity as a starting quarterback. No one beats him for durability.

Obviously, Favre beats Elway for stats. As great as Elway's arm was, he had a 57 percent career pass-completion percentage. Favre has 62 percent career accuracy playing primarily in a West Coast offense. Favre is also a three-time league MVP. Elway has the edge on Favre for playoff victories (14 to 13), but getting that second Super Bowl ring would put Favre ahead of Elway.

The Indianapolis Colts' Manning could be the biggest gainer if he gets Super Bowl ring No. 2. Currently, I have him eighth. Tom Brady of the New England Patriots is No. 7. It's such a tough list to put together that I have greats Terry Bradshaw of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Bart Starr of the Green Bay Packers at Nos. 9 and 10, respectively.

The Manning-Brady debate might be one of the most intense. Just like it was with Montana and Marino, it's hard to move Manning ahead of Brady until Manning gets more Super Bowl rings. Brady has won three Super Bowls with the Patriots while Manning, despite being the league MVP four times, has only one.

Getting that second Super Bowl ring would start the debate that Manning is ready to pass Brady. While it can be argued that Brady had more talent around him in New England, Manning's 8-8 playoff record doesn't come close to Brady's 14-4 playoff mark.

Until Manning gets that second Super Bowl ring, I'd have a hard time putting him ahead of Brady. A loss to the New York Jets in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday would be devastating to the Colts and Manning. A trip to the Super Bowl is within reach.

Like Elway, Manning has seen so many rings slip away. Until the Colts' Jan. 16 AFC divisional playoff victory over the Baltimore Ravens, the Colts and Manning had lost three divisional round games after a bye week. Elway had three Super Bowl losses in his first seven seasons.

But the ghosts of past failures are starting to fade away for Manning. In recent years, he has won those key matchups against Brady. He's also coming off one of his greatest seasons.

His offensive line might be the least talented in the playoffs. Because of that line, Manning can't count on a consistent ground game to help his play-action passing attack. Instead of complaining, Manning leads.

He managed seven fourth-quarter comeback victories this season in a 14-0 start. Who knows what he might have done if the Colts' coaching staff had not decided to use the final two games of the regular season -- both losses -- to begin preparations for a Super Bowl run.

All Manning needs to do Sunday is beat a Jets team that the Colts allowed to enter the playoffs with their Week 16 shutdown, and he could be staring at the chance to get that second Super Bowl ring.

It would be easy for Manning to pass Brady on my list if he gets a third Super Bowl ring. In fact, if Manning could win the Super Bowl this year and get one more before he retires, I'd have to consider him for my top three, challenging Unitas, Montana and Graham.

One of the problems of comparing eras is how the game changes. Until the 1980s, the NFL was a running league. That's why Graham and Unitas can't be forgotten. They set standards of excellence for passers that opened the door for the Montanas, Elways and Mannings to thrive.

But Favre and Manning are making history each week. Each has the chance to elevate his already illustrious career.

John Clayton's List Of Greatest NFL QBs

1. Johnny Unitas, Baltimore Colts and San Diego Chargers: Unitas opened the eyes of coaches who loved running the football and playing defense. He taught the NFL that a smart quarterback could lead a passing attack from the field and become the ultimate field general.

2. Joe Montana, San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs: Playing for Bill Walsh's 49ers, Montana made the West Coast offense a household word in the NFL. With four Super Bowl rings, it could be argued he's No. 1.

Joe Montana
Should Joe Montana, who owns four Super Bowl rings, be ranked No. 1?
3. Otto Graham, Cleveland Browns: Most football fans under the age of 50 aren't familiar with him, but Graham was a great passer. He starred in the 1940s and 1950s, but he could have played with this generation of quarterbacks. Counting the Browns' play in the old All-America Football Conference (AAFC) -- as recognized by the Pro Football Hall Of Fame -- he guided the team to 10 division or league crowns in 10 years.

4 John Elway, Denver Broncos: He won two Super Bowls in his final two seasons to legitimize one of the NFL's greatest careers. He led the Broncos to five Super Bowl appearances.

5. Brett Favre, Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers, New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings: He's throwing as well at the age of 40 as he was when he was in his early 30s. Another Super Bowl ring could put him ahead of Elway.

6. Dan Marino, Miami Dolphins: Marino had one of the greatest arms in the history of the game. It's a shame he went to only one Super Bowl. He was the ultimate passer and leader on the field.

7. Tom Brady, New England Patriots: His three Super Bowl rings and 14-4 playoff record ranks him ahead of Peyton Manning, but Manning is on the rise.

8. Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts: Manning has changed the game with his ability to work out of the shotgun and run a no-huddle offense. He is on the verge of jumping closer to the top five and possibly the top three in the next couple of seasons.

9. Terry Bradshaw, Pittsburgh Steelers: Because the Steelers won their first two Super Bowls relying on the Steel Curtain defense and a solid running game, Bradshaw might have slipped through the cracks among the all-time greats. In their third and fourth Super Bowl wins, the Steelers were a fine passing team under Bradshaw.

10. Bart Starr, Green Bay Packers: Starr was the perfect leader for the perfect dynasty. He was the offensive leader who made it all work.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.