These playoffs have brought a few big-name quarterbacks together after Tom Brady’s AFC career largely kept him apart from Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. As Brady ventures through his first NFC postseason, he obviously factors into some high-profile rivalries. Here are the best QB series NFL has seen thus far.
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20. Y.A. Tittle-Norm Van Brocklin
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As the 49ers moved from the All-American Football Conference to the NFL in 1950, the Rams were their top rival. This meant frequent matchups between Hall of Fame QBs. While each was an MVP on the east coast in the 1960s — Van Brocklin in Philly in 1960, Tittle in New York in ’63 — they played for Western Conference supremacy in the ’50s. Tittle did not become San Francisco’s starter until 1952 after the explosive Rams’ back-to-back NFL title game runs, but the two played in games until 1957. They engaged in a few shootouts, including two in 1953. Van Brocklin won two titles; Tittle ranks well above him on all-time passing lists.
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Far from a peaceful transfer of power, the Favre-to-Rodgers transition produced a brief on-field rivalry and lingering bitterness. Rodgers sat behind Favre for three years, an unheard-of modern waiting period, then saw Favre Unretirement No. 1 threaten to yank Green Bay’s QB1 job away in 2008. Favre’s Jets trade created a bitter divorce, forcing Packer fans to take sides. The icon’s Vikings stay — and seven TD passes in a 2009 sweep of the Packers — marked one of the best revenge measures in QB history. Favre’s 2010 finale ran into eventual Super Bowl champion Rodgers, who won their final two duels amid a monster breakout.
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18. Cam Newton-Russell Wilson
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Beginning their careers one year apart, Wilson and Newton have spent nearly a decade facing off either in close NFC matchups or interconference shootouts. The two dual-threat playmakers have played nine times already, counting the two Seahawks-Panthers playoff tilts. Each QB’s favored team prevailed in those 2014 and ’15 showdowns, with the winner venturing to a Super Bowl. Newton has Wilson one-upped for MVPs and completed a 13-point comeback over a fully staffed Legion of Boom in a 2015 borderline classic, while Wilson is 7-2 in the series and on track for the Hall of Fame.
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With Eli Manning sent to the NFC, his 2004 classmates were more frequently matched up — usually on playoff-contending teams. The Nos. 4 and 11 picks in ’04, Rivers and Big Ben each rank in the top eight all time in passing yards and TDs. The recently retired Rivers is ahead of Ben on both lists, despite beginning his QB1 run two years later, and leads in Pro Bowls (8-6). But Roethlisberger is a cinch Hall of Famer because of his two rings; one of which came after a one-sided Steelers-Chargers 2008 divisional-round game. The series stood at 3-3 before the Steelers’ 17-point comeback downed the Colts last month.
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16. Len Dawson-Daryle Lamonica
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Chiefs-Raiders is the AFL’s premier rivalry. Dawson and Lamonica were caught in the middle from 1967-72, carrying over into the AFC West, and each piloted above-.500 teams throughout this series. Leading Hall of Famer-laden rosters, Dawson and Lamonica started against one another 12 times. While the Raiders’ MVP passer won more than he lost, Oakland’s 12-1-1 1969 season included a sweep of Kansas City but the Chiefs winning the AFL title game in Oakland — thanks in no small part to this Dawson throw. Dawson earned Super Bowl IV MVP honors and is a Hall of Famer, while it took the Raiders until 1976 to claim an elusive title.
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One play overshadows this series, but the best passers of the 1970s met several times while guiding the NFC’s top two teams. Though three of the scrambling Hall of Famers’ eight meetings came when Tarkenton was piloting lesser Giants squads, his Vikings defeated the Cowboys in the 1973 NFC title game. The Cowboys or Vikings represented the NFC in the Super Bowl from 1973-78, and the foes played close games during this period. Staubach’s 50-yard “Hail Mary” to Drew Pearson in the 1975 divisional round gives him the 5-3 series edge. Tarkenton could not win Super Bowls like Staubach but held career passing records for nearly 20 years.
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Curious NFL scheduling formulas make this a rivalry in a Flair-Hogan/Schwarzenegger-Stallone sense. The uber-talented draft classmates, indefensibly, played three times from 1983-98. Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson matched that in three years. This cross-country competition involved Marino setting every record possible and Elway winning more meaningful games, dragging middling 1980s Bronco teams to three Super Bowls. The two went 13 years without playing but met twice in Elway’s final season. The 1998 Dolphins upset the 13-1 Broncos in Week 16, but Denver avenged the loss via 38-3 Round 2 win en route to its second Super Bowl title.
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13. Joe Flacco-Ben Roethlisberger
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Arguably the NFL’s premier rivalry for many years involved these two calling the shots. One of the QBs is higher-regarded — though Flacco’s early-2010s elite-ness gave him the upper hand for a bit — than the other, but the Ravens were a perennially tough Steelers opponent. Roethlisberger leads this series 12-7, with the Steelers claiming two narrow home victories in the 2008 and ’10 playoffs en route to Super Bowls. But Flacco holds one Super Bowl MVP to Ben’s zero and led Baltimore to a 30-17 first-round win in a 2014 wild-card game in Pittsburgh. These two had major say in AFC power for much of this rivalry’s duration.
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With Elway and Marino in the AFC, Simms became Montana’s most frequent high-stakes adversary. The future CBSer held his own. Simms was drafted in the 1979 first round; the 49ers nabbed Montana in Round 3. Montana faced the Giants five times in the playoffs, and while Simms started only three of those games, he was 2-1 in the QBs’ mid-1980s postseason encounters. Montana went 5-3 against Simms, one of those wins coming on a game-winning pass to Jerry Rice, but also saw Simms erase a 17-0 deficit on a 1986 Monday night before a 49-3 Giants playoff conquest. Montana’s four rings are a bit of a discussion-ender, however.
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11. Brett Favre-Steve Young
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Perhaps a second-tier 1990s rivalry, these Hall of Famers met in four straight playoffs. Favre-Young signaled an NFC baton pass, with the Packers taking over the conference. San Francisco’s Montana successor was 34 when he first met the Packers in the playoffs, and his 20-something opponent was beginning a run of three straight MVPs. The matchups reflected it, with Favre winning three one-sided games. The legends’ 1998 wild-card duel — ending with Young’s Mt. Rushmore throw to Terrell Owens — salvaged this rivalry for him. Favre otherwise went 4-1 in this series and started in two Super Bowls (to Young’s one).
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As far as on-field rivalries go, Kosar was Elway’s biggest. For the most part, the Broncos and Browns emerged as the late-1980s’ AFC duopoly. And although Kosar was done as a starter by 1993, the ex-supplemental draftee helped the Browns to three AFC championship games. While Elway’s drive and Earnest Byner’s fumble became the first two matchups’ legacies, Kosar combined for five TD passes in those games and erased a 21-3 deficit in the 1987 AFC-deciding clash. Elway, though, went 6-2 against Kosar and threw for 385 yards in the 1989 title game — a Denver rout — and moved on to new adversaries in the ’90s.
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9. Tom Brady-Eli Manning
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Obviously not Brady’s equal, the younger Manning’s success against the all-time great still makes this a rivalry. The Giants and Patriots met twice during the 2007 and ’11 seasons; all four games over-delivered. Brady erased a 12-point Giants lead to secure multiple NFL records and a 16-0 season, but that close loss laid the groundwork for the Giants’ titanic upset a month later. The forgotten game in this series: a back-and-forth 2011 Foxborough meeting that ended with a final-seconds Manning-to-Jake Ballard TD pass. Manning went 3-2 against Brady — all one-score games — and claimed rare bragging rights via the two Super Bowl MVPs.
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8. Jim Kelly-Dan Marino
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One of the five QBs selected ahead of Marino in 1983, Kelly landed in the AFC East and faced his fellow first-ballot Hall of Famer 21 times between 1986-96. The USFL refugee landed in a better situation, with the Bills beginning a lengthy stay atop the AFC in 1990, and went 14-7 against Marino. The latter usually lacked a reliable running game and was often saddled with mediocre defenses. The Bills went 3-0 against Marino in the playoffs, including a 29-10 win in the 1992 AFC championship game in Miami. The Bills did the most to ensure Marino’s career ended with one Super Bowl appearance.
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7. Terry Bradshaw-Roger Staubach
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Although superior at his best, Staubach never beat Bradshaw’s superior Steelers teams. Still, the first QB rematch in Super Bowl history — and one of only three ever — is certainly a rivalry. Pittsburgh beat Dallas in the 1977 and ’79 regular seasons and navigated its top NFC obstacle twice in Super Bowls. Staubach’s three INTs in Super Bowl X proved costly in the Lynn Swann-dominated game, and Jackie Smith’s memorable drop aided the Steelers in the teams’ Super Bowl XIII rematch. Six years younger than Staubach, Bradshaw (feat. the Steel Curtain) was better on the big stage and also claimed an MVP. Staubach failed to do so.
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6. Troy Aikman-Steve Young
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This rivalry decided the NFL for three seasons, with it coming during the NFC’s 13-year Super Bowl streak. In addition to meeting in the NFC championship game from 1992-94, Aikman and Young played four times in the regular season. Aikman held a 4-3 edge overall, but a Young concussion caused him to leave a narrow 1996 Cowboys win. Young claimed two MVPs and was the NFL’s first-team All-Pro QB in each of the three seasons in which this rivalry peaked, but Aikman’s stacked rosters won out overall. Each won a Super Bowl MVP award after blowouts, with the ’90s icons best exemplifying the NFC’s dominance during this period.
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5. Otto Graham-Bobby Layne
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Seven decades ago, Browns-Lions was the NFL’s showcase matchup. The peak era for both franchises featured three Graham-Layne title games from 1952-54. Five years younger, Layne was the All-Pro QB in ’52; Graham earned the honor the next two years. Layne, whose Lions won the only two regular-season games against Graham’s Browns, outdueled Graham in the 1952 and ’53 title games — the second involving a 33-yard game-winning Layne pass. The rivalry closed with the Browns battering the Lions 56-10 in 1954. Graham retired afterward but re-emerged to win his seventh championship a year later. Layne never returned to the playoffs.
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The 1960s’ defining QBs played a lot — 16 times from 1957-67 — but with the NFL not featuring playoff games beyond its championship for most of that era, every meeting came in the regular season. While Unitas’ Colts led in this series early, Vince Lombardi’s arrival — a game-changer for Starr — featured a few early-’60s Packer wins. A Unitas fumble late in a 1966 game clinched the Packers the Western Conference title on the road to Super Bowl I. However, Starr-Unitas finished 8-8 after the Colts erased an early deficit to beat the eventual Super Bowl champs in 1967. The two combined for four MVPs and seven titles.
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3. Sammy Baugh-Sid Luckman
The NFL’s two passing forefathers comprise the first lasting QB rivalry. While Baugh’s 1937 aerial display demolished the Bears in the first of the four Washington-Chicago NFL title games, Luckman’s team won out once he arrived in 1939. Both were top-10 picks, and they played three times for NFL crowns. Luckman dominated in the Bears’ two wins, leading the way in a record-smashing 73-0 rout in 1940 and throwing five TD passes in Chicago’s 1943 conquest. Baugh, however, interrupted the Bears’ early-’40s dynasty by beating unbeaten Chicago for the 1942 championship. Baugh retired miles ahead in career passing TDs, however.
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2. Terry Bradshaw-Ken Stabler
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Drafting Stabler in 1968, the Raiders did not give their southpaw prospect the reins until 1973. But Bradshaw and Stabler faced off in five straight playoffs; the winner won the Super Bowl in the final three. The “Immaculate Reception” game, when Stabler came off the bench and gave Oakland a late lead, began the AFC’s most storied rivalry. Counting Stabler’s three Oilers starts against the Steelers, he went 6-4 as a full-timer against Bradshaw. The Raiders defeated the Steelers in the 1973 divisional round and won Super Bowl XI after an AFC title game romp. The Steelers started their dynasty with AFC-clinching wins over the Raiders in between.
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The NFL’s premier QB rivalry can produce differing judges’ scorecards — despite Brady’s 11-6 head-to-head edge. Manning could not navigate Bill Belichick’s early-2000s defenses, skewing the numbers toward Brady, even though the Patriot icon was not yet a Pro Bowl mainstay. But polished Brady versions bested Manning in New England in the five-time MVP’s first three Denver seasons and certainly piled up rings. However, Manning set records in two cities, won the series’ defining matchups — the 2006 AFC championship, 2009’s ” Fourth-and-2 game” — and holds a 3-1 lead in AFC title tilts despite each coming with a different coach. Winner aside, this rivalry doubles as the NFL’s 21st-century apex.
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.