NFL: Title games highlight four distinctly different quarterbacks

The San Francisco 49ers revealed something last weekend that maybe they knew, but was not a widely held belief around the NFL. Alex Smith can beat you. That’s right, he’s not just a game manager or space holder for a real quarterback. He has what it takes to win big games under pressure. He proved that Saturday against New Orleans, when he essentially won the game twice _ once on a 28-yard keeper around the left side for a touchdown, and again with a pinpoint 14-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with nine seconds left.
Smith has redefined himself before our very eyes.
Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young will be back with the 49ers later this week, this time representing ESPN, and plans to sit down with Smith both to interview him and dispense some words of encouragement.
“We’re friends, so what I’m going to ask him is, ‘You know it’s different now, right?'” Young said by phone Monday. “Whether he likes it or not, it’s different. It will never be the same for him. It’s better now. He’s taken a step forward (and) he can’t step back. ‘You won’t believe the difference it makes in how you feel about yourself.’ That’s a big step he took.”
The New York Giants’ Eli Manning took some steps forward this season too, even though he’s farther down the path of excellence than Smith, with whom Manning will go head-to-head in the NFC championship game Sunday in San Francisco. Manning has cemented himself among the NFL elite. He’s now in that exclusive club with his brother, Peyton, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.
Of course winning a Super Bowl in February 2008 was a huge step for Eli, but this season he set himself apart by getting the job done _ and routinely orchestrating fourth-quarter comebacks _ without a running game, and with a collection of young receivers. The Giants were last in the league on the ground.
Fox’s Michael Strahan, Manning’s former teammate with the Giants, said the quarterback is “a totally different guy” than he was during the Super Bowl run in 2007-08.
“He has such confidence in himself now when you’re just sitting there,” Strahan said, “whereas before . . . you never quite knew what you were going to get. You’d sit with him and you knew he worked hard, you knew he put everything he had into it. But I just don’t think he had the same confidence.
“During that 2007 season, we were just kind of gritting our teeth and hoping that Eli believed in himself as much as we were starting to believe in him. . . . Back then, we didn’t necessarily count on Eli to be that leader. We just needed him to play well and focus only on that.”
The AFC title-game matchup, Baltimore at New England, features two quarterbacks at distinctly different stages of their careers _ one, the NFL’s gold standard, and the other rich with postseason experience for his age but still looking to shake that “game manager” label.
New England’s Tom Brady, a two-time NFL most valuable player with three Super Bowl rings, will be fast-tracked to Canton when he finally decides to call it quits. There’s a lot of incentive for him to take advantage of this opportunity, though, considering it has been seven years since he last hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.
Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, meanwhile, has reached the playoffs each of his first four seasons and is heading into his second AFC championship game, but has yet to distinguish himself as more than a caretaker on the big stage. In eight playoff games, he has six touchdown passes and seven interceptions.
The night before they took the field Saturday, the 49ers gathered in a meeting room at the team hotel and watched a video showing their highlights, and those of other teams throughout the years, in the postseason.
The presentation was punctuated with the words, “History’s made in the playoffs.”
And so are quarterbacks.

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