Which Quarterbacks Can’t Win the Big Game?


We live in a society of labels. It’s an odd but prevalent truth that extends all the way to the gridiron, and in particular, the quarterback position.

Some quarterbacks are given the “clutch” label. Players such as Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger immediately come to mind. On the other end of the spectrum are the “chokers,” which is where you’ll find Peyton Manning, Andy Dalton and Tony Romo.

But there is another category between those two extremes. It’s a list filled with quality quarterbacks who have come through in the clutch several times in their careers but, for whatever reason, can never win that elusive final game. That category is referred to simply as “QBs who can’t win the big game,” and it includes names like this:

Philip Rivers, San Diego

The Chargers acquired Rivers in a draft-day trade in 2004, hoping he would bring the franchise its first Super Bowl trophy. Instead, San Diego is still seeking its first Super Bowl appearance under Rivers while the other prominent members of his draft class (Eli and Big Ben) already have two rings apiece.

Rivers’ best chance came in the 2007 season, when San Diego advanced all the way to the AFC Championship Game. Unfortunately, the Chargers were a MASH unit heading into that game, with LaDainian Tomlinson (knee) and Antonio Gates (toe) each playing on one leg. Rivers was even worse off; after tearing his ACL in the Divisional Round, Rivers decided to play through the injury and head into Foxborough to take on the undefeated Patriots. The Chargers lost, 21-12, and have not made it out of the Divisional Round since.

Rivers has led the Chargers to two more playoff victories since that loss in New England, winning duels with Peyton Manning in 2008 and Andy Dalton in 2013 (see the aforementioned “chokers” list), but his inability to win “The Big One” continues to haunt him. It’s also one of the reasons he is reluctant to sign another contract extension in San Diego … he wants to play for a franchise that is committed to chasing titles, not content with 9-7 seasons.

“Philip’s our quarterback,” San Diego GM Tom Telesco said earlier this offseason. “It’s our plan and intent that he’s our quarterback well into the future. In all my discussions with him, he’s shown a great amount of respect for his teammates and a great amount of respect for this organization. He’s been here every day, working extremely hard, being the leader that he is that we’ve all come to know. I know he’s really excited about this season as are we.”

Matt Ryan, Atlanta

Matty Ice has a tendency to freeze up once the calender flips to January.

Ryan lost the first three playoff games of his career, falling to the Cardinals (2008), Packers (2010) and Giants (2011). Those final two losses came by a combined score of 72-23. The Falcons finally got off the schneid in 2012 with a Wild Card win over the Seahawks, but only after blowing a 20-point fourth quarter cushion and seeing Seattle take a 28-27 lead with 31 second remaining. Atlanta was ousted a week later by San Francisco.

The Falcons begin a new era this season under new head coach Dan Quinn. He is tasked with reviving a franchise that is coming off one of the most unusual — and pathetic — seasons in NFL history, one in which Atlanta went 5-1 against the NFC South and 1-9 against the rest of the league (with that sole win coming at home against a beat-up Cardinals team).

If Quinn can rebuild his team’s defense — and confidence — a turnaround could happen quickly. After all, every team in the NFC South posted a losing record in 2014. But breaking a two-year playoff drought is only Step 1; Step 2 is getting Ryan to make some noise once he’s back in the tournament.

“Just from competing against [Ryan], you know he’s a terrific player,” Quinn said. “I know how highly everybody had regarded him. Once I was around him, and found out what kind of competitor he was, that probably stuck out to me more than anything.”

Matthew Stafford, Detroit

The No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft has led to the Lions to the playoffs twice in the last four years. Detroit went one-and-done in both appearances, thanks in large part to too many negative plays by Stafford. In the 2011 loss to the Saints, Stafford tossed a pair of interceptions. In last season’s controversial loss to the Cowboys, he was intercepted once and sacked three times.

Stafford’s “big game” losses don’t just refer to the playoffs. He has yet to lead the Lions to a win in Green Bay, something that hasn’t happened since 1991 (thanks to a big day by Barry Sanders). If Stafford & Co. had broken that streak in Week 17 last season, the Lions would have at least secured the franchise’s first division title since 1993 (which was another Sanders-inspired feat).

The Lions drafted some help for Stafford, spending their first-round pick on the best guard in the draft, Duke’s Laken Tomlinson. Detroit also drafted some help for the running game (RB Ameer Abdullah and FB Michael Burton), which should take some pressure off the passing game. If that doesn’t work, the Lions will have to spend next offseason seriously pondering the question: Does Stafford have what it takes to be a championship quarterback?

“Someone said something about, ‘Hey, well Coach, you really need your quarterback to take off,’” coach Jim Caldwell said, according to the Detroit Free Press. “And I looked at him and I said, ‘No, we don’t really need him to really take off.’ He’s been doing well. He’s improving steadily. Things in this league don’t happen that way. No one makes a meteoric jump. It’s gradual, it’s too competitive. There are too many good players. And it’s a tough league, and I do think he’s making really good progress.”

Honorable Mentions

***Cam Newton has led the Panthers to the playoffs each of the last two seasons, including a win last postseason over the Cardinals. However, his playoff numbers include a modest completion percentage (61.3 percent) and passer rating (80.5). He has also thrown as many interceptions as touchdowns, which won’t get it done in the playoffs.

***Ryan Tannehill landed a rich new contract, but he has yet to land his team in the playoffs. He is just 23-25 as a starter and has stumbled in some of Miami’s biggest moments. Last season, the Dolphins lost three of their final four games to wind up outside the playoff picture. The season prior, Miami lost its final two games — against the Bills and Jets — when winning either one would have put the Dolphins in the tournament.

***Andrew Luck is the league’s new golden boy — it must be something about the horseshoe — but he has yet to lift his team to the grandest stage of them all. His performance in two games against the Patriots last season (where the Colts were outscored 87-27) left a lot to be desired; the gap between the Patriots and Colts is too great to be measured in PSIs.

***Romo and Dalton could obviously appear on this list, as well, but since they’ve already been included in the “chokers” list, it only seems fair to let the calling-out end there. We live in a society of labels. It’s an odd but prevalent truth that extends all the way to the gridiron, and in particular, the quarterback position.

About Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.