For all the flack that Matt Ryan got heading into this season, he’s been a damn good quarterback. Is his career on the same level as Tom Brady’s? Of course not, but this regular season saw him stand as Brady’s peer, making him an MVP favorite.
One of Ryan’s biggest challengers for that hardware is the same man who stands in the way of him winning his first Super Bowl. Though he missed the first four games of the season due to suspension, Brady finished second in the league in passing yards per game and threw just two picks in 12 games while tossing 28 touchdowns.
So Super Bowl LI will pin the quarterback with the best numbers overall (Ryan finished two touchdowns behind Aaron Rodgers for the league lead but threw for 516 more yards and had a higher completion percentage) against the quarterback with the best touchdown/interception ratio ever for a single season.
In other words, this is a Super Bowl that puts what one could argue are the season’s two best quarterbacks each other. That’s pretty rare.
Going back the last 25 years, there are four candidates for such meetings: Manning vs. Brees in Super Bowl XLIV, Favre and Elway in Super Bowl XXXII (this one is a stretch), Favre and Bledsoe in Super Bowl XXXI and Kelly and Rypien in Super Bowl XXVI..
Why haven’t the two best quarterbacks squared off in the Super Bowl more often? Because Brady and Peyton Manning played their entire careers in the same conference, silly. It’s taken other players entering their echelon to even set up such a scenario, and that’s why Brees’ Saints beating Manning’s Colts serves as the only example during Manning or Brady’s career.
The strong performances of those who dominated the regular season have often carried over into their Super Bowl meetings, but not always. Drew Bledsoe and Jim Kelly (both throwing two touchdowns and four picks in Super Bowl losses) are examples of the wheels falling off in the final game.
Here’s a breakdown of past occurrences. Note that all four of them saw the winning team score at least 30 points, something the Pats have done just once in Brady's four Super Bowl wins:
Super Bowl XLIV: Brees vs. Manning
Brees led NFL with 34 touchdowns in regular season; Manning finished tied for second with 33
Final score: Saints 31, Colts 17
Brees: 32/39, 288 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Manning: 31/45, 333 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Brees completed a postseason in which he had no turnovers and did so in a nearly exactly average game for him that season, as e averaged 292.5 yards, 2.26 touchdowns and less than one interception per game in the regular season. The two quarterbacks also combined for just one sack.
Super Bowl XXXII: Favre vs. Elway
Favre led NFL with 35 TDs in regular season, Elway finished second in TD/interception ratio
Final score: Broncos 31, Packers 24
Favre: 25/42, 256 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, fumble lost
Elway: 12/22, 123 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT
Again, this is the forced one because Jeff George (3,917 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, nine interceptions) had the better regular season than Elway (3,635 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, 11 picks). Elway may have been the winning quarterback, but he didn’t have anything to do with the win. Terrell Davis carried the Broncos, playing through a migraine and rushing for 157 yards with three touchdowns en route to Super Bowl MVP honors.
Super Bowl XXXI: Favre vs. Bledsoe
Favre led NFL with 39 TDs, Bledsoe third with 27
Final Score: Packers 35, Patriots 21
Favre: 14/27, 246 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Bledsoe: 25/48, 253 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT
Both quarterbacks took five sacks in this game. For Bledsoe, it was the most he took all season. The game was the third four-pick performance of his NFL career.
Super Bowl XXVI: Kelly vs. Rypien
Kelly led NFL with 33 TDs, Rypien second with 28
Final score: Redskins 37, Bills 24
Rypien: 18/33, 292 yards, 2 TD, INT
Kelly: 28/58, 275 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT, fumble lost
Turns out five turnovers (and being sacked four times) is not a recipe for winning the Super Bowl. Kelly’s 58 passes thrown set a Super Bowl record.