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Bowen: Four remaining playoff teams show how crucial an elite QB is to winning

KANSAS CITY - The teams playing in the NFC and AFC championship games ought to provide us with a moment of clarity, as far as what is important in the NFL of 2017.


The teams playing in the NFC and AFC championship games ought to provide us with a moment of clarity, as far as what is important in the NFL of 2017.

The quarterbacks involved are Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan. Brady, Rodgers and Roethlisberger will one day grace the Hall of Fame. Ryan is the favorite to win the NFL MVP award this season.

For a while there, it was fun pretending that elite quarterbacking wasn't as important as it has been for the past 15 years or so. Didn't the Texans win a playoff game with Brock Osweiler? Didn't Alex Smith and the Chiefs go 12-4 and earn a first-round bye? Didn't Drew Brees and Andrew Luck miss the playoffs?

But neither Osweiler nor Smith will take the field in Super Bowl LI. The quarterback who represents the AFC will be, for the 13th time in 14 seasons, Brady, Roethlisberger or the now-retired Peyton Manning.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the Eagles, and to former Eagles/current Chiefs coach Andy Reid, who held his wrapup news conference Monday.

Kansas City's 18-16 demise Sunday in the divisional round at the hands of the visiting Steelers might have held several lessons for aspiring teams such as the Eagles, but, given what happened in KC and elsewhere in the NFL over the weekend, the biggest lesson probably was this: Getting that QB decision right, getting one of those true top-tier guys, is the real gold standard.

The league isn't divided only into teams that have bad QBs and teams that are basically OK there, but win mostly for other reasons. There is a third category – teams with great quarterbacks, who allow them to survive shortcomings. That is the category where you want your team to reside, the place where winning in the postseason is so much easier. Yes, you need more than the QB to win, as fans in New Orleans and Indianapolis no doubt will be happy to tell you, but if you have him, life can be so much simpler.

The Eagles hope they eventually will get to that wonderful place with Carson Wentz. Certainly, the results of the divisional round reinforce the idea that Howie Roseman was right to make securing a franchise quarterback his top priority when he returned to power last year. But we're still a long way from knowing whether Wentz can be a QB who can get you deep into the postseason, again and again.

When you're stuck in that middle category - your quarterback is all right, most of the time, he isn't usually the problem, if you could just play a mistake-free game you could beat that team with the top-tier QB - that's a tricky spot to be in, and it was where Reid stood Monday, looking less than comfortable. It's where the Eagles could very well still end up, despite Wentz's rookie promise. It's where they were with Sam Bradford.

Stuffed into the tiny, standing-room-only Chiefs practice facility media room, Andy was Andy, just as he had been in Sunday night's excruciating, two-point loss, in which his team took a crucial delay penalty and he burned two of his three timeouts before Pittsburgh's final possession, when he could have used them to get the ball back one more time.

On Monday, he hadn't thought about this or that pressing offseason issue, needed to conduct a review before commenting, etc. Reid went with that strategy when he was asked whether he expects to enter next season with Smith, the QB he and general manager John Dorsey traded for with San Francisco, when they arrived in Kansas City in 2013.

"You always get asked these questions - 'Is your staff going to be together?' 'Are players going to be here?' - the day after a game like this," Reid said. "I mean, come on. I'm probably like you are, I was here until 2 in the morning, going back through the tape, and then, here I am. All that stuff, that's the last thing on my mind right now."

Reid usually is vehement in his support of Smith, so reporters who cover the Chiefs took notice.

"Are there some plays he'd like to have back? Yeah, there are some plays he'd like to have back. He did some good things, and he did some real good things," Reid said, when asked about Smith's 20-for-34, 172-yard performance Sunday night, which included a first-drive touchdown pass and a deflected interception.

Smith missed open receivers several times, threw to the less-open guy at least a few times. He also was victimized by two or three drops, most blatantly when tight end Travis Kelce was mismatched in coverage against linebacker Lawrence Timmons on what should have been a long gainer to set up a touchdown or a field goal.

A reporter brought up the names of the final four quarterbacks and asked whether this told Reid anything about what it takes to get to the next level. Reid is 43-21 in the regular season at KC, but has only one playoff victory, 30-0 last season against the quarterback-challenged Texans.

"I still think you can win with Alex," Reid said. "We were right there to do that. He made a phenomenal throw on the two-point play," which would have tied the game 18-18 with 2 minutes, 43 seconds remaining, had left tackle Eric Fisher not been whistled for holding James Harrison.

"He put us in position to take care of business. This wasn't all about Alex. That's not what this was - his performance, that's not what this came down to," Reid said, as coaches who lack elite quarterbacking so often say.

Roethlisberger's passer rating Sunday was only 72.5 Sunday night, only a tiny bit better than Smith's dreary 69.7. Roethlisberger's team never scored a touchdown, which really ought to make it hard to win a playoff game on the road.

Roethlisberger's team scored on six of eight possessions before the final, run-out-the-clock series, punting once and suffering a deflected red-zone interception. Yes, the catalyst was spectacular running back Le'Veon Bell, who gained 170 yards on 30 carries. Bell carried five times in a row on one field goal drive. Still, Roethlisberger made a handful of big third-down conversion throws and hit his speediest weapon, Antonio Brown, for the 52-yard completion Smith couldn't manage, throwing to burner Tyreek Hill.

The difference between Smith and Roethlisberger wasn't huge Sunday night. Reid and the Chiefs are free to look at it that way, if they wish. But the difference on the scoreboard wasn't huge, either.