HOUSTON -- Even with his dismal effort in the AFC championship game, a performance in which Peyton Manning completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes and tossed four interceptions, the Indianapolis star has a postseason quarterback efficiency rating better than that of the two signal-callers playing in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Fact is, Manning's rating is more than 30 points higher than that of Tom Brady. But you can bet that Manning would readily trade in all the gaudy passing statistics from his first six seasons in the NFL to switch places Sunday with the New England starter or with Carolina Panthers counterpart Jake Delhomme.
After all, the ring is still the thing, right? And all of the passing titles in the world can't replace a world championship. Not even a bust in the Hall of Fame compensates for the pain of having been a bust in the playoffs.
Yet this year continues a trend in which so-called "franchise" quarterbacks have fallen shy of a Super Bowl berth. And while Brady will bump his Q-rating exponentially higher if he captures a second Super Bowl title in three seasons and at the tender of age 26, no one is hustling yet to dust off a pedestal for him in Canton, Ohio, or to drop his name in the same breath as the premier quarterbacks of this era.
Then again, if Brady is sipping champagne late Sunday night and grabbing the keys to the car awarded Monday morning to the most valuable player in Super Bowl XXXVIII, there is a good chance he won't much care.
"All the week is about," emphasized Brady, less than an hour after arriving here, "is what happens on Sunday night. Nothing else matters but winning the next game."
And when it comes to winning Super Bowl games anymore, it seems passing pedigree is not the element it once was, and franchise quarterbacks have become less an imperative to a team's success at the championship level.
"Teams are winning Super Bowls now without (quarterbacks) who are going to wind up in the Hall of Fame," said New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi. "It's just a fact. Just take a look at the last few years."
Check out where Tom Brady and other Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks were drafted.
Take a look, indeed, at the quarterbacks who recently ascended the podium to raise the Vince Lombardi Trophy: Last year's Super Bowl winner, Brad Johnson of Tampa Bay, is a former ninth-round draft choice playing with his third different franchise. Brady was a sixth-round afterthought who moved into the starter's role in 2001 only because Drew Bledsoe suffered a traumatic chest injury.
Trent Dilfer didn't even open the 2000 season as the starter in Baltimore after having been dumped that summer by the Bucs. One year earlier, Kurt Warner won both league and Super Bowl MVP honors, but that was just five years after he had been stocking shelves in a grocery store to help make ends meet.
One has to venture all the way back to Super Bowl XXXIII, the final appearance of John Elway before his retirement, to find a true franchise quarterback who claimed a title. And the season before that, when Elway bested Brett Favre in the title game, really represents the last time two Hall of Fame quarterbacks staged a true Super Bowl matchup.
So perhaps Sunday's game will catapult Brady into the galaxy of quarterback greats. And then again, maybe it will mark his apex as a short-lived supernova, a quarterback who, as did Warner, blazes across the NFL firmament before abruptly burning out. Odds are that Brady will continue to improve and, given his youth and the depth of the Patriots' roster, he could well play in several more Super Bowl contests.
No matter the future, the more immediate reality is that Brady and Delhomme represent a continuing trend, one in which the once-critical quarterback position is little more than another piece of the puzzle. Delhomme's surname translates into The Man but, in his six previous NFL seasons, he was just another guy with the "QB" moniker. He didn't even open the '03 regular season as the Carolina starter, losing the job to the consummate journeyman Rodney Peete, then seizing the moment by coming off the bench to rally the Panthers from a 17-point deficit.
Less than four months later, Delhomme, who started only two games in six seasons with the New Orleans Saints and earned $1.5 million less than third-stringer Chris Weinke this year, has gone from being barely a member of the ensemble to center stage.
"He's kind of the poster boy for what's going on at the (quarterback) position," allowed new Miami Dolphins head of football operations Dan Marino. "You don't have to win the beauty contest anymore. You don't have to throw the prettiest pass or be the greatest athlete. You catch lightning in a bottle, get on a roll and, all of a sudden, you look up and you're playing in the Super Bowl."
As simplistic as that sounds, that's the way it happens sometimes, and the quarterbacks in Super Bowl XXXVIII are good examples. Neither head coach Bill Belichick nor Charlie Weis, his offensive coordinator, could have projected Brady's emergence when he took over for Bledsoe two seasons ago. Carolina coach John Fox basically acted on an instinct when he turned, out of desperation, to Delhomme in this year's season opener.
It seems, using Marino's beauty pageant analogy, like Mr. Congeniality can win a Super Bowl if he can successfully manage the stroll down the catwalk without tripping. Then again, even wondrously talented players like Manning suffer a pratfall every so often, and the trick is to avoid disaster. That final element, in itself, might help contribute to some of the success lesser-profile quarterbacks have enjoyed of late.
One prominent NFL offensive coordinator opined earlier this week that quarterbacks such as Brady and Delhomme have lifted their teams because they don't feel compelled to rise to the individual occasion so much as they serve as a leavening agent. His pet theory in précis: Less talented quarterbacks possess less ego, are less likely to take matters in their own hands because of their innate selflessness, and typically subjugate themselves to the betterment of the whole.
Not surprisingly, Delhomme didn't disagree, and noted quickly during a Monday session with reporters that he threw just 14 passes in the NFC championship victory.
"There are guys who throw that many in a quarter," he said. "But I'm the one, no offense to any of those guys, who's getting ready for a Super Bowl game."
Truth be told, given their druthers, most personnel directors, general managers and head coaches would still prefer Manning, if they could get him. In the last few days ESPN.com surveyed 17 general managers and head coaches, asked each to choose the quarterback he would most want starting for him, and 11 cited Manning as the guy.
But in the NFL universe, with a shrinking population of "franchise" quarterbacks, reality is that you make the best of what you've got. Over the last three seasons, Brady has done just that, fitting nicely into the superb design Weis has conjured up for him, a blueprint that plays fluently into the quarterback's unique skills set. And in his first NFL season as a starter, Delhomme has done likewise in the Dan Henning offense, where the leash has been lengthened ever so slightly in the past two months.
"The popular term, I guess, is 'managing the game,' right?" said Henning, one of the league's best offensive minds and a coach of great candor. "Really, all you're asking the quarterback to do is stay within the framework. Now that's different than not losing the game, which is what a lot of people think we want from Jake, you know? Hey, our guy has to go out and make plays and win the game. But we like him to do it while playing in the context of the things we do best. Our guy has done that. But there is a pretty long list of quarterbacks who haven't been able to get it done."
Try a laundry list, in fact, of talented quarterbacks who were relegated to being just Super Bowl wanna-bes.
Since the 1970 merger, there have been 46 quarterbacks chosen in the first round, yet just four own Super Bowl rings. Of the last seven Super Bowl games, only one was captured by a quarterback playing for the franchise that originally drafted him, and that was Brady in Super Bowl XXXVI.
Time was when the blueprint for winning a title included choosing a quarterback high in the draft, nurturing him through an apprenticeship, then elevating him to the starter's role once the gestation period had ended. That road map has gone the way of the single wing and, by comparison, replaced by something drawn up on cocktail napkin. The shocking thing is, looking at the results of the past few years, the helter-skelter method has worked.
"When it comes to breaking in quarterbacks anymore," said Buffalo Bills president and general manager Tom Donahoe, "the old mold has been smashed."
And it doesn't appear, at least for now, that anyone has sufficient expertise to fit Humpty Dumpty back together again. Certainly some teams don't have the financial wherewithal or, in the era of the salary cap, enough space for a franchise-type passer. That enters into the equation in a very pragmatic manner and is one component that has nudged franchises toward the less expensive, but often more productive, quarterback prospects.
The Colts invested approximately 20 percent of their 2003 salary cap toward Manning. In contrast, the Patriots and Panthers spent a little more than $5 million in cap space, about one-third of Manning's charge, on their starting quarterbacks.
And the upshot: Indianapolis owns a superstar talent. But on Sunday, either New England or Carolina will own a Super Bowl trophy.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.