Big Ben only first-round QB left in playoffs

Just after signing a lucrative contract extension in 2004, the reward for having led the Carolina Panthers to a Super Bowl XXXVIII berth, quarterback Jake Delhomme decided it was time to splurge on an expensive new ride.

So you're thinking, like, a sporty little two-seater with even quicker acceleration than wide receiver Steve Smith provides? Or maybe a big, gas-guzzling SUV to propel the Panthers' starting quarterback through the swampy Louisiana back roads he navigates in the offseason? Something sleek, sizzlin' or stupefying, right?

Well, think again.

Delhomme's hot new set of wheels was a shiny, state-of-the-art Kubota tractor, one that would considerably reduce the workload on the Lafayette, La., horse farm in which he is a partner with his father and brother. In perpetrating his own manner of vehicular drama-cide -- Delhomme had intentionally kept close friends and teammates in suspense over what kind of extravagant buy he would make with his signing bonus -- the Panthers' star reinforced the notion he is more about practicality than pizzazz.

And that he couldn't care less about the glitz typically associated with the high-profile position he plays.

"He's just a country boy," Carolina right offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. "There's nothing glamorous about him. He's got a lot of [moxie], but not a lot of polish to him."

Which should make the down-home Delhomme, the winningest quarterback remaining among the starters for the final four teams that will vie this weekend for an invitation to Super Bowl XL, right at home. This is not, to be sure, a championship round that features a high Q rating when it comes to the QB position. Of the four quarterbacks remaining in the playoffs, just one, Ben Roethlisberger of Pittsburgh, is a former first-round choice.

That doesn't make the Super Bowl derby a horse race filled with also-rans, but it does demonstrate that a quarterback doesn't necessarily need to be glamorous to be good.

Indeed, the sport's reigning Super Bowl golden boy, Tom Brady of New England, finally proved last weekend that he is mortal after all. The two Manning brothers combined for just 18 points and one touchdown pass, were sacked an aggregate nine times, and failed to win a playoff contest between them. Carson Palmer exited the playoffs on a wounded knee. Among the other more celebrated quarterbacks in the league, Brett Favre led the NFL in interceptions, Daunte Culpepper and Donovan McNabb finished the year on injured reserve and Michael Vick concluded the season in regression.

Which leaves the conference championship games in the hands and on the right arms of four quarterbacks who all possess more game than name, a reality that isn't lost on any of them, but which seems to matter not at all.

Only two of the four quarterbacks still left in the playoffs, Delhomme and Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck, were selected for this year's Pro Bowl game. Jake Plummer of Denver, a second alternate, will make the trip to Hawaii only because Palmer and Drew Brees are recovering from surgeries. All of the final four quarterbacks, though, would certainly prefer slogging through the snowy streets of Detroit next month over plowing through the thick sand of Waikiki Beach.

The "Big R," as Roethlisberger referred to the gaudy ring that accompanies a Super Bowl championship, will always take precedence over an all-star game more about R&R.

"The only [recognition] that matters to me is what I get from the guys in that room," Roethlisberger said as he pointed toward the Pittsburgh locker room in the RCA Dome following the Steelers' upset win at Indianapolis. "A month or so ago, about the only people who believed we could be in this situation were those guys, and so that's what matters the most. We pulled together and we survived and we're still playing."

Perseverance, it seems, is a coveted trait common to the four quarterbacks still playing for the chance at a Super Bowl appearance.

"It's a league where you've got to earn your stripes," Hasselbeck said. "And the emphasis is on earn, believe me."

A former sixth-round draft pick, Hasselbeck served two seasons as Favre's caddy, and registered just 29 pass attempts in 1999 and 2000 before being traded to the Seahawks in 2001. Plummer was a second-round choice in 1997, but during six seasons with a mostly miserable Arizona Cardinals franchise, only once threw more touchdown passes than he did interceptions. Not until this season, when the Denver staff did a remarkable job of enhancing his game management skills, was Plummer able to finally dodge the stigma of being a quarterback who always seemed to make the killer turnover. Delhomme entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent, started only two games and threw just 86 passes in five seasons with the New Orleans Saints, and didn't become a starter until Carolina incumbent Rodney Peete bombed in the 2003 season opener.

Even Roethlisberger, who was the 11th player chosen overall in the 2004 draft, might not have become the starter as a rookie had the Steelers' Tommy Maddox not sustained an early-season elbow injury. So none of the four quarterbacks who still have a shot to hoist the shiny Vince Lombardi Trophy on the evening of Feb. 5 was born into the NFL with a silver spoon in his mouth.

And Delhomme, for one, figures that isn't all that bad.

"I think when you have to work a little harder for anything, whether it's football or whatever, you appreciate it more," Delhomme said. "It's OK to get muddied up a little and to have to demonstrate some [grit]. There's nothing wrong with that. It just makes it all the more worthwhile when you reach your goal. I think any of the other [quarterbacks] still playing would agree with that."

It isn't so much that the final four quarterbacks are an unremarkable group. All of them have previous playoff experience and each has authored significant victories in the past. What might be most remarkable is that as a group, they comprise an unusual foursome. If some high-powered marketing official or television executive had the power to select who would still be playing, this would not have been the quartet vying for two Super Bowl berths.

The playoffs, though, are more about viability than visibility, and each of the four has helped to make his team a Super Bowl contender. Most fans can tell you how many times a particular franchise has won a championship, but not necessarily how many titles were claimed by individual quarterbacks.

Still, if the Panthers capture the first Super Bowl victory in franchise history, there is a good chance Delhomme will be the game's most valuable player. And that would mean, on the morning after Super Bowl XL, Delhomme, who has a sterling 5-1 record and a passer rating of 104.0 in postseason play, could leave Detroit tooling around in a shiny Cadillac and not a Kubota.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.