By Larry Fine
(Reuters) - An evergreen crop of elite quarterbacks featuring Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger, offer the promise of a dazzling Super Bowl tournament with the playoffs getting underway this weekend.
Joining that trio is twice Super Bowl most valuable player Eli Manning of the New York Giants, former Super Bowl champion Russell Wilson of Seattle Seahawks and league MVP candidate Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons, underlining the importance of the quarterback in the gridiron game.
Oddsmakers installed AFC top seeds New England Patriots, who have won four Super Bowls with Brady at the helm, as 2-1 favorites to win the title, followed by the NFC top-seeded Dallas Cowboys at 4-1.
“I thought the players and the coaching staff have both done a great job this year of being focused and looking just at what’s in front of us ... not getting caught up in other distractions," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, whose team finished with seven straight wins.
The Patriots made their way despite missing Brady, 39, for the first four games due to a suspension stemming back to the Deflategate controversy in the playoffs two years ago.
Brady, a three-time Super Bowl MVP, and the Patriots (14-2) enjoy a first-round bye along with the Kansas City Chiefs (12-4), who are led by quarterback and former first overall draft pick Alex Smith.
Rodgers, a Super Bowl MVP, led the Green Bay Packers (10-6) on a rousing charge into the postseason finishing with six straight victories, while two-time Super Bowl winner Roethlisberger steered the Pittsburgh Steelers through an 11-5 campaign.
The Green Bay quarterback predicted the Packers could sweep the rest of their games after struggling to a 4-6 start.
“That’s what you have to do sometimes as a leader,” Rodgers said after Sunday's victory over the Detroit Lions to clinch the NFC North title. “Exude confidence even when it seems to the outside world confidence shouldn’t exist.”
Bucking the trend favoring experience at quarterback were the young Dallas Cowboys (13-3), who were led by rookie quarterback Dak Prescott and first-year running back Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL rushing leader.
Atlanta (11-5) are the NFC second seeds, and will take the week off along with Dallas.
The Wild Card round opens on Saturday with the Oakland Raiders (12-4), devastated by the loss of starting quarterback Derek Carr to injury, taking on the Houston Texans (9-7), who are also playing a back-up signal caller.
The defensive-minded Seahawks (10-5-1), who have been to two of the last three Super Bowls, host the Lions (9-7) and their strong-armed quarterback Matthew Stafford.
On Sunday, Roethlisberger and the Steelers host the Miami Dolphins (10-6), followed by a frigid meeting at Lambeau Field between the Giants (11-5) and the Packers (10-6).
(Writing by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Steve Keating)