Looking at this weekend’s divisional-round schedule, it’s clear that NFL teams need elite quarterbacks to reach the pinnacle of this sport.
It’s a team game, to be sure. The eight franchises still vying for a championship this year also feature outstanding run games, and most are loaded defensively as well.
Still, it’s an undeniable fact that the NFL isn’t a league you can dominate without a legitimate franchise passer. So why not rank them?
In reverse order, this is how we see the field of quarterbacks playing in the divisional round.
8. Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans
The league leader in passer rating this past year, Tannehill stunned with his elite play during the regular season. He looked like a guy in complete control, and his willingness to take shots downfield in this Tennessee offense resulted in a ton of big plays (like this).
Looking at the list of the starting quarterbacks playing this weekend, it’s not a knock on Tannehill that he’s eighth. It’s just a matter of inexperience in the playoffs. And that was evident last weekend when Tannehill was bailed out by his defense and Derrick Henry. New England’s defense held him to just 67 net passing yards, and Tannehill completed just over half his passes (8-of-15).
7. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
How is this possible? Rodgers was for so long the NFL’s premier passer. Now, if we’re honest, the moments of greatness that used to be so frequent have dwindled as Rodgers looks human more and more often.
Consider the last game Rodgers played. Going against a mediocre Detroit Lions team, he completed less than half of his 55 passing attempts as the Packers eked out a three-point victory. Rodgers was frighteningly inaccurate throughout that game and missed wide-open receivers. Still, he’s Aaron freaking Rodgers. And he threw 26 touchdowns and just four picks this year. So he’s still pretty good.
6. Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings
Cousins is coming off a career-defining playoff win over the New Orleans Saints. He was the star. He made the big throws down the stretch to knock off Drew Brees and Co., changing his big-game narrative for good. Now he has a chance to become legendary on the road against arguably the NFL’s best pass defense.
Overall, though, Cousins has finished the season with some so-so performances. He came up small at the end of Minnesota’s loss to Seattle last month. He had a miserable performance in a loss to Green Bay. And in his last four games, Cousins has tossed just four touchdowns. Maybe he stays hot this weekend and has a Joe Flacco-type surge. But for now, he’s hovering near the middle of the pack.
5. Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers
A true gunslinger in the mold of Brett Favre, Garoppolo is quickly developing a reputation for being as clutch as they come. He’s also capable of getting white hot, tossing four touchdowns three times this season.
The turnovers are a real concern, as Garoppolo lost 18 of them throughout the regular season. But he has a knack for being able to shrug them off and come back with big-time throws under pressure.
San Francisco’s 13-3 record is a reflection of his ability to play his best when all the chips are pushed to the middle.
4. Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans
We’re in the top half of this list now, and from here on out it’s tough to argue that Watson and the remaining three aren’t the best four the NFL has to offer period.
Watson delivers unfiltered, raw magic in its purest form. What he did last weekend to vault Houston into the divisional round was among the best plays this scribe has ever witnessed in an NFL game (watch here).
The big issue with Watson is that he takes too many sacks. His offensive line is horrible, and Watson often compounds this issue by holding onto the ball too long. Set to face Kansas City’s pass rush, Watson’s will be put to the test on the biggest stage.
3. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Speaking of magicians, Wilson is among the best the NFL has ever seen. Defensive linemen must absolutely hate going against this guy, because he is Barry Sanders-like in his ability to escape trouble. And when it comes to elite arms, Wilson routinely makes insanely difficult throws look easy.
Wilson is also red hot. He led all passers last weekend with 325 yards, and this guy tossed 31 touchdowns with just five interceptions in 2019.
2. Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs
There’s elite, and then there’s whatever Mahomes is. The NFL’s side-arm king has the most ridiculous arm talent in the league. Better still, he’s playing for the perfect coaching staff and has talent like you wouldn’t believe that stresses defenses to the max on every single play.
This past year was tough, as Mahomes dealt with multiple injuries. As a result, his stats weren’t remotely close to the MVP season he had in 2018. But Mahomes is still the same guy. And if it weren’t for the next guy on this list, Mahomes would be No. 1.
1. Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
He’s the MVP. He’s not only the best quarterback this season, but Jackson was also the league’s best player. Period.
In those 15 games, Jackson threw an NFL-leading 36 touchdown passes and racked up an NFL-record (for a quarterback in a single season) 1,206 rushing yards with seven rushing scores. He’s must-see TV. He’s the new Michael Jordan. Lamar Jackson is the NFL’s new era, embodied.