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NFL playoffs 2019: Divisional Round quarterback confidence rankings

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Which signal-callers do you have the most faith in?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

“Yes. Thank goodness. This is exactly what I was hoping to read today. Yet another quarterback rankings list to add to the pile. This right here is what I need to get through the end of the work week.”

Okay, so maybe this is not what you are thinking at the moment, as you click open this piece and slowly wonder if it is even worth getting through to the end. But here’s the thing: It is Friday. It is hopefully closing in on the end of your work week, and I know full well that if that is the case for you, my dear reader, that you are in all likelihood just staring at the clock and wondering when you can make that quick dart towards the door, down the back stairwell, through the office suite on the floor below so no one near the elevators can see you sneaking away, and down the opposite back stairwell to the sweet relief of freedom just eight floors down.

Not that I’m speaking from direct experience or anything …

After all, what awaits you once you make that daring escape? Perhaps the best weekend of professional football the year has to offer. It is the Divisional Round, four games spread out over two days and with a Saturday night game to boot. After a thrilling Wild Card Weekend, there is a chance this weekend of football might be even better. So let’s get ready for the weekend to come, while driving you ever closer to the end of your work week, with another list of quarterback rankings for this weekend.

Now, a quick word about methodology. The question I set out to answer is this: What quarterback left standing are you most confident in right now? Even that wording leaves some room for interpretation. For example. One might make the case that “right now” places emphasis on the fact that we are in the playoffs. The post-season. The big dance. The tournament. Brighter lights, bigger stages and all that. When you sit down for your pre-game production meeting with the TV crew calling the game, you aren’t sitting down with the network’s E squad. You’re getting the best. Nantz. Buck. Michaels. Burkhardt. Meaning that you might be inclined to rank the quarterbacks heading into the week this way:

  1. Tom Brady
  2. Drew Brees
  3. Nick Foles
  4. Andrew Luck
  5. Philip Rivers
  6. Dak Prescott
  7. Jared Goff
  8. Patrick Mahomes

If you believe that post-season football is a different beast, and you prefer quarterbacks with that type of big game experience, then this is a list that you could get behind and endorse. Granted, Mahomes has lit up scoreboards this entire season, but it’s one thing to throw four touchdowns a few weeks back against a 4-12 Oakland Raiders squad, it’s another thing to make your playoff debut against a red hot Indianapolis Colts squad in what is shaping up to be perhaps a bit of a weather-influenced game. Then, at the opposite end of the spectrum, is Tom Brady. Five Super Bowl titles. Multiple Super Bowl MVP awards. Architect of the comeback for the ages against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. Playoff experience galore. If you firmly believe that postseason experience matters most, then this is the list for you, and while I thank you for reading my work on a Giants site, my dear Patriots fan, you might want to just stop reading now.

Let’s try another approach. Here in the United States we, from time to time, put questions of leadership and experience to a vote. The peaceful transfer of power, as it were. So on the platform that is 2019’s version of the public square - Twitter - I put this question to the voters. In an absolutely uber-scientific manner that would make Nate Silver proud.*

Okay, maybe not.

But I was curious, so I put together two different polls asking this question by conference, as Twitter polls offer you only four choices. The results were ... somewhat surprising. Let’s start in the NFC, which was a runaway result that was called by the major networks before the polls even closed:

I’ll admit, this surprised me. Not the rankings but the size of victory for Brees. Having the NFC quarterbacks ranked Brees-Foles-Prescott-Goff makes some sense, and it does play into the previous discussion. Brees has won a Super Bowl. Foles won one last year. Prescott just won a playoff game, while Goff has yet to win one. But the size of the win was much larger than I expected, and perhaps speaks to thoughts around the league on Brees ... or maybe it just got tweeted around in office buildings in the New Orleans area.

Now, the AFC:

This one is surprising as well, and the voting results shifted mid-poll as we’ll discuss in a moment. But at least according to this poll, public sentiment is behind the two younger quarterbacks in the AFC, and not behind the veteran quarterbacks in Brady and Rivers. In fact, Luck was off to the lead in this poll, until it was retweeted by the cohosts of the Locked On Chiefs podcast, and then Mahomes surged ahead. Either way, the young guns seem to have the backing of at least a portion of the football world.

Now let’s get to my rankings.

The way I approached these rankings was with an emphasis on how these players have performed in recent weeks, with an eye toward what they will be facing this weekend, from a scheme perspective. Some of the matchups this weekend favor some quarterbacks over others, as we shall see.

8. Jared Goff - Someone had to be at the bottom of this list, and for me it is Goff, a player I loved out of college and ranked my top quarterback in the 2016 draft class. Part of this is the recent play from the Rams’ offense, which struggled at times down the stretch when defenses such as the Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles decided to ignore Sean McVay’s usage of jet motion and stop having defenders run themselves out of position pre-snap. When defenses learned to do this, the Rams’ offense slowed down a bit. The one thing the Rams have going for them this week as they host Dallas is this: McVay is not Brian Schottenheimer. I’d anticipate the Rams throwing much more than Seattle did last week, which might give the Rams the winning edge.

7. Dak Prescott - Which Prescott do we see in the Divisional Round? The quarterback that has been decisive and confident since the acquisition of Amari Cooper, or the quarterback who we saw earlier in the year who failed to make anticipation throws and was running into sacks in the pocket? Recent history tells us it might be the former, but the talented Aaron Donald has the ability to make him look like the latter.

6. Philip Rivers - Public sentiment seems to be behind the Los Angeles Chargers this weekend. According to Vegas this is the closest matchup this week, and as of the time of writing 62% of public money was on the Chargers. Their defense might have the recipe for beating Brady, but an aspect of this game that people seem to be glossing over is the performance from Rivers the past few weeks. While his year on the whole was fantastic, in the last three regular season games he threw for three touchdowns and six interceptions, and seemed to miss on throws when pressured, despite his great numbers against pressure this season. The New England Patriots might not have a ton of sacks to their credit this year, they are good at generating pressure. They pressured the opposing passer on 44.9% of third downs this year - highest among the teams remaining - and also on 31.4% of first downs this year - highest among the teams remaining. While people are focused on the pressure the Chargers can bring, do not ignore what the Patriots can do to Rivers.

5. Nick Foles - Maybe there is something magical about Foles, who has led the Eagles to wins in four-straight games that were basically do or die situations for Philadelphia. But he is still prone to mistakes. He threw an interception in each of the Eagles final three regular season games, and threw two last week against the Chicago Bears, a very good defense. He has a Super Bowl victory, he has playoffs wins, and he has a team rallying behind him yet again. But that isn’t enough to move him over the four remaining quarterbacks, including one he bested in a Super Bowl.

4. Tom Brady - I told Patriots fans they might want to stop reading earlier. Now, it is hard to take one of the greatest quarterbacks ever and drop him to fourth on a list like this, and I know fellow Patriots fans might hate to see this. But there is a scheme component to this working against Brady for this week. The Chargers have the recipe to frustrate many opposing quarterbacks, including Brady: Pressure with four. On their 39 regular-season sacks this year (which includes one that was nullified due to a defensive penalty) the Chargers rushed just four on 27 of those, and rushed five on 11. The one outlier was actually a third and goal play on their own one yard line, where they had a goal line package in the game. So they can pressure Brady with four and drop seven into coverage on most of their defensive snaps, which has given quarterbacks - Brady included - trouble in the past. The flip side to this is that the Chargers play the second-most zone coverage in the league, 58 percent. Predominately a Cover 3 team on the back end, the Chargers will rely on zone coverages behind their four man pressure schemes. If Brady gets time, he is a quarterback who throughout his career has carved up zone coverages.

3. Andrew Luck - Luck is playing perhaps the best football of any of the quarterbacks remaining right now, and if it were not for a scheme aspect we will discuss in a moment, he would be higher. Under Frank Reich, Luck has shown that he is back from injury, and has excelled attacking the short areas of the field while still having some success in the vertical passing game. Reich has used a variety of 12 and 13 personnel packages at times to keep defenses in their base personnel, then looked to attack downfield. In addition, Luck and Hilton have been on the same page throughout the season. This week they’ll get a chance to go up against a Kansas City Chiefs’ defense that has been their Achilles’ Heel this season. So Luck and company should put up some points. However …

2. Patrick Mahomes - I said there would be a scheme component to these rankings, and here is another one to consider. Of course, Mahomes has produced video game numbers this season, throwing for over 5000 yards and for 50 touchdowns, so the talent is there as we have seen. But there is another element at play this week. The Colts play the most zone coverage in the league, using it on 59 percent of their defensive snaps. In addition, Indianapolis uses “middle of the field open” coverages the most in the league, as this chart indicates. Those coverages, such as Cover 2, Cover 4 and Cover 6, keep two deep safeties on the field and try and keep plays in front of them. The problem? Those coverages have three big weak spots: Along each boundary to the outside, and the middle of the field between the safeties. Offenses that have vertical threats on the boundary and a tight end that can attack between the safeties can have a great deal of success against these teams. Like, you know, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill.

1. Drew Brees - That brings us to Brees. Yes, the New Orleans Saints’ offense struggled in a few games down the stretch, but his performance in Week 16 against the Pittsburgh Steelers assuaged some fears about the Saints heading into the playoffs. Two things point to Brees having a big game this weekend. First, back in Week 11 when the Eagles came to town, the Saints carved up the Philadelphia defense for 41 points. Part of this was due to a defensive scheme plan that tried to double-team both Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas at times, forcing Brees to go elsewhere. He did, completing 22 of 30 passes for 363 yards and four touchdowns. Now, Schwartz might shy away from such designs on Sunday, but Brees is also getting Ted Ginn back, who will give him one more receiver he is comfortable with when this game kicks off.

So there you go. You made it to the end of this piece, and for that, I say thanks. Now duck out and go enjoy the best football weekend of the year.

* This was absolutely not a scientific poll.