Two upstarts and two veterans — it’s a stacked field.
Quarterback play is more important than ever in the NFL. The 2019 playoffs are proof.
The last four teams standing in this year’s postseason are each helmed by top-tier passers. The Saints and Patriots are anchored by 40+ year-old stalwarts whose Hall of Fame votes will be mere formalities. Former No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff built himself into an MVP candidate while making the Rams a contender. He’ll almost certainly lose that award to Patrick Mahomes, who needed just one season as a starter to cement himself as one of the league’s most dynamic players.
That’s left us with a pair of conference championship games destined to keep scoreboard operators busy throughout Sunday. But which team can boast the best quarterback in the NFL’s final four? Will experience conquer youth, or will the league’s upstarts usher in a new era of champions? Will Tom Brady’s season end, as it has five times before, by raising the Lombardi Trophy? Or will Goff give Los Angeles something to be excited about by leading the Rams to their first Super Bowl title on the West Coast?
We won’t know until Sunday night, but we can certainly rank 2019’s remaining playoff passers based on their seasons to date.
4. Jared Goff, Rams
Goff has fulfilled expectations after being selected with the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, changing the way teams across the league rebuild in the process. The former Cal quarterback has teamed up with emerging young head coach Sean McVay to electrify the league with a spread passing game that perfectly complements the gashing running attack of Todd Gurley.
Over the past two seasons, Goff has been a top-six passer in terms of passing yards (fifth), passing touchdowns (tied for fourth), passer rating (sixth), and most importantly, wins (tied for first). He emerged as an MVP candidate in his third season as a pro, but fell back to earth as a late-season slump crushed LA’s hopes of claiming home-field advantage in the NFC. While he responded with three straight wins, two of those came over the hopeless Cardinals and 49ers, and last week’s win over the Cowboys happened around him without too much interference; Goff completed just 15 of his 28 passes for 186 yards and no touchdowns in a game where Gurley and C.J. Anderson did all the heaviest lifting.
On Sunday, he’ll face a Saints defense that had an up-and-down season but still managed to snuff out most big passing plays before they could happen in 2018. That proficiency didn’t limit him the first time these teams met; Goff threw for 391 yards on 28 completions, including three touchdowns. That bested the 12.9 yards per catch average he’s posted in each of the past two years — a number that was good enough to lead the league in 2017 and rank third in 2018. The Rams lost that game to the Saints, however, leaving Goff with plenty to prove.
Even so, if the NFC title game explodes in fireworks, Goff is the kind of technician you want to get the most bang for your buck.
3. Tom Brady, Patriots
Brady slowed down from his furious 2016-17 pace and regressed back to his career average in 2018. It turns out that’s still pretty good!
The 41-year-old has been uneven this season, falling from the top-five statistical heights of his unprecedented old-man MVP run last fall and into the second tier of quarterbacks. The Patriots claimed their 10th straight AFC East title regardless, and now New England stands on the precipice of its fourth Super Bowl appearance in five years.
That’s because Brady saved his best work for his toughest opponents. His Patriots are 5-0 against playoff teams this season, but 7-5 against franchises whose Super Bowl hopes were dashed after Week 17.
Brady’s blueprint to success Sunday involves a game plan where he throws roughly 40 passes, gets the protection that keeps him upright throughout the evening, and allows him to do the Tom Brady things that have delivered the poor unfortunate souls of New England five Super Bowl parades this millennium. In Kansas City, he’ll play the role that rocketed him to stardom way back in 2002: the underdog. It’s a position in which the Patriots are reveling.
No passer left standing has a stronger overall playoff resume than Brady; bet against him at your own risk. But he’s looked more human than ever in stretches this season, sliding a pair of MVP candidates ahead of him in 2019’s final four rankings.
Yep, this is a stacked list.
1b. Drew Brees, Saints
Brees and Mahomes were neck and neck in this year’s MVP race before a late-season slump likely cost the veteran his shot at finally earning the league’s top regular season award. Concerns over that finish — even with 627 passing yards over his past two starts — were just enough to negate Brees’ wealth of veteran experience and 14 playoff spots and give the budding young quarterback in western Missouri the edge.
The Saints overcame a three-game stretch in which Brees averaged only 177 passing yards per game, and threw only two touchdown passes but three interceptions, to claim the top record in the NFL. The two weeks off created by a meaningless Week 17 game and a Wild Card bye appears to have recharged the 40-year-old. He rose up for 301 passing yards while dispelling the myth of Nick Foles in a 20-14 Divisional Round win against the Eagles.
But while he turned in an extremely Drew Brees stat line in victory (a 73.7 percent completion rate, two touchdowns), there was still cause for concern. His lone interception came when he missed an open Ted Ginn Jr. deep on his first pass of the evening. It was a mistake he’d make again in the second half:
Drew Brees has now underthrown 2 different sure-thing deep ball touchdowns vs. the Eagles pic.twitter.com/dB81zlIZqF— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) January 13, 2019
Those two missed opportunities took 14 points off the board for New Orleans. While it didn’t come back to bite the Saints last week, it could be a major issue in a looming shootout against the Rams and the high-scoring Chiefs or Patriots team Brees has to face in a potential Super Bowl.
But Brees is 8-5 in the postseason with the Saints, which includes a 6-0 record in the Superdome. He’s also got a sterling 100.9 passer rating in playoffs games — nearly 10 points higher than Brady’s postseason mark. While it’s fair to wonder whether those superpowers are waning now that he’s hit his fifth decade of existence, it’s also fair to look at that resume and feel pretty good about New Orleans’ chances Sunday.
1a. Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
Mahomes didn’t have a touchdown pass in his Divisional Round win over the Colts. The fact he didn’t need one in a win that was never in question makes the Chiefs terrifying.
Mahomes failed to find the end zone for just the second time this season, but that didn’t matter as Kansas City rolled over Indianapolis and earned the right to host the first AFC Championship Game in franchise history. The second-year passer was still solid in victory, taking too many sacks — his four were the second-most he’s suffered in a single game — but managing to throw for 278 yards and running for a score to erase Indianapolis’ fairy tale ending.
The cold never bothered him anyway. ❄️ pic.twitter.com/ZEfSnWbQeM— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) January 12, 2019
Those numbers don’t showcase his greatest strength. Mahomes has been a revelation thanks to his ability to extend plays in the pocket and draw defenses away from their assignments. He then uses that extra second or two he’s bought behind the line of scrimmage to find a long list of receiving talent. Here, he bewilders the Colts’ defensive line just long enough to free All-Pro Travis Kelce for a tidy gain.
#SomethingSmart I said it during the game but out of structure, Mahomes is playing chess while others are playing checkers. He wants Kelce but holds the ball and widens to get linebacker Anthony Walker to commit before getting rid of the ball. pic.twitter.com/4VWEUcch5r— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) January 15, 2019
Kansas City will expect even more from him in his second postseason start, and Mahomes’ stellar regular season suggests he’ll get them. The former Texas Tech star is an overwhelming favorite to win the 2018 regular season MVP award after throwing for nearly 5,100 yards and slinging 50 touchdown passes for the league’s top-ranked offense. He may be the least-experienced quarterback playing Sunday ... but he’s also the only guy who can do this:
Go ahead and put Mahomes in the Hall of Fame RIGHT NOW. pic.twitter.com/6JWqATKFT6— 50 Sent (@ClayWendler) December 9, 2018
Mahomes is facing the biggest game of his career to date when the Patriots come to town. He’ll have 38 times less experience than the quarterback he’ll duel against with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. But winning his team’s first home playoff game in 25 years wasn’t too big for Mahomes — and there’s a good chance his showdown against a top 10 passing defense in the AFC Championship Game won’t be, either.