Intriguing Quarterback Duels in the Divisional Playoff Round

Considering I went 0-4 in my picks for Wild Card weekend, how about I take a step back from the whole “giving you bad advice” – or is it good advice, considering you should see who I pick and choose the exact opposite? – and instead, break down the intriguing quarterback duels in the Divisional Playoff round this weekend.

Yeah, let’s go with that.

Indianapolis at Kansas City

The upstart Indianapolis Colts head roughly 500 miles due west to take on the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs Chiefs in the opener of the NFL’s Divisional Playoffs weekend. And in the said playoff game, we’re going to see a matchup of not only two of the NFL’s most prolific passers this season, but a duel between the “old” golden boy quarterback vs. the “new” golden boy quarterback.

After a hiatus that lasted over 600 days away from football (including all of the 2017 season), Colts quarterback Andrew Luck — once thought to be the best quarterback prospect to enter the NFL since John Elway almost three decades prior — finished the year ranked among all the top quarterbacks in all the major statistical categories, including touchdown passes (the only quarterback who threw more than the 39 touchdown passes by Luck was Patrick Mahomes), passing yards (his 4,593 yards was 5th-most in the league), and completion percentage (his 67.3% mark was 11th-best). Between the middle of October through Thanksgiving weekend, Luck might’ve been the most productive quarterback in the NFL, throwing 20 touchdowns in six games, with at least three touchdown passes in all six games.

But as Indianapolis showed against the Houston Texans last weekend, they’re not necessarily going to put the entire onus of beating the Chiefs on Luck’s shoulders. In their win in Wild Card weekend, Luck completed only 19 passes for 222 yards, effectively taking a backseat to the Colts’ rushing game; Indianapolis’ running backs had a combined 26 carries for 171 yards and a touchdown). It’s likely we’ll see more of that against Kansas City.

It’s not hyperbole to say that Chiefs had the not only the worst rushing defense in the NFL this year (ranked dead last in’s rushing defense DVOA metric), but among the worst we’ve seen in recent years. Given that Luck excels when feeding off the running game — he was the fourth-best quarterback in the NFL off play action this year, with a passer rating of 123.5 — and that a strong running game will keep Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense off the field, such a strategy would only make sense.

And that’s where it gets interesting for Mahomes and his offense; like he’s done all year, the Chiefs are going to ask him to perform some serious magic on Saturday. He’s capable of doing so; Mahomes is only the second player in NFL history to throw 50 touchdown passes and for more than 5,000 yards, with the other guy being somebody named Peyton Manning. With Mahomes under center, the Chiefs led the NFL in explosive plays (defined as a run of 15+ yards or a pass of 20+ yards).

But there’s a lot of pressure on a guy who’s still months away from his 24th birthday, regardless of whether he feels it or not. Still considered to be the leader in the league MVP race, Mahomes is effectively being tasked to do something that even the great Joe Montana couldn’t: take the Chiefs past the AFC Championship game. Over the past 25 years, the Chiefs have won only one time in their last 12 postseason games. Outside of Montana, who was admittedly at the tail end of his career, the Chiefs didn’t always have the best quarterback on the field, considering those 12 games also included starts by guys like Steve Bono, Elvis Grbac, Trent Green, Matt Cassel, and Alex Smith (the only one on the group to win a playoff game in Kansas City).

Mahomes is easily the most dangerous quarterback that the Chiefs have fielded in such games. But he’s now orchestrating an offense that’s not nearly as dynamic as it was prior to the suspension of running back Kareem Hunt (the Chiefs ran for less than 100 yards as a team in three of their last four games), and playing against a deceptively stingy Colts’ defense (Indianapolis allowed the fewest explosive plays on defense among all remaining playoff teams), it’ll be fascinating to see whether he’s up to the challenge of being almost solely relied upon to get Kansas City past the second round of the postseason.

Pick: Kansas City

Dallas at Los Angeles Rams

On the “Move The Sticks” podcast hosted by Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks of the NFL Network, they often talk about the concept of quarterbacks being “trucks or trailers.”

The metaphor comes from the idea of whether the quarterback’s performance is what’s leading the team, or whether the rest of the team is driving the quarterback’s performance. Put more simply: does the quarterback make the guys around him better, with the ability to put the rest of the team on his back and get them to where he wants to go? Or is he someone that needs the optimal conditions around him to succeed, and if everything falters, so will he?

Both Dak Prescott of the visiting Dallas Cowboys and Jared Goff of the star-studded Los Angeles Rams are quarterbacks for which you could make compelling arguments on both sides, regarding whether they’re “trucks” or “trailers.”

Goff presents the most interesting case in this debate. The former #1 overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft has now had back-to-back Pro Bowl selections, but does that really justify him being mentioned among the NFL’s best quarterbacks? Goff might’ve finished with 4,688 yards (4th-most in the NFL and 2nd most among all quarterbacks still in the postseason), 8.36 yards per attempt (4th-most in the NFL), 32 touchdowns (tied for 6th-most in the NFL and the same number thrown by Drew Brees this season), and a 101.1 passer rating (8th in the NFL), but if you take Todd Gurley out of the Rams offense, everything changes — and drastically.

Need proof? With Gurley out or limited in the Rams’ last four games of the season, the team went 2-2 in that stretch, with Goff throwing five interceptions — and zero touchdowns — in the two losses. It should also be noted that the two losses were against teams that made the playoffs (the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles), and the two wins were against teams who’ll have the top two picks in the 2019 NFL Draft (the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers).

Prescott didn’t have anything close to the eye-popping numbers put up by Goff. Prescott was on the fringe of the top 15 quarterbacks in passing yards this season, and on the outside of the top 15 quarterbacks in yards per attempt (7.39), giving further credence to the idea that he’s not blessed with a “big arm.” He finished outside the top 20 quarterbacks in passing yards per game (243). He threw five fewer touchdown passes (22) than rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield.

The Cowboys faithful began to get increasingly grouchy at the idea of Prescott being this team’s quarterback of the future, but that all changed after the Cowboys acquired wide receiver, Amari Cooper. Prescott averaged just under 208 yards passing per game, completed 62.9% of his passes, and threw ten touchdowns and five interceptions in the eight games before Cooper arrived. In the eight games with Cooper, Prescott averaged over 278 yards passing per game, completed 71.6% of his passes, and threw 12 touchdowns and three interceptions.

Now, whether you want to attribute the Cowboys’ success on offense over the second half of the year to Prescott suddenly being rejuvenated with a new wide receiver at his disposal, or the fact that running back Ezekiel Elliott had over 1,000 combined yards and five combined touchdowns over that same time span, that’s up to you.

In general, Goff and Prescott aren’t the marquee stars whom the common fan first thinks of, when you mention their respective teams. And while they’re going to have among the most significant impacts on whether their team wins on Saturday evening or not, they’re not going to be the primary focus of the opposing defensive coaching staff.

Pick: Dallas

Los Angeles Chargers at New England

If Luck and Mahomes — who are both under 30 years old — are the proverbial “spring chickens” in the other AFC Divisional Playoff matchup, then that probably makes Philip Rivers and Tom Brady — who are both on the wrong side of 35 years old — a couple of winter turkeys.

Given that, the question for the two of them is whether either one of them still has one more legacy-cementing season left in them.

For Rivers and his Los Angeles Chargers, it’s also about whether they have enough gas in the tank to get past Brady and the New England Patriots. Over the course of his career, Rivers is 0-7 against Brady in head-to-head matchups, and the Patriots are coming up on six years since they’ve lost a playoff game at home. Oh, and the Patriots have sent the Chargers home three times in the franchise’s last six playoff appearances.

If Rivers is truly going to get past Brady, now is the time — especially considering this might be the first time that you could say the Chargers have the better quarterback under center. Considered by many to be a dark horse MVP candidate himself this year, Rivers had an absolutely vintage year in 2018, tying his third-highest touchdown pass total of his career (32), the second-highest completion % of his career (68.3%), and the most wins as at the team’s starter (12) since 2009. He was the maestro of a Chargers offense that had the second-best passing offense DVOA this year, only behind Kansas City.

New England’s defense was near the bottom of the NFL (tied for 30th) in quarterback sacks this year, even though they were able to get pressure without blitzing on 28.3% of opponent’s passing attempts (the 4th-highest total in the league). Conventional wisdom states that the best way to stop the opposing quarterback is to get pressure on him, but Rivers’ 81.9 passer rating in pressure situations is the highest among all quarterbacks playing this weekend.

So, how Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ defense choose to play against Rivers will be one of the intriguing chess matches in this game. Belichick’s modus operandi has been described as “making the opponent play left-handed;” in other words, force them to beat you in any other way besides the one with which they’d prefer. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Patriots used only their front four on defense to bring the rush, play a soft zone behind that with the remaining seven guys, and stop Rivers from throwing the football to Keenan Allen (Allen had the second highest percentage of passes caught per routes run in the NFL; statistically speaking, if Allen is going out for a pass, there’s a better than one-in-five chance the ball is going his way). Put more simply: expect the Patriots to force the Chargers to either stay patient with the running game or complete a lot of short dump off passes when they throw the football.

But the chess match of defensive scheme vs. quarterback won’t be just limited to the Patriots vs. Rivers. Brady was a markedly better quarterback when playing at home versus on the road this year, but he’ll have his work cut out against a Chargers’ defense that simply has more speed and talent than the rest of Brady’s supporting cast. Last weekend, Chargers’ defensive coordinator used a scheme in which his entire back seven was comprised of defensive backs, to take away both the Ravens ability to run (thanks to ‘money-backers’ like Derwin James) or Jackson to use his speed. Outside of an interesting 1-2 punch at running back with Sony Michel and James White, the Patriots don’t have anywhere near the athleticism to match up against the Chargers’ defense.

That means, as the case has been for the better part of the last 20 years, the Patriots are going to ask Brady to once again go out and put up a heroic performance. At 41 years old, you have to wonder how many of those he has left — if any at all.

Pick: New England

Philadelphia at New Orleans

As ridiculous as this question might’ve sounded just two months ago, you genuinely have to entertain it, given the current circumstances at the quarterback position for the visiting Philadelphia Eagles and top-seeded New Orleans Saints: if you had a playoff game, and your life depended on the outcome of the game, would you choose Drew Brees or Nick Foles?

If Patrick Mahomes doesn’t win the NFL MVP award at season’s end, then it’s almost certainly going to be given to Brees (and the contingent of people who believe Brees deserves it over Mahomes present some very compelling points).

In 2018, it looked like Brees elevated to a level of mastery of the quarterback position. He had the highest overall passer rating in the NFL, at 115.7. He was the #1 passer in the NFL from the pocket, with a passer rating of 118.7. He was the #1 quarterback off play-action passes, with a passer rating of 143.3. He had the third-best passer rating in third-down situations (108.8) His one “blemish” — if you really want to call it that — was the fact that he finished with less than 4,000 yards passing for the first time since he arrived in New Orleans, but that was made up for by his 8.16 yards per attempt, which was the 4th-highest mark of his illustrious career. Among Brees’ 32 touchdown passes — to an NFL-high 13 different pass catchers — included strikes to guys named Dan Arnold, Keith Kirkwood, and Zach Line (the latter had two touchdown catches), a trio who sounds more like a popular country music group than guys playing professional football.

You’d almost be foolish to say that with Brees under center, and with New Orleans having clinched home field advantage (where they were 6-2 this year) throughout the playoffs, you’d be a fool not to ride Brees and the Saints into Super Bowl LIII.

But in doing so, you’d be doubting Nick Foles. And if the last 365-ish days have taught us anything, it’s that the last person you should doubt — especially in postseason football situations — is Nick Foles.

In Philadelphia, there’s an increasing sentiment — that might even be permeating in Eagles’ headquarters — that Carson Wentz is indeed the better quarterback, but somehow the Eagles play better when Foles is in the lineup. As ridiculous as that might sound, the Eagles have won their last four games in a row with Foles as the starter, and three of those wins came against teams who made the playoffs this year.

Baseball players always say that there’s a different pep in their step on the days when their ace is taking the mound because they know that have as good a chance to win the game as ever when that guy is playing. That seems to be the case with Foles, even if it didn’t always look pretty in the way they got to the end result.

Against a (very tough) Chicago Bears defense last weekend, Foles understandably struggled for most of the game. Yet, in crunch time, in a 4th-and-goal situation, you couldn’t have thrown a better pass than the one he threw to Golden Tate.

And therein lies the rub: it’s that element that if Foles is at quarterback, no matter how badly he — and the Eagles — have played in the game, the team believes they’re never quite out of the game as long as he’s under center.

Many believe that the winner of this game will be the team representing the NFC in the Super Bowl, and that’s in large part due whom both these guys have at quarterback.

Pick: New Orleans

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