With just three weeks left in the regular season the playoffs picture has begun to crystallize with the defending champs fighting to stay in the race and teams in both conferences jockeying for position.
For many quarterbacks headed to the playoffs, it won’t be their first rodeo, but nearly half of the field may have offenses led by quarterbacks making their playoff debuts. Looking at their past and 2016 regular-season performances, while also considering each QB’s health and supporting cast, we rank each quarterback’s readiness to lead his team to Super Bowl 51.
Brock Osweiler -- Houston Texans
There have been enough words written this year about Osweiler’s shortcomings -- and they are many. As far as how he might fare in the playoffs, The Ringer’s Robert Mays recently wrote an article titled “Betting Against Brock,” asking “If Houston gets into the playoffs, will Osweiler be the most attractive first-round QB to wager against in recent memory?” Yes. The answer is yes.
Trevor Siemian -- Denver Broncos
The second-year man had the experience of watching a broken down Peyton Manning do barely enough to allow a suffocating Broncos defense to win Super Bowl 50. That defense has taken a small step backwards, which means Siemian will have do a bit more, and do it with an inferior rushing attack that’s averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. He’s having a pretty respectable first season as a starter and is certainly leaps and bounds more ready than rookie Paxton Lynch.
Ryan Tannehill/Matt Moore -- Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins and Tannehill caught a really bad break in the midst of their best season since 2008. But then Tannehill caught a lucky break when an MRI revealed that he suffered only an ACL and MCL sprain, not a tear as the team initially feared. Tannehill had been making real strides under head coach and quarterback whisperer Adam Gase, posting career highs in passer rating, completion percentage and yards per attempt. The team is very cautiously optimistic that Tannehill might be able to return for the playoffs. As for Moore, he’s a decent backup, but there are reasons he’s a backup.
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Dak Prescott -- Dallas Cowboys
Prescott has enjoyed a fantastic rookie season but he’s looked a lot more human and rookie-like over the past two weeks on the road against the Vikings and Giants. Rookie quarterbacks haven’t fared particularly well in the playoffs, posting a 9-14 record with two of those wins coming from Mark Sanchez in January 2010. Fortunately for Prescott, he’ll probably get to make his first postseason start at home in Dallas unless, of course, Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett have a change of heart and decide to dial up Tony Romo (and blow up the Internet).
Marcus Mariota -- Tennessee Titans
Mariota is in the midst of an impressive sophomore campaign despite an unspectacular receiving corps in a run-first offense with a solid offensive line. The 23-year-old ranks 7th in passer rating (99.1) and has thrown 25 touchdowns against just 8 interceptions. He can also snag a fresh set of downs with his legs as needed (19 first downs on 57 carries this season). The Titans just need to keep pace with the Texans before their Week 17 meeting, which would effectively become the AFC South title game and the start of their playoffs.
Jameis Winston -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers
We all saw this coming, right? Five straight wins despite scoring fewer than 20 points in three of those contests. The Buccaneers defense has come on strong to carry the offense but no one can sleep on the Winston-Mike Evans connection as Tampa Bay has shown poise on the road (5-1).
Most importantly, Winston, who previously won the 2014 BCS National Championship, has his team believing. "His leadership is pretty unbelievable, especially for a guy who is [so young]," said 27-year-old Bucs safety Keith Tandy. "I know you guys keep hearing it. I don't think you'll ever understand it. Like when he's talking to you, I feel like it's my uncle shouting out. Like when he's talking to me, I'm like, 'Dang.'"
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Kirk Cousins -- Washington Redskins
Cousins got his feet wet last season with a home playoffs start against Green Bay in which the Packers rolled the Redskins, 35-18. Cousins performed well enough but took too many sacks (6) as the Redskins simply couldn’t keep pace. Playing under the franchise tag this season, he’s proved he’s worthy of the market rate for a solid starting QB. If the Redskins can earn an NFC Wild Card ticket, they’ll bring a very dangerous offense likely to the North or South division winner.
Matt Ryan -- Atlanta Falcons
“Matty Ice” Ryan has endured some rough outings in playoffs past -- three one-and-dones before breaking through against Seattle in 2012, before the Falcons collapsed against the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. But this is a new year with a better offensive coordinator in Kyle Shanahan, an improved offensive line, a formidable rushing attack and, of course, an improved Ryan who’s enjoying his finest season yet as a pro with 30 TDs and 7 INTs and a league-leading (by far) 9.16 yards per attempt.
Derek Carr -- Oakland Raiders
In 10 Raiders wins this season, the MVP candidate has led 6 fourth-quarter comebacks. He’s a fearless leader who has continued to improve since his 2014 rookie season as the Raiders are poised to reach the playoffs for the first time since Carr was in sixth grade.
The Silver and Black will need some help to win the AFC West and bring the playoffs to the Black Hole but the Raiders have traveled very well this season (5-1 on the road). Carr just needs that finger to heal up and to avoid sub-zero conditions like the kind at Arrowhead in Week 13.
Joe Flacco -- Baltimore Ravens
Was he worth that $120 million, six-year deal with over $50 million guaranteed (subsequently extended with new money) signed after that run in 2013 culminating with a Lombardi trophy and a Super Bowl MVP award? Probably not, but the Ravens simply couldn’t let him walk.
It’s been a weird year in Baltimore but the firing of offensive coordinator Marc Trestman has resulted in a better Flacco, who’s completed 66 percent of his passes with 12 scores and 8 INTs since Marty Mornhinweg took over in mid-October. At 7-6 Baltimore has work to do to reach the playoffs but if they do, watch out because the offense is warming up and Flacco is certainly not afraid of the moment.
Matthew Stafford -- Detroit Lions
Hey, another MVP candidate with a finger injury. Stafford caused a lot of whiplash in June when he said the Lions would be tougher to defend without Calvin Johnson. It’s hard to argue results. In his first full season under defensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, Stafford is having his best season yet, orchestrating 8 comeback wins after trailing in the 4th quarter, an NFL record with still three games to go. Three is a trend; 8 is something special.
The Lions defense has drastically improved in recent weeks and Stafford had his best game of the season in New Orleans in Week 13, playing a fourth quarter with a lead for a change. Watch out.
Eli Manning -- New York Giants
“Easy Eli” would be a notch higher if not for the diminished arm strength he’s displayed this year and more characteristic errant passes and frustrating turnovers. Poor offensive line play, particularly from revolving door Ereck Flowers at left tackle, hasn’t helped. Playoffs Eli this year may not resemble the one of 2008 or 2012, but the Dallas Cowboys or New England Patriots would probably prefer seeing someone other than the two-time Super Bowl MVP come January/February.
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Alex Smith -- Kansas City Chiefs
January football means cold weather, ground games, avoiding mistakes and ideally, calm nerves. That’s Smith. Often assailed as a checkdown artist, go check out that 40-yard back shoulder throw he made to Travis Kelce from his own end zone against the Raiders last Thursday night. He’s thrown 11 touchdowns and just 1 interception in five career playoffs starts and the Chiefs have an inside track to a first-round bye, setting up a possible rematch of last year’s Divisional Round battle against the Patriots in New England -- this time for the AFC Championship.
Aaron Rodgers -- Green Bay Packers
The Packers still have an uphill battle to get into the dance but they’re playing their best football at the right time. Rodgers’ calf has begun barking again, though, and it hobbled him a bit in the 38-10 blowout of the Seahawks. "If you can't reset your feet, I don't know how you can perform," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "But his ability to reset his feet was key. As long as he can do that, he'll be fine." Even at 75 percent, Rodgers can be lethal but Rodgers without his scrambling ability is obviously easier to contain.
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Russell Wilson -- Seattle Seahawks
Wilson had one of his worst games as a starter at Green Bay on Sunday in a 5-interception debacle but what’s nice about Seattle is their ability to shake it off and regroup from week-to-week. Wilson is a consummate leader and a veteran of two Super Bowls in his first four seasons. The offensive line remains a problem but it has improved over the course of the season, as has Wilson’s calf injury which limited him to the pocket for the first half of the season. Seattle gets the rest of its lowly division from Weeks 15-17 for a shot to claim a first-round bye if the Lions falter against the Giants, Cowboys or Packers.
Ben Roethlisberger -- Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers have gotten pretty unlucky with injuries down the stretch in recent seasons but if the two-time Super Bowl champ has a full complement of weapons, including tight end Ladarius Green -- who is getting back up to speed, the Steelers will be a very tough out. This year, Roethlisberger might be inclined to let Le’Veon Bell rush for all the yards but Big Ben is still a load to take down and can shake off linebackers to buy time for receivers to break for open space.
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Tom Brady -- New England Patriots
Who else? It’s kind of ridiculous how well Brady is playing at age 39, a credit to TB12 nutrition, a relentless work ethic and the entire Patriots organization. The season really doesn’t begin for the Patriots until January and they’ll likely enjoy a restful Wild Card weekend. New England will have to make a run without Gronk but no team has a QB better equipped to lift the rest of the team in the absence of their best skilled position player.