NFL Playoffs 2017: Ranking the Starting Quarterbacks

The 2017 NFL Playoffs will begin next weekend, and it’s time to take a look at which teams boast the best quarterbacks.

Tom Brady is the most decorated quarterback in NFL history, and his success is a huge reason why there’s a belief that the team with the best quarterback will win the Super Bowl. It’s also why the New England Patriots are a perennial threat in the NFL Playoffs.

This isn’t always the case, though, because when the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2012, Joe Flacco wasn’t even one of the five best passers in the league. Sure, the ESPN-driven narrative that nobody else bought stated that he had reached that echelon, but the truth is that Flacco got hot at the right time.

Getting hot at the right time is the formula Eli Manning used to help propel him to two Super Bowl victories. Both Flacco and Manning are above-average quarterbacks, so the more prominent exception to the rule is Peyton Manning‘s Super Bowl win last season. Manning had a 67.9 QB Rating in 2015 as arguably the worst quarterback in the NFL. Moreover, he had a 75.4 QB Rating in the postseason. However, he was less turnover prone in the playoffs, which was just enough for the Denver Broncos defense to lift Peyton to his second ring.

Even though a supporting cast or a hot streak is capable of allowing a non-elite quarterback to win the big game, there is little hope for a quarterback who isn’t close to franchise material. This happened last postseason as the Houston Texans snuck into the playoffs and were shutout in the Wild Card round after a historically putrid performance from journeyman Brian Hoyer.

This year, we have all types of quarterbacks set to start for playoff teams. We have a few MVP candidates, several solid-but-flawed passers, and a couple of players who aren’t exactly household names. Here’s how the 12 starting quarterbacks in the 2017 NFL Playoffs stack up against one another.

Jan 1, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Oakland Raiders quarterback Connor Cook (8) passes in the fourth quarter against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos won 24-6. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

12. Matt McGloin/Connor Cook, QB — Oakland Raiders

I think watching Matt McGloin struggle at the quarterback position will give us a greater appreciation for how much Derek Carr elevates his wide receivers. Outside of the duo of Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper, it’s hard to like what we’ve seen from the other pass-catchers. That’s not to say the Raiders are hurting for weapons, but Seth Roberts and Clive Walford have been two of the worst players at their positions this season. Additionally, the Raiders are fourth in the league in drop rate.

McGloin didn’t have an easy first start against a Denver Broncos defense that is sixth in the league in points per game allowed, but he had just 21 yards on 11 attempts before leaving the game with a shoulder injury.

Rookie Connor Cook, whom the Raiders traded up for in the fourth round, came in and did a better job than McGloin, meaning he should be the starter against Houston. The Raiders only scored six points, and Cook could have easily come away with more than two turnovers in his debut.

If the Raiders are smart, they will start Cook, but they might not have a choice depending on McGloin’s health. Regardless, they still have the worst options at quarterback without Carr. Oakland needs to let Cooper and Latavius Murray take over. Cooper is by far their best playmaker, and Murray is an underrated back who can grind out tough yards that can help open things up for speedier options like DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard.

Jan 1, 2017; Nashville, TN, USA; Houston Texans quarterback Tom Savage (3) attempts a pass during the first half against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

11. Tom Savage/Brock Osweiler, QB — Houston Texans

Honestly, you could rank this quarterback duo last if you wanted to, especially if Brock Osweiler starts. Osweiler has been so awful this season that, whenever he doesn’t throw the game away, people talk about how he played solid. It happened when the Texans played the Raiders in Mexico City, and it happened yesterday when he threw 253 yards and no interceptions (but just 6.3 yards per attempt) against the Tennessee Titans.

The Texans lost to the Titans in Week 17, by the way, despite the fact that Tennessee had to start Matt Cassel at quarterback. Houston lost Tom Savage to a potential concussion in the game, too, which is why Osweiler got a chance to move the offense in the first place.

If Savage is cleared, he has to be the starter. Even though I’ve never been a fan of Savage’s game (he was a journeyman quarterback at the collegiate level, after all), he’s been better than Osweiler. The worst offseason signing by some distance, Osweiler has more interceptions than touchdowns, is one of the least efficient passers in the league with 5.8 yards per attempt, and he has managed to make DeAndre Hopkins look mediocre up until Week 17.

Jan 1, 2017; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore (8) throws a pass as New England Patriots defensive end Chris Long (95) applies pressure during the second half at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

10. Matt Moore/Ryan Tannehill, QB — Miami Dolphins

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Matt Moore isn’t the worst starting quarterback in this year’s playoffs. Moore is a guy who has thrown for 2,000 yards in a season just once in his career, and that was back in 2011. In a way, he’s like Derek Anderson: a classic old backup quarterback who won’t embarrass himself, but that you can never count on to pull a rabbit out of the hat.

There’s a slim chance the Dolphins could have franchise signal-caller Ryan Tannehill, who gets way more heat than he deserves, against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Miami Herald’s Armando Salguero reported last week that it is not “impossible” for Tannehill to play in the Wild Card Round.

Dolphins fans should not count on seeing Tannehill on the field, but they can still steal a win without him. Moore won both of this games against the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets before completing 70.6 percent of his passes in a valiant effort against the New England Patriots. Unlike most 32-year-old quarterbacks making their first start in several years, Moore has been aggressive, averaging 8.3 yards per attempt with eight touchdowns and three interceptions.

Even the most anti-Tannehill fan can’t try and spin that Moore is anywhere near the level of the former first-round pick, but Moore has a 113.4 QB Rating through his four appearances. That beats Tannehill’s 93.5 mark, and he’ll have to continue to play at that level against a Steelers team that has won seven-straight.

Jan 1, 2017; San Diego, CA, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) celebrates after a 37-27 win over the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

9. Alex Smith, QB — Kansas City Chiefs

When Alex Smith first joined the Kansas City Chiefs, he helped Andy Reid and Co. secure a playoff spot. While the Chiefs were bounced out of the first round against the Indianapolis Colts, few people remember just how good Smith was in that game. As we saw during his lone playoff bid with the San Francisco 49ers, Smith has a way of elevating his game in the postseason.

In that 2013 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, Smith threw for 378 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions in a toe-to-toe shootout with Andrew Luck. Two years later, Smith wasn’t nearly as successful against the Houston Texans and New England Patriots, but the Chiefs were competitive in their 27-20 loss to New England.

All of this serves of the purpose of illustrating that while Smith is only ninth on this list, it has more to do with the quality of quarterbacks above him. For as much criticism Smith receives for being a game-manager who cannot lead his team to winning drives, he did help the Chiefs secure a masterful comeback win over the Broncos in their first meeting this season. As usual, Smith keeps his interceptions low and his completion percentage high. Despite this being Jeremy Maclin‘s worst season of his career, Smith’s completion percentage is a career high.

Smith hasn’t produced a marquee effort during his time with the Chiefs, and he hasn’t even thrown for 300 yards since Week 1. I can’t remember the last time people were blown away by one of Smith’s performances. But even though he doesn’t carry the clout of the quarterbacks above him on this list, he is a competent starter at worst.

Jan 1, 2017; Landover, MD, USA; New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) throws the ball against the Washington Redskins in the fourth quarter at FedEx Field. The Giants won 19-10. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

8. Eli Manning, QB — New York Giants

This has been Eli Manning’s worst season since Ben McAdoo joined the New York Giants staff, but I wonder if we tend to forget how poor Manning’s supporting cast has been over the past couple of seasons. Sterling Shepard and Victor Cruz have joined forces with Odell Beckham Jr. to form what was presumably an elite triumvirate of wide receivers, but Shepard and Cruz have been pretty pedestrian.

In fairness to Cruz, he’s coming off of an injury that many thought he would never recover from. As for Shepard, he is a rookie holding his own, but he’s been more of an average No. 2 guy. The Giants have gotten him involved frequently with 105 targets, but the former Oklahoma star has only turned in 6.5 yards per target. Meanwhile, production from the tight end position is once again non-existent, and all of this isn’t factoring in the awful tackles and running backs.

The Giants offense, as per usual, has its flaws. Manning, as usual, has done what he can do overcome those. However, Manning’s average of 6.7 yards per attempt is his lowest since 2007. Then again, the Giants won the Super Bowl that year, so maybe it’s a sign.

Manning has the tools and pedigree, but he’s been worse than Smith this year. With the potential exclusion of Osweiler, no quarterback needs to step up his performances more than Manning this postseason. If it weren’t for a playmaking defense that is second in points per game allowed, the Giants would be nowhere near 11-5.

Jan 1, 2017; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) drops back to pass during the second quarter against the Green Bay Packers at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

7. Matthew Stafford, QB — Detroit Lions

Matthew Stafford’s transformation from a good-but-not-great gunslinger into a legitimate MVP candidate under Jim Bob Cooter has been nothing short of remarkable, but appreciating Stafford’s improvement must also come with a recognition of why he’s improved.

Stafford once led the league in passing attempts in back-to-back seasons, and the Lions have still asked him to chuck 270 yards per game this season. This is because, without Ameer Abdullah, the Lions could not trust any of their running backs to carry the load.

Instead, the Lions turned to their wide receivers to be the running game, which is a phenomenon that occurred in Minnesota, too. Stafford, who finished ninth in the league in pass attempts this year, completed 67 of his 95 pass attempts to Anquan Boldin. Maybe the most underrated veteran signing of the season, Boldin averaged 8.7 yards per reception and led the team with eight touchdowns. With his size, strength, and veteran savvy, Boldin did some of the things a functioning running game normally would take care of. He scored touchdowns, he moved the chains, and he allowed Golden Tate and Marvin Jones to fill out specific roles.

With his average of 16.7 yards per reception, Jones became a seldom-used home-run hitter. Jones’s lack of usage frustrated fantasy owners, but the goal here was to limit the amount of risky passes Stafford attempted. Tate, who averaged a career-low 9.0 yards per catch in 2015, transitioned back to being a No. 1 target in the offense capable at winning at all levels. His yards per reception average rose to 11.8, but he still managed to catch 90 passes for a third-straight season.

Stafford was the one who made all of this work, but give credit to Jim Caldwell and Cooter for finding a way to use the wide receivers to create matchups and higher-percentage throws. When Stafford has to sling the rock or make a strange platform throw, he can still do it. However, he’s much better at the 90 percent of plays that require more traditional quarterbacking.

Jan 1, 2017; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) throws a pass under pressure from Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham (55) and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (91) during the first quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

6. Dak Prescott, QB — Dallas Cowboys

I understand that Dak Prescott is only a rookie, but don’t overlook a player who has managed to hold off Tony Romo with flawless performances. The man is third in the league in QB Rating, third in ESPN’s Total QBR, and 13-3 as a starter (including Week 17 when he played just two series.

Prescott’s detractors have to bring up his excellent offensive line, but since when did that become a legitimate way of discrediting a special quarterback? When the New England Patriots made it to the Super Bowl, I don’t remember people slandering Tom Brady for playing behind an offensive line that included Brian Waters, Logan Mankins, and Matt Light. But no, all of a sudden it’s fashionable to criticize up-and-coming talents like Dak Prescott and Derek Carr for playing behind great lines.

There’s no doubt that Prescott owes a great deal of his success to Ezekiel Elliott, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, and the many talented players that surround him on offense. That said, Prescott is the one who has managed to throw just four interceptions this season. This is simply outstanding for a rookie passer, and only Brady threw interceptions on a smaller percentage of his attempts.

On the subject of offensive line play, people have conveniently left out the fact that 12 quarterbacks have been sacked less frequently than Prescott this year. Pressures are more important than sacks when evaluating offensive lines, but it is interesting to see that players like Brady, Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger were sacked less often.

Prescott is already one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Few players are as smart as he is, which is oddly something he’s been knocked for. Although he’s been in the league for only one year, Prescott takes care of the football as well as anybody in this league, and he excels at spreading the ball around to different receivers. He’s helped turn Beasley into a star slot receiver, he lofts perfect passes to Bryant, and he’s helped turn Terrance Williams into a sideline weapon when defenses forget about him.

I love watching Prescott dissecting defenses. The sky is the limit for a first-year pro who completes 67.8 percent of his passes while still challenging defenses. Romo may be the Cowboys most efficient quarterback in franchise history to this point, but like Elliott, Prescott has a chance to rip up franchise records.

Jan 1, 2017; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) drops back to pass during the first quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at Levis Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

5. Russell Wilson, QB — Seattle Seahawks

I’ve spent a lot of time gushing about Russell Wilson throughout his career, and he’s an even more special quarterback than Prescott. However, this hasn’t been a banner year for Wilson, who has been just as streaky as his 10-5-1 Seahawks. Wilson’s 11 interceptions were a career high, and he took a step back as a passer after leading the league in QB Rating last year.

Even though Wilson’s numbers are more average than great, it’s easy to forget that he was once a contrarian MVP pick earlier this year. While the key word there is “contrarian,” the fact that Pro Football Focus’s Sam Monson named Wilson MVP at the Week 9 point is noteworthy, because the former Wisconsin standout was playing damn good football at the time.

At the time of Monson’s piece, Wilson had just turned in a 20-for-26 performance against the Buffalo Bills for 282 yards. A week later, Wilson led the Seahawks to a memorable victory over the New England Patriots in one of the games of the season, completing 25 of 37 passes for 348 yards and three touchdowns. Needless to say, he didn’t throw an interception in either game.

These displays seemed all the more important in the context of an MVP race, because the Seahawks looked completely lost when Wilson was playing through reasonably serious injuries.

The problem is that Wilson struggled later in the regular season when these injuries shouldn’t have been as big of a deal. After carving up the Patriots, Wilson had two dreadful outings in Week 12 and Week 14. In Week 12, his Seahawks mustered just five points against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Against the Packers, Wilson threw five interceptions in a blowout loss, just one week after his Seahawks dominated the Carolina Panthers in primetime.

Wilson has turned it around since, but those two games against Tampa Bay and Green Bay stand out. As Carson Palmer and Brian Hoyer showed us last season, it is impossible to recover from a sudden implosion by a quarterback in the postseason. Wilson turned in two sub-50.0 QB Rating games this year, and that’s why it’s hard to rank him higher than fifth.

Dec 25, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) throws a pass during the fourth quarter of a game against the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh won 31-27. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

4. Ben Roethlisberger, QB — Pittsburgh Steelers

Ben Roethlisberger is on the shortlist of the greatest quarterbacks in postseason history. He’s been to three Super Bowls and won two, with the second of them coming on one of the greatest last-gasp plays in the history of the game. Even though the Steelers were bounced out of the Divisional Round last season, Roethlisberger nearly led his team to a win over one of the best pass defenses in NFL history.

Big Ben did this without the aid of one of the greatest wide receivers in NFL history, as Antonio Brown was out with a concussion. If Fitzgerald Toussaint, who had to play with Le’Veon Bell out, didn’t fumble the football, Roethlisberger would have pulled it off.

I can’t think of a better deep passer in the league than Roethlisberger, who has a knack for making any receiver a useful role player. Without No. 2 and 3 receivers Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton, Roethlisberger has made Eli Rogers a useful weapon. Ladarius Green should be the next breakout star in the Steelers offense (if healthy), and Sammie Coates could have been the breakout star if he could catch (an injury played a role in his severe drops problem).

Like Wilson, this hasn’t been Roethlisberger’s best season, and it has also come with some injury issues. That said, Big Ben still averaged 7.5 yards per attempt, and he was among the league leaders with 29 passing touchdowns. With Le’Veon Bell working as the offense’s breadwinner, there’s less pressure on Roethlisberger to keep making players like Rogers look like a million bucks, and that’s a recipe for maximum success on offense in the postseason.

Jan 1, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) passes against the New Orleans Saints during the first half at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

3. Matt Ryan, QB — Atlanta Falcons

Last year, being a Matt Ryan apologist wasn’t easy, because he seemed to have problems in his first season working with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Ryan frequently made poor decisions, as he threw 21 touchdowns to 16 interceptions. Critics used his numbers to argue that he is a mediocre quarterback who, like Andy Dalton, simply cannot take a team further than the first round of the playoffs.

Ryan, however, has been to an NFC Championship game before, and he was previously among the top 10 quarterbacks every season before his mediocre 2015. Last season’s numbers were misleading, because they didn’t adequately describe how poor his weapons were outside of Julio Jones. In both 2014 and 2015, no offense relied more on their No. 1 receiver than the Falcons did with Jones. After Leonard Hankerson‘s departure from the team during the middle of the season, the Falcons No. 2 wide receiver was Roddy White, who was too washed to do anything.

A lack of speed and depth is no longer a problem for the Falcons offense. Mohamed Sanu is a capable receiver, Taylor Gabriel is the definition of a sparkplug player on offense, and Austin
Hooper has brought some much-needed athleticism to the tight end position.

The Falcons offense is finally stocked with enough ingredients, and Ryan’s numbers have blossomed. Easily one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the league, Ryan operates behind one of the best offensive lines in the league and has found it easy to complete 69.9 percent of his passes. Ryan led the league with a 117.1 QB Rating and 9.3 yards per attempt. He also threw 38 touchdowns to seven interceptions.

As with Prescott earlier, it is fair to say Ryan benefits greatly from an elite line, a top-notch running game, and stellar coaching. However, it would be unfair to discredit Ryan, because he did put up better numbers than anyone else at the position and morphed Atlanta into an 11-5 team behind an improved supporting cast.

Jan 1, 2017; Detroit, MI, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) drops back to pass during the third quarter against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

2. Aaron Rodgers, QB — Green Bay Packers

People just never learn their lesson, do they? Whenever the Green Bay Packers lose a few games or Aaron Rodgers doesn’t perform at an MVP level for a couple of weeks, everyone starts to panic. Even when the culprit is a poor running game, a head-scratching gameplan, a lack of adjustments from the coaching staff, or shoddy pass defending, the blame always goes back to Rodgers.

Since Rodgers is in the middle of the greatest peak by any quarterback in the history of the game, we tend to expect too much from the ultra-efficient quarterback. What we forget, however, is that Rodgers will inevitably turn it around for his team. From the time he won a bunch of games before carrying the Pack to a Super Bowl victory in 2010 to his league-leading 40 touchdowns this season, Rodgers always comes through when the Packers need a win the most.

Just this season, Rodgers has been at his best at the end of the calendar. The Packers are one of the hottest teams in football right now, closing out the season with six-straight wins. Rodgers hasn’t thrown an interception in his last seven, and he’s coming off of back-to-back four touchdown performances in critical games against NFC North rivals. In fact, Rodgers only lost one division game this season.

Even though the Packers were once losers of four-straight and seemed doomed, Rodgers ended the season as one of only five quarterbacks with a QB Rating of over 100.0. That’s not half bad for a quarterback who spent much of the season as his team’s leading rusher.

Jan 1, 2017; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) calls time out during the first quarter of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

1. Tom Brady, QB — New England Patriots

At one point, I entertained the idea of ranking Aaron Rodgers over Tom Brady, but I’m not interested in deliberately ticking people off. Beyond that, there’s a reason why the Patriots are almost always in the AFC Championship game, and that’s because Brady is just that good.

Even if you don’t think he’s the league’s MVP this year over, say, Matt Ryan, you have to admit that he was special. Brady averaged 296.2 yards per game, yet he only threw two interceptions. This means that Brady threw an interception on just 0.5 percent of his passes, which is insanity.

How insane is it? Brady’s 0.46 percent interception rate this season was an NFL record, besting his mark of 0.86 percent set in 2010. By the way, he won the MVP that year. (Note: Dak Prescott’s 0.87 percent mark this season is the third-lowest in NFL history).

Brady and the Patriots are playing scary football right now. The offensive line is cooking, LeGarrette Blount is punching in touchdowns at will, and the wide receiver corps has been more than deep enough to withstand injuries to Rob Gronkowksi and Danny Amendola. With the way Brady has played this season, the 14-2 Patriots are the best team in football, and anything short of a Super Bowl win would be an upset.

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