The first thing about the NFL divisional-round playoffs that jumps out at me are the quality of quarterbacks in each conference.
AFC: Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Houston’s C.J. Stroud. Mahomes, 28, already has won two Super Bowls, three AFC titles, two league MVP awards and two Super Bowl MVPs. Jackson is the prohibitive favorite to win his second league MVP award, and he just turned 27. Allen, 27, has two top-three finishes in NFL MVP voting, and has a .699 regular-season winning percentage and five postseason victories in his last five seasons. Stroud, 22, is one of the best rookie quarterbacks in NFL history. This season he led the NFL in average passing yards per game (273.9), and touchdown-interception ratio. And in his first NFL postseason game, Stroud led the Texans to a 45-14 rout of the Cleveland Browns by completing 16 of 21 passes for 274 yards, three touchdowns and compiling a perfect passer rating (157.2.) He’ll be a runaway winner for NFL Rookie of the Year.
NFC: San Francisco’s Brock Purdy, Green Bay’s Jordan Love, Detroit’s Jared Goff and Tampa Bay’s Baker Mayfield. Purdy has done a terrific job, but he’s a system quarterback surrounded by elite talent. Love has 21 touchdowns and one interception in his last nine games – including Green Bay’s 48-32 trouncing at Dallas in the wild-card round upset. Good days – and seasons – ahead for the Packers. Goff has turned his career around after being traded by the LA Rams to Detroit. But is he elite? And then there’s Tampa Bay’s Baker Mayfield. The No. 1 overall pick by the Browns in the 2018 NFL Draft, Baker is on his fourth team. But he did guide the Browns to a spot in the 2020 AFC championship game – a narrow 22-17 loss at Kansas City. And Mayfield has played well for a Tampa Bay team that’s won six of its last seven games including a wild-card whupping of Philadelphia’s Eagles.
That’s a fine group of NFC quarterbacks that doesn’t compare to an AFC quarterback lineup that features MVPs, All-Pros, Rookies of the Year and big-game triumphs. Among the NFC postseason field, only Jordan Love has elevated his team with a sequence of spectacular performances. The starpower on the AFC side is extraordinary.
But with all eight quarterbacks having a chance to earn a spot in next week’s AFC and NFC championship games, the pressure is rising. By Sunday night, only four of the quarterbacks will have advanced to keep slinging.
In the NFC, No. 7 seed Green Bay plays at top-seeded San Francisco. Tampa Bay (No. 4) plays at Detroit (3.)
In the AFC, No. 4 Houston is at top-seeded Baltimore, and the marquee game of the weekend pits visiting Kansas City (3) in Buffalo (2.)
Quarterback performance will have a huge impact on the divisional-round results. This weekend some quarterbacks have more at stake than others. Reputations will be enhanced. Reputations will take a hit. Dreams will stay alive. Dreams will fade away.
Here’s my Pressure Index, ranking the quarterbacks No. 1 (the most) through No. 8 (the least.) It’s based on the weight that each will carry on their shoulders in these stressful weekend tests.
NUMBER EIGHT, C.J. Stroud. He’s had a phenomenal rookie season, lifting a struggling franchise to an 11-7 record (including postseason) after being No. 2 overall in the 2023 draft. Before Stroud’s arrival the Texans had gone 11-38-1 in their previous three years. Stroud has nothing to lose. Even if he has an uncharacteristically poor showing at Baltimore, no one will hold it against him. The Texans weren’t supposed to be here. And they’re a 9 and ½ point underdog to the AFC’s best team.
NUMBER SEVEN, Jordan Love. In his first season as the starter as the replacement for aging conspiracy theorist Aaron Rodgers, Love overcame early-season trouble to take the Packers on an exhilarating journey. Including the win at Dallas the Pack is 7-2 in the last nine games. And in his last five contests Love has passed for 12 touchdowns without a single interception. Remember when Green Bay GM Brian Gutekunst got trashed for drafting Love 26th overall in 2020 – just after Rodgers had won his third league MVP award? Gutekunst knew what he was doing. The Packers won easily as a seven-point underdog at Dallas. And they are even a larger underdog (9.5 points) in the game against the Niners. But Love already has established himself as Green Bay’s leader of the pack. His place as the starting quarterback is secure. A loss to the NFC’s best team wouldn’t change that.
NUMBER SIX, Baker Mayfield. He’s playing for a new contract after signing a one-year deal with Tampa Bay. Mayfield had several choices last offseason, but correctly viewed the Buccaneers as a good fit at this stage of his career. It was a good call by Mayfield. There were minimal expectations. He grabbed that one-year contract worth $4 million and had to beat out Kyle Trask for the starting job at quarterback. He’s raised his stock and will likely receive better offers for 2024 and beyond. Yes, Baker could lose value if he stinks it up at Detroit. But he’s already had more success than anticipated, and the Buccaneers love his toughness, competitiveness and leadership.
NUMBER FIVE, Jared Goff: He’s Motown’s man. He needed a fresh start after the Rams gave up on him several years after the team made him the No. 1 overall draft choice in 2016. But Goff played poorly in a 13-3 Super Bowl loss to New England, and that prompted head coach Sean McVay to push for the trade that sent QB Matthew Stafford to LA. That move paid off for the Rams. Stafford led them to the Super Bowl championship to cap the 2021 season. But the trade became a windfall for the Lions. Goff has exceeded expectations as their quarterback. A bunch of draft choices were included in the deal, and Lions GM Brad Holmes flipped some of the selections in subsequent moves that added to an impressive supply of talent. The payoff includes running back Jahmyr Gibbs, tight end Sam LaPorta, defensive tackle Josh Paschal, wide receiver Jameson Williams and defensive back Ifeatu Melifonwu. Goff thrived in the head-to-head matchup against Stafford in last week’s one-point victory over the Rams. And now the Lions are in position to win multiple postseason games in a season for the first time since 1957. Even if the Lions lose to Tampa Bay, do you think Detroit – team and fans – will turn against Goff? Heck now.
NUMBER FOUR, Patrick Mahomes. There’s always pressure on Mahomes because he has to play up to his remarkably high standards and the relentless expectations that go with being the NFL’s best quarterback. But the Chiefs have ineffective receivers and an offensive line that is covered with too many penalty flags. Mahomes is still fantastic. He pushed through a challenging regular season to go 10-6 as a starter. And since becoming KC’s starting quarterback in 2018, Mahomes has an overall .775 winning percentage that includes a 12-3 record in the postseason. I laugh at the media-driven narrative that wants reasonably intelligent people to believe Mahomes has something to prove because this will be his first AFC postseason road game. Hey, he may do enough to win at Buffalo, especially if the excellent Kansas City defense plays a stubbornly tough game. But Mahomes has nothing – absolutely nothing – to prove. And even if he did, you don’t have to tell him that he has something to prove. He takes that attitude into every game.
NUMBER THREE, Brock Purdy. The 49ers have all the pieces to march through the NFC tournament and win the Super Bowl. But what happens if Purdy messes up, has a lousy game, and the Niners get booted from the postseason? He’s done a very good job of driving the machine. And as the last player selected in the 2022 NFL draft, he’s performed much better than anyone expected. But he can’t slip up. He can’t be the reason for a San Francisco swoon. He can’t be a liability – especially if Green Bay’s Jordan Love is lighting up the 49ers defense. Purdy cannot have a replay of the horror show on Christmas night, when he was intercepted four times in a 33–19 home loss to Baltimore. There’s a lot of heat on Purdy.
NUMBER TWO, Josh Allen: Here we go; another scintillating showdown with Patrick Mahomes. This will be their third postseason meeting; Mahomes and the Chiefs won the first two. But there’s a difference this time: Allen has the home field advantage. If Allen can’t take advantage of the opportunity that Buffalo provides and loses to Mahomes again … well, it would be a long, restless offseason. Allen is an immense talent. He’s exciting and fearless. He put on a helluva show Monday in disposing of the visiting Steelers – three TD passes, a 121.9 passer rating and 74 yards rushing including a 52-yard rumble through the Pittsburgh defense. But Allen is also too aggressive at times; during the regular season he was intercepted 18 times and had the second highest number of turnovers in the NFL. That cannot happen against Mahomes and KC.
NUMBER ONE, Lamar Jackson. I was listening to a national talk show this week and heard a host defending Jackson’s postseason history. She made the point that he has nothing to prove – because he’s done so many great things as the Baltimore quarterback, postseason setbacks shouldn’t be held against him. Candidly? It was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard. Listen, Jackson is a great player and he deserves to win his second league MVP. But the top quarterbacks are also judged on what they do in the postseason. The reactions to repeat failures can be harsh, but that’s part of the deal here. You can’t magically erase postseason screwups from a quarterback’s resume. It doesn’t work that way. Jackson is 1-3 as a postseason starter. In the three losses he’s been intercepted four times, fumbled five times (losing two) and tossed three touchdown passes. His career postseason passer rating is an abysmal 68.3. No quarterback in this field needs a postseason victory more than Lamar Jackson. Period. End of discussion. It’s time for LJ and the Ravens to get something done in the postseason. He’s 1-3. The Ravens have just two postseason wins over the last 10 years. It’s time to make it happen. If Jackson and the Ravens lose to Houston as a 9 and ½ point favorite, the criticism will be stinging and justified.
Thanks for reading …
A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
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