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The NFL Divisional-Round Entrance Survey

The best matchups, most exciting quarterback battle, and what’s ultimately at stake in this weekend’s playoff action

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

We’re down to eight teams remaining in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. The AFC features four quarterbacks aged 25 and under while the NFC features elder statesmen Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers. Ringer NFL writers pick the best matchups, most exciting quarterback battle, and make a pick in the MVP race.


Before getting to the divisional round, give us your biggest takeaway from wild-card weekend.

Kevin Clark: The Browns just proved that practice and the concept of having a head coach on the sideline are both unnecessary. Just kidding. Or am I? I don’t even know. Maybe the Steelers are just that bad.

Danny Heifetz: Shoot your shot. Tennessee and Pittsburgh had fourth-and-1 opportunities to take control of their games. They punted, and they lost. If you can’t get a yard when you need it, you don’t deserve to win the game.

Kaelen Jones: The Browns aren’t the Same Old Browns. Also, too many people still don’t understand why you should go for two when trailing by eight.

Danny Kelly: The whole cliché about “getting hot at the right time” remains undefeated! OK, maybe not undefeated, but it sure felt like it was a real factor when watching Lamar Jackson and the recently red-hot Ravens offense stay hot against the Titans. The inverse was even more true last weekend, when the slumping Steelers continued their second-half collapse with an atrocious performance against the Browns. The Seahawks’ previously dreadful offense stayed dreadful against the Rams, too. The way teams performed toward the later parts of the season, as it turns out, matters once the playoffs begin.

Riley McAtee: Coaches really, really, really, really, really, really need to hire someone to tell them when not to punt.

Nora Princiotti: This Sunday night’s Old Man Matchup notwithstanding, the total domination of mobile quarterbacks was what struck me most. Whether it’s Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, or Baker Mayfield, teams take advantage of their quarterbacks’ running ability in different ways, but it’s increasingly hard to win without a quarterback who can move around.

Rodger Sherman: More NFL games need slime cannons.

Three of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 2018 draft are playing this weekend. If you redrafted Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen, and Lamar Jackson, what order would you put them in?

Clark: This is hard, mostly because if history is any guide, the three will change places depending on the situation and their development curve. Mayfield had the best first season, Lamar won an MVP in Year 2, and Allen had the strongest 2020. All three of these quarterbacks’ teams understand the value of a supporting cast and an offensive line. If I was drafting them to play one game right now, in a vacuum, independent of their current supporting cast and coaching staff, I’d go Jackson, then Allen, then Mayfield. Jackson and Allen are, at present, incredibly close in this scenario, but Jackson’s best runs make defenders look like they’ve never seen a football, and the pressure he can put on defenses is the reason he’s the reigning MVP.

Heifetz:

1. Lamar

2. Josh

Large gap.

3. Baker

Jackson and Allen are different players in similar situations—their organizations did everything possible to put them in positions to succeed, from the coaching staff to the scheme to the players around them. The Bills traded for Stefon Diggs and signed Cole Beasley (and also Allen relearned how to throw). The Ravens built an entire offense around Lamar that John Harbaugh compared to the invention of the iPhone. Having a great quarterback isn’t enough—just look at Deshaun Watson. You need an organization to make a quarterback’s job easy, not hard.

Jones: I hate this question, but: Josh Allen (only if he’s as accurate as he currently is), Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield.

Kelly: I love Jackson and the dynamic skill set that he brings to the Ravens’ offense, but it’s impossible to not pick Allen here. The Bills’ starter has made a massive jump into the elite ranks of the quarterback position, showing precise accuracy, dramatically improved decision-making, and steady leadership. The fact he’s a Cam Newton–level talent as a runner is a nice bonus, too.

McAtee: Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield. I’m still a Baker believer, though it’s hard to compare him favorably to these other two. Allen has proved this season that his ceiling is as high as any quarterback’s in the league—no, I didn’t forget about the guy in Kansas City—but I trust Jackson a bit more.

Princiotti: 1. Josh Allen; 2. Lamar Jackson; 3. Baker Mayfield.

Sherman: Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield. So, exactly the opposite order from what I thought coming out of college. The question remains whether Allen’s ability to become an accurate thrower after college makes him a one-of-a-kind outlier, or whether we need to totally disregard college performance and simply draft the tallest, strongest QBs around.

Which game are you most excited to watch?

Clark: Buffalo-Baltimore has the potential to be one of the most exciting playoff games I can remember. Allen and Jackson are different players, but both are capable of some of the most visually interesting football you could possibly see. That can take different forms. It is exciting to see Allen pump fake his way out of pressure, or turn a broken play into a touchdown. In Jackson’s case, we could see one of the best quarterback runs in years. Anything can happen anytime either of them drop back. It’s perfect football.

Heifetz: Bills-Ravens sits at the intersection of great football and fun narratives.

Jones: Bills vs. Ravens. Allen and Jackson are the two of the most exciting QBs in the NFL.

Kelly: Ravens-Bills. Two exciting young quarterbacks, two red-hot offenses. This should be a fun game.

McAtee: Saints-Buccaneers is not only a matchup of two legendary quarterbacks, but the two best teams in the league by DVOA. When the Bucs are on, they can be the best team in the league … they just haven’t been “on” when they’ve played the Saints this year. Meanwhile, New Orleans has been one of the best teams in football despite rarely being healthy, but they come into this weekend virtually at full strength. They’re the Super Bowl favorite hiding in plain sight.

Princiotti: Bucs-Saints. I’m also pumped for Ravens-Bills, but I’m bracing for the fact that saying goodbye to Lamar Jackson or Josh Allen will make me sad.

Sherman: Ravens-Bills. There’s still a part of me that thinks the dominant 2019 Ravens team is somewhere inside of the relatively unimpressive 2020 Ravens, and Josh Allen is must-see TV every week.

Who’s your 2020 MVP pick: Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers?

Clark: Rodgers. Mahomes is going to be in this discussion for the rest of his career, but Rodgers had the stronger season and did more for his team when accounting for his supporting cast.

Heifetz: Rodgers and Mahomes have such similar statistics that the numbers are basically a wash. They’re both in quarterback-friendly schemes with great coaches and surrounding talent. They both make a half-dozen plays a game that have nothing to do with coaching and everything to do with being special players. It’s the most equal MVP race in a long time.

It comes down to Mahomes’s performances in Kansas City’s close games. Is Mahomes’s constant clutchness in the fourth quarter a case for him? Or is his (relative) weakness early in those games a knock against him? Both are convincing arguments. I go with Rodgers because he was more consistent, and that’s the tiebreaker for me.

Jones: Aaron Rodgers. He was better than Mahomes, as The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin recently spelled out.

Kelly: This one is tough. Mahomes regularly does things that no other quarterback is capable of doing, and he led his team to the best record in the NFL this year. But it’s impossible to ignore Rodgers’s truly incredible numbers. (I mean, 48 touchdowns and five picks? Really dude?) Rodgers passes the eye test, too. He’s just in total control right now, and the Packers offense is as big of a buzz saw as any group in the league.

McAtee: Rodgers.

Princiotti: Mahomes by a razor-thin margin. Too much attention is being paid to Rodgers having less overall talent at receiver (relative to what Mahomes is working with) and not enough on the fact that Green Bay has one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, while Kansas City’s is downright shaky. Just because Mahomes has done it before doesn’t mean he isn’t still the best in the NFL.

Sherman: Mahomes is the better quarterback, but Rodgers had a better season.

What matchup are you most interested in?

Clark: The Rams defense against the Packers offense. Specifically, how Jalen Ramsey is deployed to defend the passing game. On paper, Ramsey defending Davante Adams and Aaron Donald chasing around Rodgers is going to make for some fun football. The Packers win this, but it won’t be easy.

Heifetz: Aaron Rodgers vs. Aaron Donald. (Possibly) the MVP vs. (possibly) the Defensive Player of the Year. You don’t always get to see a potential Mount Rushmore defensive lineman against a potential Mount Rushmore NFL quarterback.

Jones: Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams versus Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. The Rams defense is dominant, and Rodgers has to be near-perfect, or Green Bay’s susceptible run defense (24th in EPA; 18th in DVOA) might be at risk of being exposed by the Rams’ rushing attack.

Kelly: Easy: Packers WR Davante Adams vs. Rams CB Jalen Ramsey. This is a heavyweight battle for the ages. Both are the best at their respective positions right now.

McAtee: Jalen Ramsey vs. Davante Adams should be fun. This week, Adams said that Ramsey is one of the three or four best corners in the league. The Rams defense has been great all season, was dominant against the Seahawks, and will reportedly have Aaron Donald healthy for this matchup. How the Packers’ top-ranked offense handles this unit will be fascinating.

Princiotti: This one is easy: Davante Adams vs. Jalen Ramsey. For my money, Adams is the best receiver in the NFL. His superpower is his ability to create separation. Ramsey has almost always shadowed the opposing team’s top receiver this season, but he’s never really faced Adams—they shared a field but didn’t match up during one of Ramsey’s first games in Jacksonville in 2016.

Sherman: It’s Aaron vs. Aaron in Green Bay. The Packers have one of the best offensive lines in the game, and Aaron Rodgers got pressured on only 14.0 percent of his dropbacks, the second lowest of any NFL QB. But Aaron Donald can ruin just about any offensive line’s day. Normally, Rodgers finds ways to avoid negative plays and turnovers—will he be able to do so against the Rams’ incredible defense?

What’s the most likely upset?

Clark: Is Tampa Bay finally beating New Orleans that much of an upset? By seed, it would be. I think it happens. I also think the Ravens will beat the Bills, another seed upset.

Heifetz: Baltimore over Buffalo. The Ravens’ strengths match up well with the Bills’ weaknesses, especially with the Ravens’ running game.

Jones: Browns > Chiefs. Cleveland’s run game is very good (10th in rush offense EPA); KC’s run defense is not (25th in rush defense EPA). If Cleveland keeps the ball out of Mahomes’s hands—or capitalizes on a mistake he’s prone to make—the Browns could follow a similar script to the Raiders’ Week 5 win.

Kelly: Sticking with my “intra-divisional matchups are always weird” take from last week (which helped me correctly guess the Rams’ win): I’m going with the Buccaneers over the Saints. With the way that Tom Brady and that offense is playing right now, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Tampa Bay emerge.

McAtee: These four games fall into two categories. The Bills-Ravens and Saints-Buccaneers matchups feature powerhouses, who are, roughly, evenly matched. But the Chiefs-Browns and Packers-Rams games aren’t expected to be nearly as close. Just look at Vegas: Oddsmakers have the Bills (minus-2.5) and Saints (minus-3) favored by just a few points at home, while the Packers (minus-6.5) and Chiefs (minus-10) are expected to win by at least a touchdown. I think it’s likely that one of those first two teams falls short this weekend—I’d pick the Ravens to upset the Bills, if you make me pick—but the latter two squads are far more safe. Well, this is the NFL—they’re theoretically safe.

Princiotti: Bucs over Saints. New Orleans beat Tompa Bay twice during the regular season and has a defense that can still cause tons of problems for the Buccaneers offense. Brady, though, has been playing better in the past month than he played in either of the teams’ previous meetings and is currently the better quarterback of the two elder statesmen expected to start this game.

Sherman: I think the Rams can win, even if their quarterback doesn’t have functioning thumbs.


Youth is served at the quarterback position in the AFC. Pedigree and experience reign supreme in the NFC. How might this postseason impact the legacies of Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers?

Clark: Brady winning without Bill Belichick would serve as some sort of validation, in the eyes of the media, that he was responsible for the Patriots dynasty. I find such arguments simplistic and the answer will always be Brady and Belichick together, but there’s no doubt that would be the top story. Rodgers is already in the conversation as an all-time great, and winning another ring would boost that claim. His career rejuvenation has been a joy. A Super Bowl win would be terrible, of course, for one person: Mike McCarthy. And maybe Jerry Jones.

Heifetz: Drew Brees will be forever relegated to an afterthought of this era unless he wins the Super Bowl this season. It’s harsh, but it’s true. Not many people have a favorite memory of Drew Brees. He’s just been around a long time.

Brady is different. We spent the beginning of the pandemic talking about The Last Dance and Michael Jordan. But if Brady wins the Super Bowl—which will be in Tampa—he’ll get his seventh ring and probably be considered the greatest athlete in the history of American team sports.

Jones: Brady is already the GOAT, but winning a seventh Super Bowl will give him breathing room considering Mahomes has already started his ring count. As for Brees and Rodgers, neither has won a title since 2010 and 2011, respectively. Brees needs this because it might be his last ride. One Super Bowl victory in one career appearance to show for all his regular-season success would feel a bit underwhelming, despite being a shoo-in Hall of Famer. Meanwhile, Rodgers is also an obvious future HOF’er. In a sense, his career arc kinda reminds me of J. Cole, the famed Dreamville rapper who’s a self-described “middle child” wedged between two eras of hip-hop. (If you agree with The Ringer’s Shea Serrano, this might seem disrespectful. But I promise, it’s not!) Rodgers ascended when Peyton Manning, Brees, and Brady had already peaked or had started to decline. Rodgers’s solo reign atop the league didn’t last as long as it probably should have as dynamic, athletic youths—namely Mahomes—infiltrated the league and became all we ever talk about. Rodgers’s fans, just like Cole’s, can be incessant die-hards who believe he can do no wrong and in the past have been willing to overlook obvious flaws. Regardless, Rodgers’s status as one of the best in the game is undeniable. Does that make Rodgers’s Super Bowl XLV win a 2014 Forest Hills Drive equivalent? I dunno. Is there a Kendrick Lamar in this analogy? Again, I dunno. Maybe Rodgers has one more hit in him, though.

Kelly: Brady and Brees don’t have to do a whole lot more to cement themselves among the all-time greats at the position. Another Super Bowl win for Rodgers could certainly elevate his legacy, though: Rodgers is playing like the early-career, God-mode version of himself again, and if he keeps it up, his relative decline from 2017 to 2019 will end up being nothing more than a footnote on his Hall of Fame résumé.

McAtee: Brady has already proved he can win without Bill Belichick, and he could throw 10 interceptions this weekend and still be the GOAT. Only 12 quarterbacks in history have more than one ring, though, and Brees and Rodgers have appeared in only one Super Bowl each. I’d love to see both of them break out of the Trent Dilfer tier of one-ring quarterbacks and step up to the next level. Both Rodgers and Brees are running out of time to do that, but this is looking more and more like it’ll be Brees’s last dance. After a series of recent playoff heartbreaks, no one has more at stake this postseason than Brees.

Princiotti: Reasonable minds can disagree on this, but winning another Super Bowl might be a bigger deal for Brees or Rodgers, who each have won one, than it would be for Brady. Brady and the Buccaneers winning a championship would be a huge deal in Tampa and for Boston sports radio. Take the 30,000-foot view, though, and the improvement curve on Brady’s legacy status is approaching its asymptote, while Brees and Rodgers can improve their respective playoff legacies. Check my math on this, but two Super Bowls is twice as many as one. All that said, fizzling out after only a wild-card win against the 7-9 Washington Football Team would probably cost Brady more legacy points than Brees or Rodgers would give up should their teams fail to advance to the conference championships.

Sherman: Oddly, I think it’s Brady. Regardless of whether they can get a second championship, Brees and Rodgers will be remembered as legends with incredible statistical output who probably should’ve won more titles and were held back by circumstances out of their control, like New Orleans’s awful defense and Mike McCarthy’s awful coaching. If Brady can actually win a title outside of New England, that has the potential to really reshape the way people think about Bill Belichick’s influence on Brady’s gaudy title total.