Matt Ryan elevated his play in Los Angeles partly by not allowing Donald to make plays, admirably avoiding mistakes. On an evening when Atlanta's offensive line was thoroughly dominated, Ryan made his teammates look better by stepping away from quick pressure. The reigning NFL MVP didn't come close to throwing an interception, even though his receivers were rarely open early in the down. The Falcons had to adjust their game plan because they couldn't perform conventional dropback passes, and Ryan responded by creating a number of plays on his own to keep drives alive.
Ryan is one of four trustworthy, proven veteran quarterbacks playing in the Divisional Round. All four go up against younger quarterbacks with significantly shorter resumes. In this week's edition of the QB Index, I'm ranking the remaining signal-callers left playing by their trustworthiness heading into the best weekend of the NFL season.
Big Ben has the most difficult matchup this week, but no quarterback played better over the second half of the season. His meltdown against the Jaguars back in Week 5, which contained its share of bad luck, was his last negatively graded game for my weekly QB Index exercise. The deep attempts he was *just* missing early in the season are now on-point. His touch passes are sublime, and he's done an excellent job getting his secondary receivers -- like tight end Vance McDonald -- involved.
The conventional wisdom about Roethlisberger as a young player was that he would age poorly when he could no longer swat away defenders like a dad who's a little too serious about besting his kids in driveway basketball. His movement skills have eroded, yet I see a 35-year-old quarterback at the height of his powers. Roethlisberger has the best mix of electric current play and playoff experience of any quarterback left.
It's hard to put my pick for MVP and No. 1 quarterback for the season anywhere but the top spot. But Brady played his three lowest-graded games of the season in December and had surprisingly little continuity from week to week with many of the weapons around him. He's missed a few more throws and practices than usual, with early punishment from this season appearing to take a toll. (Tom Curran of NBC Sports Boston has noticed Brady flexing his hand a lot lately.)
Brady should still play at a very high level, especially against a suspect Titans secondary and possibly against a similarly-schemed Steelers defense that can't quite figure him out. Based on the reaction of my editors, ranking Brady anything but No. 1 on any list is a sign of disrespect akin to not awarding him "Patriot of the Week" all season long. I see it another way: Brady earning No. 2 on a loaded list like this at age 40 speaks to his unparalleled longevity.
Sunday's vintage performance from Brees didn't come out of nowhere. He's been stealthily efficient all season, with a notable uptick over his last four games. When a big play presents itself, Brees is consistently on-point. His timing and anticipation on throws, especially when going to No. 1 receiver Michael Thomas, shows a level of precision reminiscent of Peyton Manning.
This was a controlled season from Brees, with a higher floor and lower ceiling each week because the Saints' defense and running game were so improved. The defense doesn't look nearly as improved lately, though. In a matchup against a talented and well-coached Vikings D that forces opponents to slowly execute down the field, Brees and coach Sean Payton could prove to be Minnesota's worst nightmare. The Saints are experts at taking what the defense gives them and striking when weakness presents itself.
Pro Football Reference noted Tuesday that Ryan's numbers in six playoff starts since 2012 are bananas: 70.7 percent completion rate, 16 TDs, 3 INTs, 9.16 yards per attempt.
Ryan is peaking at the right time. His performance against Carolina in Week 17, when he had to make a lot of plays on his own to compensate for a leaky offensive line, was very similar to last Saturday's effort in Los Angeles. His pocket movement is almost more Brady-like than Brady. Atlanta has evolved into a ball-control offense that kicks a lot of field goals and lets a fast-flowing defense do the rest. It's a recipe that could prove just as effective as last season's shock-and-awe approach.
It's been a while since Keenum and the Vikings faced quality competition, although it's not Keenum's fault that his team rolled over its final three opponents by a combined score of 73-17 before a well-earned bye. That soft spot in the schedule came after thriving during the crucible of a four-game stretch against the Rams, Lions, Falcons and Panthers that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt Keenum wasn't losing his job. The playoffs are uncharted territory for Keenum, but this entire season has been uncharted territory.
In a worst-case scenario, some of the near-interceptions Keenum got away with all season could turn into actual interceptions against a talented New Orleans secondary. The Saints will surely send some creative pressure packages at him, because their one-man pass rush is unlikely to get consistent heat otherwise. Whereas Ryan buys time with subtle movement in the pocket, Keenum is an expert scrambler before delivering mid-range slingshots like a younger Philip Rivers. There is a delicate balance of how aggressive to be on those freewheeling plays, a balance Keenum has maintained beautifully all season.
Mariota has authored the two most memorable plays of his career in back-to-back weeks. One of those plays included a stiff arm and a swaggerific reaction. The other play featured Mariota *blocking* for Derrick Henry, just yards away from Chiefs cornerback Darrelle Revis jogging into retirement. It's been a strange season in Tennessee.
Titans coach Mike Mularkey wound up keeping his job largely because he finally adapted the Titans' offense to Mariota's strengths just in time. The playoff game included far more runs out of shotgun and three-wideout looks. They threw the ball more on first and second downs. Mariota started to move the ball once the team started played with tempo, rushing for more yards over the last two weeks than at any other stretch all season. *This* is the Mariota everyone wanted to see, and the one who could very well ball out against a suspect Patriots defense. </content:power-ranking>
It's hard to trust a quarterback whose own team doesn't trust him. Just days after Jaguars ownership flexed its confidence in Bortles, he threw just two passes that traveled more than 6 yards in the first half of the team's playoff win over Buffalo. This was mostly due to the Jaguars' play-calling, which preferred to run for 2 yards into a crowded box or ask Bortles to throw screens. He missed a lot of two-foot putts, inspiring CBS announcer Jim Nantz to react like Bortles won The Masters when he opened the second half with a 20-yard completion.
This is becoming a trend. Bortles had a host of excellent outings this season, but the Jaguars' offense has scored just one touchdown over the last two games, with the best stretches coming from Bortles scrambles or the team's two-minute offense. It's not that different than the original fun version of Bortles we saw way back in his rookie preseason, when his potential had fewer obvious limits. Now it seems like the Jaguars are just hoping Bortles stays out of the way.
It's worth noting that Foles has played only two complete games this season. In one of those starts, against the Giants, Foles executed the Eagles' offense quite well. His two outings since then were borderline fiascos, with his cameo against the Cowboys in Week 17 being an experience so uncomfortable that the top-seeded Eagles have been routinely dismissed since. (When else has a team with home-field advantage qualified as a "sleeper"?) The Eagles' coaching staff is capable of creating easy throws for Foles and his receivers are capable of making plays for him, like they did in that Giants game.
Crazier things have happened than a backup quarterback with a 61:29 career TD-to-INT ratio riding a dominant defensive line all the way to the Super Bowl. It's just a lot easier to trust a team with a top-shelf quarterback, which is why Saints- Falcons III wouldn't be a shocking NFC Championship Game.
Check the Air Index each week to see which quarterbacks are delivering at the top of their game, just like FedEx Ground delivers with fast and affordable shipping.