Quarterbacks alone can’t make a Super Bowl run, but let’s be honest, they’re the biggest factor in one, and it isn’t close. And so heading into the 2021 NFL playoffs, let’s rank the players at the most important position for all 14 teams. I wanted to take a look at each playoff quarterback individually and figure out which QB you’d most want on your team.
To rank the QBs, I’m relying on a variety of advanced metrics. Note that I am are considering these quarterbacks in a vacuum: Imagine they had the same team around them and were facing the same set of opponents. First and foremost, Total QBR — which is ESPN’s expected points added-based rate stat that accounts for important context when evaluating efficiency. Straight up EPA, metrics from NFL Next Gen Stats (most notably, completion percentage over expectation, or CPOE) and our predictive QB EPA rating (an input into ESPN’s Football Power Index) were all consulted as well. Plus, there’s a dash of my own judgment, of course.
I’m including all 14 quarterbacks’ biggest strengths and weaknesses, and ESPN’s NFL Nation reporters also chimed in with what’s at stake during these playoffs for every QB. Let’s get started with a familiar name (though he might be a shock at No. 1 here to some)
Season at a glance: Unlike last year, Mahomes is no slam dunk to be the No. 1 player on this list. In fact, I think reasonable cases could be made for any of the top three to lead the way here. Prior to this season, Mahomes had never ranked lower than second in Total QBR. In 2021, he finished fifth.
So why place him at No. 1? His long history of success. Our prior knowledge on Mahomes is so strong that I’d still rather have him helm my team than anyone else. Plus, his struggles came early in the season. Over the first eight weeks Mahomes ranked 12th in QBR. From Week 9 on, he was third.
Am I clinging to my priors too strongly keeping Mahomes at the top? Perhaps. But if I were forced to choose a QB I’d want for this postseason, he’d be the one.
Strength: One of the reasons Mahomes is so special is because he excels in so many different areas. Most quarterbacks fail somewhere: They can’t throw deep, they commit too many turnovers or they aren’t mobile. Mahomes does not take sacks (and the lowest rate of pressures are converted into sacks against him). He has thrown more interceptions this year but historically has a very low pick rate. He’s mobile. He can make any throw you can imagine and then some you can’t. He had less on-the-run production this season than last but is still elite in that area. Simply put, his strength is his wide range of exceptional talents.
Weakness: Opposing defenses ran two-high coverage against Mahomes 54% of the time this season, most among all QBs. It made sense: Limit the deep strikes. And it was a somewhat effective tool. He recorded the third-highest QBR against single-high coverages but the ninth-highest against two-high coverages. From a skill standpoint Mahomes’ weakness is accuracy. He posted a negative CPOE (lowest yet, at minus-1.6%) and a league-average off-target rate.
What’s at stake for Mahomes (via Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher): The list of QBs with two Super Bowl championship rings is small. The list of those who accomplished it by age 26 is even smaller. And if Mahomes is eventually going to join the true elites with three or more Super Bowl rings, he can’t waste many opportunities like this one.
Season at a glance: The 44-year-old Brady was quite possibly the league’s best quarterback this season. He narrowly finished second to Aaron Rodgers in Total QBR (68.8 to 68.5), but he did that on 188 more plays than the Packers’ star signal-caller. In terms of points above average — essentially a volume version of QBR — Brady ranked No. 1.
Strength: Pressure/sack avoidance and short passing efficiency. Brady’s 2.50-second average time to throw was second quickest in the league, which helped him avoid not only sacks but pressure as well. It’s not like Brady throws only short — a Bruce Arians offense is going to require some vertical shots — but he ranked first in QBR when he did.
Weakness: Mobility. Brady has pocket presence, for sure. But plenty of quarterbacks can use their legs as an escape hatch or a mechanism to produce improvised, scramble-drill big plays. When Brady is in trouble, that isn’t going to happen.
What’s at stake for Brady (via Bucs reporter Jenna Laine): History. Brady has nothing left to prove to anyone … at least not in the NFL. But what about the potential to become the greatest athlete ever in any sport? He already has seven Super Bowl rings and finished this season leading nearly every major statistical category. The Bucs want to do their part to ensure there won’t be another like him.
Season at a glance: Rodgers actually had a slight dip from 2020 — he won NFL MVP; what did you expect? — but he’s right back in the MVP conversation again. I would personally give the award to Brady, but there’s no denying that Rodgers was exceptional. He led the league in QBR (68.8) and adjusted net yards per attempt (8.0), and he had the lowest interception rate (0.8%).
Strength: Avoiding turnovers. Rodgers makes some stellar plays, but he’s truly elite at limiting the big negatives. He threw just four interceptions and ranked third among quarterbacks in fumbles per dropback. Another strength is quick passing. Rodgers led all quarterbacks in both EPA per dropback and total EPA generated on passes thrown in under 2.5 seconds.
Weakness: This is less of a weakness and more context about the degree of difficulty Rodgers faces relative to his peers: He faced light boxes of six defenders or fewer — which are harder to throw against — at a lower rate (66% of time) compared to Brady (74%) and Mahomes (88%). Similarly, he faced heavy boxes of eight defenders or more — which are easier to throw against — 11% of the time, much more than Brady (6%) or Mahomes (3%).
What’s at stake for Rodgers (via Packers reporter Rob Demovsky): Rodgers’ future with the Packers. While it might not be dependent on what happens in this postseason, another exit before the Super Bowl might nudge him toward finishing his career elsewhere. If the Packers don’t get to the Super Bowl, perhaps Rodgers — whose contract was reworked last summer — will decide he has accomplished all he can in Green Bay.
Season at a glance: Allen took a sizable step back from his breakout 2020 campaign. His adjusted net yards per attempt dropped from 7.8 to 6.4, his completion percentage over expectation fell from plus-5% to minus-1%, and his QBR rank slipped from third to sixth. Part of the reason that last number didn’t drop as far was because his rushing production increased significantly. And even with the drop in performance, Allen remains one of the best quarterbacks in the playoff field because he’s a threat to beat teams with both his legs and his rocket arm throwing downfield.
Strength: Rushing. Allen produced more EPA on running plays than any player this season, including Colts running back Jonathan Taylor. That’s how dangerous he is with his legs. And those plays were relatively efficient, too, with an average EPA of 0.15 per play. In other words, if the ball is in Allen’s hands and he’s past the line of scrimmage, that’s probably a good thing for Buffalo.
Weakness: Accuracy. Allen made great strides here in 2020 but significantly regressed this season. His CPOE has gone negative, and his 17% off-target rate was 10th highest among quarterbacks.
What’s at stake for Allen (via Bills reporter Alaina Getzenberg): The goal of this season remains a Super Bowl, and anything less is a disappointment. Allen is the future of the organization — he got a massive contract extension last summer — and showing that he can perform in cold conditions in the playoffs will only reinforce his position as one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL.
Tim Hasselbeck believes that the Bills will have a bigger advantage than the Patriots in the cold weather for the AFC wild-card game Saturday night.
Season at a glance: What. A. Finish. Burrow is heading into the postseason scorching hot, defeating the Ravens and Chiefs in back-to-back games to earn Cincinnati the AFC North title. The Bengals cranked up the passing volume in those games, and Burrow delivered in each. Entering Week 18 when Burrow rested, Cincinnati averaged minus-.07 EPA per running play and plus-.17 EPA per passing play — a huge difference. So if the Bengals are going to make a run in the postseason, it’s going to be by putting the ball in Burrow’s hands. The question, rankings-wise, is: How much should we rely on recency? It’s tricky, and I think there’s case for placing Burrow anywhere from No. 4 to No. 8 on this list.
Strength: Accuracy. Burrow finished first in completion percentage over expectation (plus-6%) and has the lowest off-target rate (10%) among quarterbacks this season. Hard to get much better than that.
Weakness: Taking sacks. Burrow’s 9% sack rate was fifth highest among quarterbacks, a troubling sign and not a number that should be ignored while looking at his gaudy passing numbers. While I fervently believe sack rate is mostly a QB stat, it’s not only a QB stat, and there is some important context here: The Bengals’ offensive line is awful. It ranked 30th in pass block win rate, so I don’t think we can pin the sack woes on only Burrow.
What’s at stake for Burrow (via Bengals reporter Ben Baby): Burrow has a chance to make history and establish the start of his NFL legacy. If the Bengals win their wild-card playoff game, it will be Cincinnati’s first playoff victory since January 1991, ending the longest drought in the NFL.
Season at a glance: Murray got off to a hot start this season and looked like a strong MVP candidate. After six weeks, he ranked third in QBR, led the league in CPOE and had the lowest off-target rate. After a midseason ankle injury knocked him out for four games, however, he didn’t produce at the same level. From Week 13 on, he posted a 45.6 QBR, which ranked 16th among quarterbacks over that span.
Strength: Accuracy and deep-ball efficiency. It was Murray’s arm — as opposed to his rushing or scrambling — that did the most damage this season. He threw deep often — 15% of the time, third most in the league — and simultaneously recorded the highest QBR on 20-plus air yard passes in the league. He showed off his accuracy with the second-best CPOE and fourth-lowest off-target rate.
Weakness: Fumbling. Murray fumbled on an incredibly high 2.1% of his dropbacks, which was second worst in the league. Just think about it. That’s a fumble every 50 dropbacks. These fumbles mostly didn’t come from runs; instead, they came on shotgun snaps and handoffs. There were a bizarre number of times in which Murray wasn’t ready for the snap — which could be on him, the center or both — or just didn’t catch it. No matter exactly how all of those fumbles occurred, there were enough to show a problematic pattern.
What’s at stake for Murray (via Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss): Monday night will be Murray’s first chance to show he can win on the biggest of NFL stages — the playoffs — after a prep and college career in which he did nothing but win. He’s also due for a contract extension, so any type of playoff run could equal a bigger payday.
Season at a glance: In his return from a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle, Prescott had an up-and-down season, at times flashing elite efficiency that showed the upside of the Dallas offense while stumbling in other games. He finished ninth in QBR (54.9), a step back from his last full season, when he ranked fourth in 2019 (71.9).
Strength: Prescott’s strength isn’t a singularly elite skill — it’s being good in a wide range of areas. He’s above average to very good in accuracy and interception avoidance. His QBR splits since 2019 show a quarterback who is strong throwing short or long, against pressure, against the blitz and inside or outside the numbers. There’s no one area in which Prescott is No. 1, but that isn’t a prerequisite to being great.
Weakness: Running. The Cowboys accrued negative EPA on Prescott’s runs (scrambles or designed carries) this season. It’s a new development, as Prescott had added value with his legs previously. Part of the problem in 2021 was fumbles, but even if we take those away, he still didn’t add much on the ground. That being said, Prescott was still very effective throwing on the run in 2021 — accruing the second-most EPA on those throws among all QBs.
What’s at stake for Prescott (via Cowboys reporter Todd Archer): With a $40-million-a-year contract, Prescott is no longer viewed as a fourth-round pick. Expectations have changed. The second half of the season was a struggle for the Cowboys’ offense, and the playoffs represent a chance to start over. Prescott has to pull it together if they want to get to (at least) a conference title game for the first time since 1995.
Domonique Foxworth and Marcus Spears explain why they aren’t worried about the Cowboys going up against the 49ers.
Season at a glance: Halfway through the season, Stafford was the league’s most productive quarterback in the league — he ranked No. 1 in QBR through Week 8 — and was the favorite to win MVP. Things went downhill afterward, though. From Week 9 through Week 18, he ranked 15th in QBR, and he ended the season tied for the league lead in interceptions with Trevor Lawrence (17). He did that despite having incredibly fortunate circumstances. The Rams had the best pass block win rate in the league, Stafford was throwing to Cooper Kupp, and he had Sean McVay calling plays. All that being said, Stafford still finished fourth in QBR on the season (63.5).
Strength: Production when the offense goes as planned. Stafford ranked second in QBR when he wasn’t pressured, first when throwing between 2.5 and 4 seconds and second when throwing from inside the pocket. Fortunately for him, he plays with an offensive line that maximizes that strength.
Weakness: Extended plays. Stafford’s numbers outside the pocket and after four seconds are poor. He ranked 21st and 28th in QBR in those areas, respectively. And he offered barely positive EPA as a runner.
What’s at stake for Stafford (via Rams reporter Lindsey Thiry): The Rams went all-in to acquire Stafford, sending Jared Goff and two first-round picks to Detroit, because they believed he would be the final piece to a Super Bowl squad. After 12 seasons and three winless playoff appearances in Detroit, Stafford has the opportunity to prove he’s capable of winning it all in the postseason.
Season at a glance: The general caveat to Tannehill’s performance in Tennessee has always been that Derrick Henry drew attention and made life easier for him. So with Henry out for the second half of the season, did Tannehill’s performance change? A little bit. He ranked eighth in QBR with Henry and 13th without his running back. Though one pattern I’ve pointed out before — that Tannehill faced more heavy boxes than most quarterbacks — held true even after Henry went down. The bottom line is that Tannehill posted his third straight top-10 QBR season and has established himself as a legitimately good signal-caller.
Strength: Running. Tannehill carried the ball just 55 times for 270 yards (and seven touchdowns), but he was wildly efficient when he did run. He generated the third-most EPA among quarterbacks running the ball and ranked first among signal-callers in EPA per rush. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention his play-action passing, though. He ranks second in QBR on those plays since 2019 but was only sixth this season.
Weakness: Sacks. Tannehill’s sack rate has long plagued him, and the 8% sack rate he posted this season is right around his career average. In total, 28% of pressures against him turned into sacks, the sixth-highest rate in the league.
What’s at stake for Tannehill (via Titans reporter Turron Davenport): Changing the narrative. Tannehill is constantly viewed as a quarterback who can’t put the team on his shoulders and carry it. He is coming off his best game this season and finally has a healthy Julio Jones and A.J. Brown to throw to. This postseason is a chance to prove that Tannehill can be the reason his team wins.
Season at a glance: Surrounding Carr in 2021 was awful mayhem. His coach, Jon Gruden, resigned, and the Raiders cut wide receiver Henry Ruggs III after he was charged with multiple felonies relating to a fatal vehicle crash. On the field, the team downgraded at offensive line and lost wideout Nelson Agholor, who had a career year in 2020. Yet Carr was steady, finishing 13th in QBR and leading Las Vegas to the playoffs.
Strength: Carr is still efficient throwing the deep ball, but he wasn’t as productive in that department as 2020. I also want to point out an odd strength of Carr’s skill set this season: play-action passing. Why is it odd? He ranked first in QBR on play-action passes but ranked last in percentage of dropbacks with play-action. Now the rarity likely helped his efficiency, but because it worked so well, maybe the Raiders should try it more often.
Weakness: Carr isn’t super weak in any particular area, so I’ll go with mobility. His low scramble rate resulted in a low rushing EPA, and he had a poor out-of-pocket QBR.
What’s at stake for Carr (via Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez): Legacy. Sure, Carr finally will play in his first playoff game since entering the league in 2014, and he holds virtually every team passing record. But even the most polarizing figure in franchise history, who has only one year remaining on his contract, evoked the memory of Kobe Bryant, saying: “Like my favorite player, Kobe said, ‘Job’s not done.'”
Season at a glance: After the 49ers gave away a fortune to draft Trey Lance, it was unclear if Garoppolo would even be a 49er this season. Turns out, he was their starting quarterback and largely answered the call, finishing 14th in QBR, sixth in average net yards per attempt and ninth in CPOE.
Strength: Garoppolo’s outside-the-pocket numbers have been strong for years, and I think that’s because of success off designed rollouts in coach Kyle Shanahan’s system. In fact, he ranked second in QBR on designed rollouts and generated the most total EPA on those plays among all quarterbacks this season.
Weakness: Deep passing. It’s something Garoppolo doesn’t do often, and when he does, it’s inefficient. He threw passes of 20-plus air yards just 7% of the time, the second-lowest rate among passer-rating-qualified quarterbacks, behind only Daniel Jones. He ranked 26th in QBR on those throws.
What’s at stake for Garoppolo (via 49ers reporter Nick Wagoner): Garoppolo’s future in the NFL is at stake. No big deal, right? This is most likely his last ride in San Francisco before Lance takes the keys to the car next season. But Garoppolo has handled this situation well, and a strong postseason would not only strengthen his position in the trade market but also earn him a lucrative contract wherever he lands.
Season at a glance: Jones had a very good season as a rookie, but he is ranked this low on this list because, when compared to all other starting QBs, that strong rookie season was more or less average. He ranked 16th in QBR to finish the year.
Strength: Short passing game. Jones had the sixth-best QBR and CPOE on passes under 10 air yards. And while he didn’t do it a lot, Jones was very efficient when throwing on the run with the second-best QBR on those plays and the seventh-most EPA.
Weakness: Play-action passing. Jones’ numbers took a dive relative to his peers on play-action. He ranked just 24th in QBR (and 23rd in total EPA) on those plays. A split like this in a rookie year could just be a sample thing (same with the aforementioned throws on the run), but it’s worth keeping an eye on.
What’s at stake for Jones (via Patriots reporter Mike Reiss): Valuable experience. In the end, that’s what the playoffs are all about for Jones. While the Patriots have high internal expectations, and nothing short of a Super Bowl championship is the goal, that Jones gets to experience high-stakes postseason football in his first year is a huge big-picture victory for the franchise.
Season at a glance: Hurts entered the year as a question mark. While he didn’t blossom into a clear-cut franchise quarterback, he did improve and flash some excellent games, keeping that possibility of him becoming the Eagles’ long-term solution very much in the cards. And his second half was much better than his first. Hurts ranked 24th in QBR in Weeks 1-8 and fifth from Week 9 on. This ranking might seem harsh given Hurts’ performance this season, but we’ve got a particularly good crop of playoff QBs this year (just look at the bottom of last year’s story to compare).
Strength: Running and mobility. Hurts led all quarterbacks in total EPA on designed carries and was second only to Allen on all rushes. He scrambled on 10% of his dropbacks, the third most in the league. While Hurts held the ball for a long average of 3.12 seconds before throwing and accrues a high rate of pressure as a result, a low 16% of those pressures were actually converted into sacks (fourth best).
Weakness: The quick passing game. A good 65% of Hurts’ throws were under 10 air yards, the second-lowest rate in the league. And for good reason. His QBR on those passes was just 43 (fourth worst in the league). His QBR inside the pocket ranked 25th, unsurprisingly, because he likely isn’t utilizing his legs on those plays.
What’s at stake for Hurts (via Eagles reporter Tim McManus): This season has been all about evaluating Hurts. Is he the man for the job, or should the Eagles use their three first-round picks in April’s draft to acquire a new signal-caller? Hurts showed improvement as the full-time starter, guiding Philly to an unlikely playoff berth. A win over the Bucs would strengthen his case to remain QB1 even longer.
Ben Roethlisberger describes the mindset of the Steelers as big underdogs to the Chiefs.
Season at a glance: At this point, Roethlisberger is a shell of his former self, with his team reaching the postseason in spite of — rather than because of — him. He ranked 25th in both QBR and average net yards per attempt, and 28th in CPOE. He is clearly the worst starting QB in this postseason.
Strength: Roethlisberger is limited to an ultra-quick, ultra-short passing game, but even on short throws, he still ranked only 25th in QBR. One benefit of that approach is he is able to avoid pressure (he was under duress at the second-lowest rate in the league) despite playing with a porous offensive line in front of him.
Weakness: The deep ball. It should be no surprise given his current style of play, but his QBR on passes 20-plus yards downfield was the worst among qualified quarterbacks.
What’s at stake for Roethlisberger (via Steelers reporter Brooke Pryor): A storybook finish. Roethlisberger’s chances of ending his 18-year career with a playoff berth were just 9% entering the final game of the regular season. But everything broke the right way for the Steelers. Roethlisberger said he returned for 2021 to win another Lombardi (his third), and while those odds are still long, he has given his team a chance to be in the conversation.